Love and the Family in Today's World

Author: Msgr. Cormac Burke


by Cormac Burke

The Pope's 1994 "Letter to Families" should not be quickly forgotten.[1] It passes a strong judgment about the modern world: "Our society is a , and is creating profound distortions in man" (no. 20).The diagnosis could scarcely be more disturbing; and yet is accompanied by deep encouragement and optimism.

First, the sickness consists in the almost total loss of the marks of a "civilization of love," which is how the Pope characterizes a civilization that is truly human. We are living instead, he says, in "a civilization of production and of use, a civilization of 'things' and not of 'persons,' a civilization in which persons are used in the same way as things are used" (no. 13).

In society then, and in man, something is seriously wrong. Here the force of the Pope's diagnosis is matched by the strength of his optimism. Convinced that the sickness is not due to structures or impersonal forces, but comes from within man himself, he is just as convinced that one also finds the basic dispositions and resources within man to bring about an awareness of the pathology, to provoke a desire for a cure and, not without God's help, to achieve that cure.

Man, despite himself, is made for truth and goodness. Deep in his heart, he is more attracted by them-by their beauty and splendour-than by lies and selfishness. That is the underlying conviction of all of John Paul II's teaching. , for instance, is a powerful call to return to the quest for the truth, to a hunger for the splendor which it emanates. If one does turn away from the truth, one loses the ability to discover goodness, the sort of goodness our hearts are made for; and then one is in danger of ending up in a life without love.

Today therefore a critical pathology is threatening love: love which has to be the very dynamism of our being, and which can nevertheless be choked out of us and killed by self-seeking. This is the sickness gripping Western societies, because true human health can only be present in persons who are able to love; and we are forgetting how to love, forgetting perhaps most of all that we have to , or despairing of our ability to do so.

Nothing so destroys happiness as skepticism about the presence or possibility of love, doubting that one can give love or receive it. I am too selfish to love others, or others are too selfish to love me. I love no one. No one loves me. I cannot find anyone to love; therefore others are not lovable. No one loves me; therefore I am not lovable. If a person cannot fight off such temptations-and they are strongly present in the hearts of many people today-the final outcome may be suicide.

Despite the basic obstacle to love found in personal selfishness-present in all of us-love in normal circumstances has always found certain natural and strong supports for its development. The newness in the pathology affecting modern society is that these natural supports themselves, of which marriage and family life are the chief, are in danger of death.

In calling us into existence, God's plan was that we should be conceived and grow in love; that our life should be matured in a particular school of love which is the family. God instituted the family to be the first place where love is naturally learned and from which it can spread out to others. So, through marriage and the family God wishes to send love, and with it goodness, into the world.

Whether life for each individual, and for society, turns out to be good or bad, positive or negative, rich in love or dwarfed by selfishness, depends fundamentally on the family. Family quality and family experience are vital if we are to have healthy individuals and a healthy society where, despite the presence of evil, good is even more strongly present. One of the most forceful paragraphs in the Pope's Letter states: "the family is placed at the center of the great struggle between good and evil, between life and death, between love and all that is opposed to love. To the family is entrusted the task of striving, first and foremost, .... Every family unit needs to make these forces their own so that . . .'the family be strong with the strength of God' . . ." (no. 23).

If we examine God's plan further, we can say that the family has such strength because it is-it should be-that totally special place where no one is unloved, not even the most unlovable. Parents tend to love of their children, even and especially the worst. Then the children learn that there is a love which is not conditioned on merit, and is not withdrawn because of defects. Children who have grown up in a family like that, and so have experienced being unconditionally loved, are in a good position to measure up to the challenge of love, inside and outside the family.

If children normally do learn to love, it is fundamentally because they have experienced within the natural setting of the family. St. Thomas teaches that nothing moves a person to love so much as to know oneself loved.[2] Children who are loved by their parents will learn to love in return. The persevering dedication of their parents will gradually teach them that love means giving. And, under their parents' constant love and guidance, they too will learn to love each other. So brothers and sisters gradually learn to be generous among themselves, to understand, to forgive, to make up. Then the family really becomes, as the Pope says, "the first school of how to be human" (Letter, no. 15): a school that prepares the children for life, in a special way for modern life, where people are running out of patience with one another, where negative judgments are rife, where other persons' defects become an obsession, and forgiveness a rarity, where meanness and intolerance seem to be gaining acceptance as a code of social behavior. Here one sees the colossal privilege of the task of parents: not only to give life, but also to teach love. One could even say without exaggeration that their mission is to save love, through a work of incarnation that humanizes it for their children, so that it is not a mere word for them, but a reality truly present in their daily lives.

If so many families today are no longer the school of love they were meant to be, it is almost always because the founders of each family, the husband and wife, have not well established their own initial love. Families are not always schools of love; they are as parents make them. Parents will not give unconditioned love to their children unless they have been trying to give it to each other.

True love is demanding

Reflections such as these explain why so much of the present pontificate has centered on a clear and positive exposition of God's plan for human sexuality, and in particular for marriage and the family, which are so threatened today, and without whose stability society can never be Christian or even human.

The Pope's Letter is realistic about this threat; though, as we have noted, it is also deeply optimistic about God's providential designs. It is interesting to link the Letter with the ideas of another great exponent of marriage and the family, the Founder of Opus Dei; for in Blessed Josemaria Escriva's message one also finds an attractive and powerful optimism about the beauty of married and family life, when lived according to the plans of God.

Self-seeking is incompatible with true love, which is a call to come out of self: to give, not to seek, self. Love therefore is a challenge; it is never an easy option. "Love is demanding," the Pope says, and goes on: "Nowadays people need to rediscover this demanding love, for it is the truly firm foundation of the family" (no. 14).

The Founder of Opus Dei too was well aware that love, just as happiness, is demanding. A constantly recurring theme in his preaching is that happiness-on the human level too-is the consequence of dedication and self-forgetfulness. In one of his books, he writes: "Only if a person forgets himself and gives himself to God and to others, in marriage as well as in any other aspect of life, can he be happy on earth, with a happiness that is a preparation for, and an anticipation of, the joy of Heaven."[3] Elsewhere he insists, "Marriage demands a lot of sacrifice; but what well-being, peace and consolation it provides. And if it does not work out so, then the spouses are going about their marriage in the wrong way."[4]

To love a person truly is to want his or her good. This no doubt includes wanting the other person to be better, but it must begin by loving him or her as he or she ; and-at least in marriage- by being prepared to love the other as he or she ; otherwise it is not a real person one professes to love, nor a real marital commitment one makes in promising fidelity "for better or worse."

Mutual fidelity is easily lived as long as love is kept alive; it can come to appear as an impossible burden if love is neglected and gradually let die. Blessed Josemaria often dwelt on this point, and on the importance of the little things which show and nourish love. He had original and characteristic ways of advising couples, telling wives, for instance, that they should maintain themselves attractive in their dress and person; they have an obligation towards their husband to do so. "Your husband is delighted when he sees you keeping yourself beautiful for him. Besides, it's your duty to do so, for you are his. And then he will keep himself strong and clean for you, because he is yours."[5]

That spouses must always love one another "as sweethearts," was a phrase habitually on Msgr. Escriva's lips. They must know how to keep coming back to that ideal-filled love of their courtship and of the early years of married life. "It would be to have a poor concept of marriage and of human affection to think that when one runs into difficulties, love and happiness have come to an end. It is precisely then, when the real nature of feelings appear, that self-donation and tenderness find their roots and are shown in a genuine and deep affection which is more powerful than death."[6]

The challenges of love

Normally two people marry because they have "fallen in love" with one another. But a successful and happy marriage does not depend just on falling in love, but above all on "standing" in love. To fall in love is easy; to stand in love is not.

The romantic process which usually inspires the decision to marry has its own peculiar characteristics. Filled with feeling, it tends to idealize the other person, exaggerates virtues and plays down or fails to see his or her faults; love indeed "is blind." What is peculiar about this process is that it would seem to be a deliberate design of Nature: that "romance," strong in feeling and weak in perception, should easily lead people to want to bind themselves together for life. In this, Nature is not playing an unfair trick, but rather marking the prelude to a deeper plan: that later on, as romance fades and personal defects come more to the foreground, spontaneous love has to mature into something more deeply understood and willed. That is when the spouses should understand that they have not yet truly learned to love; and that if they don't learn, they will not stand together.

Thus we read in the Pope's Letter: "Love is not a utopia: it is given to mankind as a task to be carried out with the help of divine grace" (no. 15). The Holy Father speaks of "the dangers faced by love," and adds: "Here one thinks first of all of selfishness . . ." (no. 14). How true this is. All of us are made for love; and yet all are dogged by selfishness. Hence comes the constant struggle of life.

Blessed Josemaria constantly preached that pride is the worst form of selfishness, and therefore also the greatest enemy of love. If pride and selfishness are not fought, they destroy love and unity and happiness, and place the soul in eternal danger. Humility is one of the essential weapons for the fight: the humility of constantly asking pardon of God for one's personal sins; and in married life of asking one's partner for forgiveness- even if one thinks he or she is mainly to blame.

Msgr. Escriva knew how to help people realize that if there are arguments or quarrels in marriage, not just one of the spouses but both are to blame; and they ought therefore to ask each other mutually for forgiveness. "Since we are human, some times there may be a row; but not often. And afterwards, both should acknowledge that they were wrong, and ask one another: forgive me!"[7]

Loving defective persons

True love, therefore, has to be strong enough to embrace what can pose the greatest danger to married union: the defects which each spouse is inevitably going to discover in the other. Here we touch on a very major point in the spiritual message of Blessed Josemaria.

What encouragement he gave with his constant insistence that God loves us with our defects; not because of our defects, but them! We all have defects, and the moment comes when we discover them, at times in surprising strength. To find ourselves rejected by others because of those defects produces a crisis: of pride and self- justification, or of despair. Knowing that one is loved with one's defects can then become a matter of salvation.

If God loves us so, Christians are called to love in the same way. That this has a special application to married life is obvious and elementary, and yet it is forgotten by so many. Blessed Josemaria understood that this is a basic condition of true human love, and was firm and constant in his teaching that real and lasting married happiness depends on this: being generous, humble and persevering enough to learn to love a defective spouse, being oneself a spouse full of defects.

"I congratulate those of you who are married. I would advise you not to spoil your love, to try to be always young, to keep yourselves entirely one for the other, to learn to love each other so much that you love your partner's defects, so long as they do not offend God. Neither of you has the right to complain about the other! If you complain, then you don't love each another enough, because you will always have defects. I have defects, despite my years, and I continue to fight against them. You must do the same."[8]

Talking with a married couple he would often ask, perhaps beginning with the wife, "Do you love your husband?" "Of course," she would reply, "Do you love him very much?" " much!" "Do you love him with his defects?" If there were a moment's hesitation at this, he would add: "because if you don't, you don't love him." Then he would ask the same of the husband.

Love, generosity and children

The Pope, while insisting on the beauty of married and family love, speaks of the dangers threatening it, and the challenges it must rise to. We have noted how he mentions selfishness as the first among "the dangers faced by love." He goes on: "Here one thinks . . . not only of the selfishness of individuals, but also of couples . . ." (no. 14). He is speaking about the danger posed to married love not just by reciprocal selfishness in relations between husband and wife, but by the of both-in regard to their children: the danger of a couple being calculating in their attitude towards offspring. Children are properly the fruit of marital love; yet it is a poor love that calculates. Calculated giving, especially in giving life, seldom expresses-or strengthens-true love. Love, if true, tends to be generous; and generosity avoids thinking in terms of calculation.

So the Pope insists that a special challenge within married life is also posed to , regarding the possible fruit of their love. "The children born to them-and here is the challenge- should consolidate that covenant, enriching and deepening the conjugal communion of the father and mother.... When this does not occur, we need to ask if the selfishness which lurks even in the love of man and woman as a result of the human inclination to evil is not stronger than this love" (no. 7).

Msgr. Escriva echoes this point: "Selfishness, in any of its forms, is opposed to that love for God which ought to rule our lives. This is a fundamental point that must be borne in mind, with regard to marriage and to the size of a family."[9]

Conjugal love is naturally meant to become parental love. This is normally a condition of its maintenance and growth. The new says: "Married love tends naturally to be fruitful. A child is not something external added to the mutual love of husband and wife, but stems from the very heart of their reciprocal self-gift, of which it is the fruit and fulfilment" (no. 2368). What couple thinks they will not love their children-as a gift and possession that are totally unique? And yet many today prefer to postpone this gift, despite the guarantees it offers of inspiring their love; and they do so in order to acquire other things that they can never love-or be loved by- in a similar way. What has happened to make them so blind to the importance of being loved, of loving, of learning to love? Spousal hearts, of two people turned just one to the other, are not likely to mature into a faithful conjugal love, if they do not become parental hearts, turned together towards their children (cf. Luke 1:17).

Blessed Josemaria spoke with enthusiasm of the privilege of parenthood, especially in the case of women. In Brazil in 1974, he said to a large group of married persons, "motherhood is something holy and joyful, good and noble, blessed and beloved. Mothers: congratulations!"[10] He would constantly repeat that "motherhood makes a woman beautiful."

A family is a school of life and of love. But if it does not have a certain minimum vigor, normally expressed also in terms of size, it is not likely that individualism and selfishness will have much of their sharp edges rubbed off. In his Letter, the Pope insists: "Families today have too little 'human' life. There is a shortage of people with whom to create and share the common good; and yet that good by its nature demands to be created and shared with others: 'good is diffusive of itself'" (no. 10).

According to Paul VI in (no. 10), responsible parenthood has its first expression in the "prudent and generous decision to have a large family." The new recalls that "Holy Scripture and the traditional practice of the Church see in large families a sign of the blessing of God and of the generosity of the parents" (no. 2373). Blessed Josemaria was constant in his defense of such families, which he saw as the natural expression and support of conjugal love and of trust in God's fatherly providence, as well as the place where children themselves learn tolerance, mutual help, service and generosity, and so acquire the qualities that can keep social life human.

He saw procreation as a privilege, a divine mission, and a pledge of special blessings for married couples. He did not want spouses ever to get accustomed to that privilege. He was often asked questions like the following: "Father, I have ten children. When I tell people this, some of them look at me as if I were a strange creature. What do you think?" Msgr. Escriva's reply was immediate: "I think that God has ten times shown his confidence in you. You can tell that to your wife on my behalf. I bless her ten times with my priestly hands, because the two of you have not placed obstacles in the way of life, because you have received, as coming from God, what is the most wonderful gift."[11]

Vocation to sanctity

So far we have been speaking of married and family love on a natural plane. We have taken up the Pope's words on the enemies to love, and considered too the simple and optimistic psychology of Blessed Josemaria as to how such difficulties can be overcome. All of what we have noted can apply to any marriage. But of course neither the Holy Father nor Msgr. Escriva presents marriage as a purely natural ideal; nor do they suggest that its challenges and its beauty can be achieved with natural forces alone. The Pope, like all his predecessors, insists that marriage is a sacrament for Christians; and that husband and wife must rely on sacramental grace in order to live up to their love and commitment as spouses and parents (cf. , nos. 15, 16).

In Msgr. Escriva's view of Christian marriage we naturally find the same insistence on its sacramental character. But a new and striking point of emphasis constantly appears. Marriage is presented as raised not just to the level of a sacrament, but to that of a -a personal call to a way of life essentially aimed at holiness.

"These world crises are crises of saints,"[12] he wrote almost sixty years ago. The life of the Founder of Opus Dei, to use a phrase often on his lips, was devoted to "opening up the divine paths of the earth," to convincing ordinary people everywhere that their secular jobs and occupations are ways to God and ways of God: that God is to be found not just at the end of the road, but at every step of these secular ways, which therefore should be seen in themselves as a means for finding him and loving him.

Sanctity-the one formula to solve the real crises of the world! For many people, the most revolutionary aspect of the message of the Founder of Opus Dei is how he applied this precisely to marriage, presenting it not only as a sacrament, but above all as a vocation; communicating to millions of couples the conviction that God calls them to marriage, and in doing so calls them to holiness; that they have the great mission to make their conjugal love and parental love expressions and ways of loving God. Time and again young and not so young people have paused at length over that other point at the start of "The Way": "You laugh because I tell you that you have a 'vocation for marriage?' Well, you have just that: a vocation" (no. 27).

Holy families are the most special need of our times. They can be formed only by couples who are truly trying to be saints. Only in such families will good be stronger than evil, and able to overcome it. Only from such families will that good spread which can save the world; for only the Saints are strong with the "strength of God."

"For almost forty years," Msgr. Escriva wrote in 1968, "I have been preaching the vocational sense of marriage. So often when talking to men and women who thought that a life of dedication to God and a noble clean human love were incompatible, I have seen their eyes light up as they heard me say that marriage is a divine way on earth!"[13]

Marriage-a divine way: it is certainly a daring statement! Seldom if ever in the history of the Church has not only the constitutional goodness of matrimony, but its full sense as a , been so proclaimed.

Blessed Josemaria insisted that love for God, in the case of husband and wife, is inseparable from their loving one another, and would help them realize what this implied. One love is a means to the other. Growth in one love is not possible without growth in the other. Married people, he repeated, "have been called by God to come to divine love also by means of human love."[14]

"Married couples have a grace of state to live all of the human and Christian virtues which must characterize life lived close together: understanding, good humor, patience, the readiness to forgive, tactfulness in mutual dealings. The important thing is not to give up the effort to live those small virtues, not to let nerves or pride or personal manias get the better of them. For that, husband and wife need to grow in interior life, and to learn from the Holy Family to put great care into living the virtues characteristic of a Christian home; doing so out of a human and a supernatural motive at one and the same time."[15] There is great wisdom and power in the spirituality underlying this passage. The principle that grace builds on nature is specially true of the graces of matrimony. If these graces are relied on, they will activate all the genuine expressions of true conjugal and family love.

The problem with our modern world is that it wants to be happy by getting, not by giving; something that runs counter to the basic rules of human living. In the end we cannot and should not want to ignore the fact that happiness-also the happiness which marriage promises-is not possible without generosity and sacrifice. Blessed Josemaria used often to say that "happiness has its roots in the shape of a Cross."[16] It is the rule and apparent paradox of the Gospel: only by "losing" and giving ourselves-the essence of love-can we begin to find ourselves and, even more than ourselves, find the happiness we are made for.

The new harmony between the ends of marriage

For long in Catholic teaching a hierarchical presentation was made of the ends of marriage, with procreation being the principal end. Vatican II, which twice emphasizes that marriage is of its nature ordered to procreation, does not use the term "primary" end. In two major documents of the post-conciliar magisterium a clear and integrated view of the ends of marriage has been articulated. The declares that these ends are twofold: "the good of the spouses themselves, and the transmission of life,"[17] which is identical to what was already stated in the 1983 Code of Canon Law (c. 1055). Both ends are presented as institutional, and both, properly understood, are personalist. Rather than any hierarchy between them, it is their mutual interdependence and inseparability which are now emphasized.

Msgr. Escriva constantly stressed the close link between the ends of marriage, where human and divine love meet and work hand in hand. His understanding of the connection between these ends appears in the following passage, where he contemplates them not just in an institutional but in a vocational light. "It is important that the spouses acquire a clear sense of the dignity of their vocation, that they realize they have been called by God to come to divine love also by means of human love; that they have been chosen from eternity to cooperate with the creative power of God in the procreation and afterwards in the education of children."[18]

"They have been called by God"; "they have been chosen from eternity": nothing can be more personal than such a divine vocation. And in the purpose he assigns to it-"to come to divine love also means of human love"-he surely expresses the essential content of the "good of the spouses." To know the goodness of God, to open oneself to that goodness, to fit oneself for its possession and eternal enjoyment: in that lies the ultimate destiny and "good" of each person. The good of the spouses is found in that combining and development of all of husband's and wife's capacity for love, both human and divine. Human love coming from and leading to divine love; spousal love becoming parental love becoming family love; good spreading in the family and from the family, with all the power of God; with that strength that saves the world.

Love can be killed by law-by bad laws, of which we have many today. It cannot be brought back to life by law, not even by good laws, although good laws are necessary and certainly help. It is not in Parliaments, nor in Supreme Courts, nor in United Nations Conferences that love can be revived, but only in families.

Married couples have to learn to put their own purely personal or individual concerns into the background; and, together, to overcome their mutual differences (or to discover how to live with them), to forgive and to forget, and to love each other, defects and all. If their love is wise and true, they will not want to remain just a couple; they will want to become a family. And then, as parents, they need constantly to raise their minds and hearts-each one individually, and both together-to what God, once more through the Pope's Letter, is proposing to them; to what society and the world, without knowing, needs from them; and to what their children, perhaps also without fully realizing it, have the right to expect from them.


1 Themes from Pope John Paul II's "Letter to Families," with special reference to the teaching of Blessed Josemaria Escriva on married and family life and love.

2 Cf. 1-11, 26, art. 2.

3< Christ is Passing By>, Scepter, 1989, no. 24.

4 RHF 20.159, p. 108 ("RHF" refers to the historical archives kept at the central Curia of the Opus Dei Prelature in Rome).

5 RHF, 20.770, p. 669.

6 , no. 24.

7 RHF 20.770, p. 108.

8 RHF 20.760, p. 770

9 , Scepter, 1974, 93.

10 RHF 20.770, p. 83.

11 RHF 20.760, pp. 778-779.

12 , no. 301.

13 , no. 91.

14 , no. 93. 15 , no. 108. 16 Cf. , Scepter, 1990, no. 28.

17 No. 2363; cf. no. 2249.

18 , no. 93.

This article appeared in the March 1995 issue of "The Homiletic & Pastoral Review," 86 Riverside Dr., New York, N.Y. 10024, 212-799-2600, $24.00 per year.