“Family, Become What You Are”

Probing the Depth of the Theology of the Family

Catholic families today are surrounded and pressured by many wrong ideas and attitudes prevalent in our culture. The very meaning of marriage and family has been undermined. Families could use some bolstering and clear thinking to support them in standing firm amidst this corrosion of Christian culture and ethics. For this reason, it is very timely that www.theologyofthefamily.com has appeared in our internet world. Here, we can find the clarion call to families to remember their God-given vocation to be carriers of his Covenant to the next generation, the deepest and loftiest meaning of family in God’s eyes. This has been developed in scholarly detail by Dr. Joseph Atkinson, associate professor of Sacred Scripture at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, drawing on his years of pastoral and theological experience.

To those families that are already being a domestic church in a plentiful sense, this new resource will be both a confirmation and enrichment. To those who have not yet caught on to this vision, this will be a valuable eye-opener and challenge to strengthen their vocation to family life. For young people still working through discernment on vocation, this vision of the family is a crucial part of the puzzle, making clear the importance of family to both the religious vocation, and to the marital vocation. And for pastors and teachers, this is a valuable resource for homilies and lessons.

The in-depth exposition of the theology of the family is contained in Dr. Atkinson’s scholarly book, Biblical and Theological Foundations of the Family and the Domestic Church (2014). Dr. Atkinson emphasizes how distinct Israel’s religion was from the mythologies of the Near Eastern peoples surrounding them. For these mythologies, “sexuality and fecundity were means by which the divine sphere could be manipulated magically”(19). The polytheistic gods were sexually active, and their rituals were orgiastic, including fecundity rites, temple prostitution, and infant sacrifice. In the Hebrew revelation, in contrast, there is only one God, with no female counterpart, and no sexual activity. The creation of the world is by God’s Word, whose will is sovereign, yet his power is not violent or dominating, but one of a caring relationship. The consequence for marriage and family is that it is freed from cultic purposes, and allowed to function according to its proper nature within the created order of human life. “Inasmuch as marriage is part of God’s creative order, it cannot be arbitrarily or subjectively defined, but, rather, it receives in the very act of its creation, a constitutive nature which needs to be respected if man and society are to flourish” (50). As our society becomes increasingly paganized, sexuality seems to have reverted to a semi-divinized status, setting aside the Judeo-Christian heritage of healthy and stable sexuality within the marital-familial human reality created by God.

An important aspect of family that Dr. Atkinson brings out in his treatise is its significant role in history. Beginning with Genesis, the blessing of procreation is given a purpose: to replicate the image of God in man in a future generation. History is not a meaningless cycle as is seen in pagan religion, but a working out of man’s destiny for God within historical time. God acts in history and reveals himself to man within concrete reality. The family is the means by which each generation is formed and carries forth God’s promises. “For man to become fully human, for him to rightfully discharge his role as image of God on earth, he needs a family” (71). The origin of Israel is from one father, Abraham, and the family line, which is carefully preserved in the genealogies of the Old Testament, witnesses to the centrality of family in the unfolding of man’s relationship to God in history.

As a result, Israel’s religion emphasized, above all, the preservation of holiness within the family, which Dr. Atkinson carefully describes in some detail. He shows how the sanctification of time and place within Israeli family life developed specifically as a sign that this is a people set aside to be holy before God. Circumcision, redemption of the first born son, the mitzvah bath for women, and other purification rituals made this clear. Distinguishing Shabbat from all other days of the week, the obligation of three yearly pilgrimages to Jerusalem for all adult men, and the celebration of Passover, established the sanctity of time and historical events. Dr. Atkinson makes the point that our modern society seems to have forgotten that time belongs to God, and it sees time as only an instrument for our productivity or personal pleasure. The Christian family, nevertheless, inherits this holiness legacy of Israel in a form renewed by Christ.

A particular emphasis of Dr. Atkinson’s study is the family as the carrier of the Covenant—in fact, the family is itself an “image of the covenant.” The Hebrew consciousness of this was expressed in the emphasis on the proper relationship between parents and children, and on education, which meant religious training in the Covenant as the responsibility of parents. Sound pedagogical principles were used, and the children were provided with a clear identity in continuity with previous generations. The father’s role as the spiritual leader of his family was particularly seen in the home liturgies, the ordinary sphere of Israeli religious practice, and provided a psychological foundation of security and spiritual faith. When this was carried out with love and dedication, the result was a strong society, and a culture which endured. The instability of so many fatherless families in our contemporary society bears a negative witness to this, Dr. Atkinson suggests. It needs to be clarified today that the Israeli model of patriarchy was an exercise of authority, not to benefit the father, but, rather, for the sake of the children and the family as a whole. It is meant to reflect the loving fatherhood of God, the origin and model for all fatherhood. However, this does not infer that the input of mothers is any less important; it is also essential to the Covenant. The strong women of biblical narratives reveal that “the fate of Israel (is) often in the hands of mothers” (109). The New Testament, as well, describes the vital role Jewish Christian mothers played in passing on religious tenets to their children.

The relationship of the genders, male and female, is shown to be one ordered to peace, Professor Atkinson states, since their creation follows the pattern of all God’s creative activity: unity followed by separation. Thus, their distinction is not ordered to conflict, but to unity. Woman is the last piece of God’s creation, the pinnacle, as Atkinson points out, coming “directly from the hand of God,” even though emerging from unity with man. Man needs a “helper,” a role which elsewhere has been attributed to God, so woman has a unique dignity which brings about the fullness of creation. Rather than being in competition, as modern society sometimes views the sexes, man and woman have complementary roles, both of which are essential to the fulfillment of humanity. Difference in gender does not imply a superiority-inferiority relationship, but a mutual enrichment and fulfillment, each possessing equal dignity in their humanity.

Since the early Christians were Jewish, they continued to live the Jewish family traditions and understandings. For this reason, New Testament Scriptures did not have a need to address family practices, except in the new situations that Gentile Christians, or pagan association, presented. Dr. Atkinson’s treatise stresses the continuity of basic understandings about marriage and family between the Hebrew heritage and Christian life (Rom 11:17), while also elaborating the renewal brought about by Christ, who is acting within the structure of salvation history already begun, from Abraham through David and the prophets, preparing for the restoration by the Messiah. “I came not to destroy, but to fulfill,” Jesus declared (Mt 5:17). “The burden for the early Church was to show that Christianity was not a new religion, but somehow brought to completion the Old Testament promises,” Atkinson states (222).

Considerable development is given in Atkinson’s presentation to the sense of the corporal unity of the family of Abraham, the people of the Covenant. This concept carries over into the understanding of baptism as joining the new Christian to this family of Abraham, becoming part of God’s Covenant, and being a member of the whole Body of Christ, the realization of the promise to Abraham’s descendants. Atkinson discusses the association of baptism with Jewish circumcision, as well as the Jewish ritual for pagans entering the Covenant, which involved submersion in the water of the mikvah bath. Thus, there is a basic continuity and a fulfillment of all the Old Testament preparation in Christ’s new life of redemption, which is both a spiritual rebirth, and a corporal inclusion into God’s new covenantal family. It is clear in the epistles of St. Paul, and in the early Church, that the new creation of baptism is not a metaphor, but is a literal corporal reality that one is now part of the body of Christ (258). This understanding is important to the teaching on marriage, that it is a psychosomatic organic unity in becoming “one flesh.” For the baptized Christian spouse, Christ is “inserted into the one-flesh union,” and it is, thus, made holy. This will also become important to the understanding of the family as domestic church, a sphere of the holiness of the baptized, “enabling the family to participate in the mission of the Church, of which it is a cell … where God is working out his salvific will for the world” (261).

The teaching of the Fathers of the Church in the early Christian centuries, particularly St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom, became important to the development of the theology of the domestic church, which was presented at Vatican II, Dr. Atkinson explains. Augustine taught that the father of a family carries out an ecclesial role within his family, similar to a bishop for his diocese:

Every father of a family will … admonish, teach, exhort, rebuke, use benevolence, and exercise discipline for all who belong to him. In this fashion, in his own home, he will fulfill the ecclesial office, and in a certain sense, the episcopal office ministering to Christ so that he may be with him in eternity. (274)

In contrast to the Roman idea of paterfamilias, Augustine describes the father’s role as one that is exercised on behalf of Christ for the spiritual welfare of all the family, Atkinson points out. As a baptized Christian, the father is part of the process of salvation, and in exercising an ecclesial responsibility in his family, he is working out his own salvation according to his specific vocation. Atkinson emphasizes that Christian spouses living in, and for, Christ are clearly distinct from non-Christian spouses, and their vocation should be differentiated from the secularized concepts of marriage present in our culture.

Chrysostom spoke in different terms, but with similar understandings, about the calling of the Christian family:

So we should put in (your) home both altars, one for food and the other for sacred readings. Indeed, the man should repeat those things that are appointed; the wife, moreover, should learn thoroughly, the children should listen, nor should the servants be defrauded of these readings. Make your home a church. Indeed, the (welfare) of both your children and your servants (must be rendered by you). (283)

Chrysostom viewed the family and the Church as reciprocal realities of mutual support. This came to be a critical part of the Vatican II intervention on domestic church by Bishop Pietro Fiordelli of Prato, Italy.

At the Council, Bishop Fiordelli sought to provide a conceptual basis for the term “domestic church” by extending the spiritual understanding of marriage to the whole of family life, suggesting that parents had a “consecrated” role since their children become part of the Body of Christ through baptism, and they contribute to the growth of the Church. They evangelize the children through example and teaching. Thus, the family can be seen as having an organic, intrinsic relationship to the Church. The bishop proposed that the family, as well as marriage, is a “state of life” within the Church, and he was instrumental in getting consideration of the family to be included in the constitution of the Church. Consequently, the family, as domestic church, was officially recognized in the Magisterial teaching of Lumen Gentium (LG 2, 11). In this document, the Council recognized that parents are the first catechists of faith for their children.

Dr. Atkinson explains that a fuller development of a “theology of the domestic church” came about primarily through the teachings of Pope St. John Paul II, particularly in his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio.

The family finds in the plan of God … not only its identity … but also its mission. … The role that God calls the family to perform in history derives from what the family is. … Family, become what you are. (FC 17)

Four constitutive elements are found in the ecclesial family, according to John Paul II’s analysis: 1) a community of persons; 2) service to life; 3) participation in the development of society; and 4) sharing in the life and mission of the universal Church. Atkinson points out that these are marks of the Church, so that the family shares in the nature of the Body of Christ, and is, therefore, part of her very reality, a context in which the influence of the Holy Spirit is experienced at the most personal level. John Paul II also describes the “substance” of the family as identifying with Christ as prophet, priest, and King (FC 51). The theological foundation for the domestic church, Atkinson states, is the sacrament of baptism in its most profound realization as a transformation of the person, an actual ontological change through the indwelling of Christ. As St. Paul develops in Ephesians 5, husbands and wives live their marriage in terms of Christ’s relationship with the Church, participating in a deep mystery and a sacred order. Through the baptism of the children, this sacred order enfolds the whole family.

An important warning is expressed by Dr. Atkinson toward the end of his book: the term domestic church is vulnerable to distortion, to subjective determination according to contemporary agendas, if not carefully grounded in Scripture and in Magisterial teaching on authentic ecclesiology and Christology. Gnostic misunderstandings about the body, incomprehension of sacramentality, and relativistic attitudes about family and marriage abound in our culture. Yet, there is an objective, constitutive nature given to the family and to marriage by the Creator, and a high calling to a Christological mission established through the sacramental life of the Church. At the same time, there needs to be a sensitivity to the fractured condition of many families and relationships that call for healing, and the loving attention of pastors.

There is a wealth of scholarly detail and careful analysis in Dr. Atkinson’s text, of which this essay is only a hint. At the same time, the DVD series prepared on these topics is a very accessible summary of the main points. There are carefully prepared guidebooks for discussion for participants in a group presentation of this DVD series, and additional guidebooks for facilitators and for pastors. The crises in family and marriage, which our culture is facing, reveals an intense need for a confirmation of the true vocation of families in God’s plan. A strengthening of families in their understanding of the importance of their vocation will fortify both marriages and the formation of the next generation within the Christian family living as a domestic church.



Atkinson, Joseph C. 2014. Biblical & Theological Foundations of the Family: The Domestic Church. Washington, DC: The Catholic University Press.


John Paul II. Familiaris Consortio.1998. Boston: Pauline Books & Media.

Kathleen Curran Sweeney About Kathleen Curran Sweeney

Kathleen Curran Sweeney holds a Master's degree in Theological Studies in Marriage and Family from the John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C., an MA in History from the University of Washington, and a BA from Seattle University. She has worked for several years in the pro-life arena. She has published articles on pro-life topics, bioethics, theology, education, and history. She is a member of both St. Agnes Church in the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, and the People of Praise Ecumenical Community.


  1. Avatar Jim Anderson says:

    Thank you, Kathleen, for a great article!

  2. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    Ms. Sweeney, yes thank you for an accurate presentation of the Sacrament of Matrimony, showing that it is only involving one man and one woman. And that Jesus blesses and confirms it.Quoting from Dr. Atkinson, St Augustine St John Chrysostom, St Pope John Paul II, Lumen Gentium through Bishop Fiordelli are most useful.

  3. Warm Texas summer greetings to Kathleen Sweeney & all readers:
    We are committed to being a “Marriage & Family Building Church”, and we’re seeking practical homilitics resources that fully support marriage & the family. With this, clergy everywhere could consistently share the truth of the Gospel AND encouragement in support of marriage. Please SHARE any resources/site that might help with this challenge.
    Let’s remember that whenever we “pray for vocations”, we must pray for ALL vocations… married life as well as priesthood & religious life, since without more authentic Catholic marriages having more children, we’ll see fewer & fewer young people to “pray-into-the-priesthood” in the future.
    Blessings to all!