The Family: Expanded Sacrament

It has become a trite truism to say that the traditional family is under attack. The sources of the onslaught may be traced back at least to the 19th century’s exaltation of Romantic infatuation and its accompanying insistence that the spouses’ happiness justifies the institution. Certainly the world’s increasing material prosperity has intensified the attack. Materialism turns the attention of individuals to themselves; wealth supplies means to satisfy desires and buys attentive services from others. Moreover, in seeking financial security, many accept jobs separating themselves from their extended families. Familial ties are no longer recognized as uniquely binding. Whereas once the family farm demanded contributions from all family members and guaranteed their continuous presence to each other, industrial society separated the father’s work from the home. As a burgeoning economy increased people’s material expectations, women were forced to join the labor force to keep up with the neighbors, and modern ideologies exalting the freedom of individuals, allegedly assured by separate incomes, urge mothers to abandon the home and join the work force. Does not government provide pre-kindergarten day care with hired aides replacing maternal oversight? “Freedom” dissolves traditional ties, as no-fault divorce, birth control, promiscuity, and “shacking-up” encourage lives without permanent commitments. Recently “gay-marriage” manifests the devolution of the term “marriage” to denote the convenient cohabitation of people for financial expedience or emotional satisfaction. Instead of being a permanent social institution, based upon human nature and requiring normative behavior of its beneficiaries, marriage is now recognized as an arbitrary construction of human desires. Yet, the fact that primitive societies surrounded sexuality with so many taboos should warn us postmodern humans that sexual desires cannot be given free rein without inflicting great harm upon society. Children raised without the benefit of both parents suffer many disabilities, which can be quantitatively measured, and deeper psychic and spiritual wounds as well.1 Pope Francis properly insists on the right of children to grow up in a family with a father and a mother.2

While the family supplies the natural foundation of a healthy society, in today’s intellectual and technological climate, in which everything is apparently manipulated, every appeal to natural structures can be countered by the claim that human freedom dominates nature and is capable of changing it. Yet, among the many great benefits which St. John Paul left to the universal Church is his reformulation of Catholic doctrine in terms of freedom. The family is most profoundly understood, not merely as a natural institution designed to preserve and propagate the human species, but as an extended sacrament. For the family grows from the conjugal union of husband and wife, which St. John Paul recognized as creation’s primordial sacrament.3 All sacraments are God’s gifts, producing an increase of his grace, i.e., a growth in love. Love is, itself, a mystery surpassing natural desires and technological manipulation. Although previous generations might have explained marriage with a knowing wink and a reference to the birds and the bees, no one ever saw a couple of birds walk down a church isle and profess total commitment to each other “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.” Most animals fornicate and go their way. But human beings make absolute commitments of fidelity and care into an unknown future; more than a rational act seeking mutual advantage must be involved. Love ultimately entails preferring the beloved to oneself. No one professes to love for 95 percent of the time, or for as long as money or good looks or the fun lasts. Such conditions make the marriage “contract” depend upon subjective advantage, not upon the good of the beloved.4 Such “contracts” would construct marriage upon subjectivity’s shifting sands. No institution, similarly built, can long endure. Yet, entrusting oneself to an unconditional love entails a deep mystery. No human being can demand such commitment from another human being. Finite creatures cannot demand absolute fidelity for themselves, even if no love is possible without it. That is why the gift of love received generates such joy in the heart. What cannot be demanded as a right, what cannot be concluded from any rational argument, is given as a gift. Each pledges to serve wholeheartedly the other. Indeed, that mutual service grounds monogamous marriage (Eph 5:21-33). For no man can serve two masters—nor can any woman. Clearly, much more than natural sexual attraction is involved.

Marriage’s Freedom
How is such commitment possible? Only God can demand from man absolute commitment unto death. That is the mystery of marriage: in and through the finite form of a human being, created in the image of his love, the infinite God makes himself present, calling for the absolute commitment of love. Responding to the invitation to love, the spouses join themselves to each other and to God. For love defines God’s very nature (1 Jn 4:8-16) and by loving in response to his call, spouses share his life of love. In this consists their sanctification. Marriage entails free human commitment, yet, it is caused by God, since his love, encompassing the spouses, moves them to respond to him and to each other. In reaction to his invitation, the spouses either open or close their hearts to love. If they accept the invitation, they share God’s love. In this sense “marriages are made in heaven.” If they harden their hearts, they shut themselves off from God and condemn themselves, a condemnation that lasts forever, unless God again freely calls them to repentance and selfless love. Paradoxically, only in committing oneself concretely is human freedom actualized. Were one to remain in a perpetual state of hesitant indifference before a plethora of possible choices, freedom would never be realized. Yet, insofar as no finite object of choice can fully justify itself rationally—every finite reality or reason can be relativized, seen from another perspective—reason would not govern choice. Man would be subject, consciously or unconsciously, to desires implanted by nature or inculcated by society. He would be ruled, not ruling, determined, not deciding. Only by responding to God’s call of love, mediated through other human beings, is man free.5

Admittedly, such limitless commitment is scarcely attainable by human beings. In a fallen world, where love’s reality is usually more easily denied than affirmed by experience, even the Mosaic Law permitted divorce (Deut 24:1-3). That was allowed, Jesus assured us, because of our “hardness of heart.” Yet, Jesus forbade divorce to his followers, restoring the original order of creation (Mk 10:5-12). The new Adam let his heart be broken on the cross for love of us, in order to break our hardheartedness. He restored the order of creation in which love, not natural needs, again supplies the norm of conduct. All who have become members of his Body, the Church, live from his love, and let their lives be ever more conformed to his heart (Phil 2:1-5; 3:8-11; Rom 6:3-11). Since a fallen world incites all to the pursuit of self-fulfillment, i.e., satisfaction of all natural desires, living for another person can be very difficult. Marital dreams of infinite bliss are soon shattered on the limits of one’s spouse. Frustration must ensue. During a toast at a rehearsal dinner, a groom’s father enlightened his son: “Johnny, you love Mary and rightly enjoy being with her. You love to remain with her 4 hours, 8 hours, 16 hours a day. You want to stay with her. But after marriage, things will change. Charming as Mary can be, there will be times when you just wish that she would go home. Then it will dawn on you that she is home.” Certainly no spouse can fulfill all the desires of his or her mate. Men and women do not all think and feel alike. Complementarity implies opposition as well as completion, diversity as well as unity. Points of disagreement are bound to arise, and the frustration will be so much more vexatious because so much is expected from the one to whom one has entrusted one’s heart. Family disputes become bitter precisely because family members can get under each other’s skins—indeed, they are already there. Love entails opening one’s heart to wounds, and one’s friend appears as one’s enemy. In such moments of trial, Christian couples are bound to remember the extent of Jesus’ love for sinners, his enemies, as well as his call to follow him by daily taking up the cross (Lk 9:23). Christians are summoned to carry each other’s burdens as well as to love their enemies (Mt 5:44; Gal 6:2).6

Marriage is a sacrament because it involves the communication of divine love to human beings. Seen as such, it is not a just one-time act performed before a clerical witness. Its public commitment testifies to the spouses’ belief in a love greater than themselves, a love for which they pledge their lives. Its commitment has to be lived out day after day, and this living involves an increase of love as spouses bear with each other and support each other through life’s trials and temptations. Without doubt, the pleasure attendant upon the sexual act attracts couples to each other. In a fallen world, perhaps, such a strong stimulus is required to break human beings out of their egoism. Moreover, the natural desire for procreative unity places them into continuity with the rest of creation. While men surpass nature, they are not opposed to the natural order of things. Indeed the natural pleasure of sexual communion is intensified when spouses express their love through the marital act. They give themselves spiritually, as well as physically, to each other, and the permanent institution of marriage allows them to relax and be themselves. Precisely because the anxiety of having to please a partner has been removed, they can enjoy each other more freely and profoundly. They know that they are loved and accepted, in good days and bad. Such certitude tends to reduce the bad days. Each can rejoice fully in the presence and success of the other and be less concentrated on his or her private successes and accomplishments. A husband who cared for his wife during a debilitating illness, which rendered sexual intercourse impossible, once confessed to me that, during that period, they shared some of their most precious moments of tender intimacy. True love can rejoice, even when sexual expressions of love are excluded.

The Trinitarian Ground of Love
Certainly love is expansive and self-emptying. The blessed Trinity manifests love’s mystery most clearly. Insofar as the Son’s self-revelation in time reflects who he is in eternity, his self-emptying on the cross (Phil 2:7) reveals that he empties himself in eternity, the only difference being traced to the economy of sin which requires that his self-giving be painfully sacrificial. Since the Son does only what he sees the Father doing (Jn 5:19-36; 10:37), the Father must likewise give himself away to the Son. Catholic dogma insists that the divine persons are completely alike in all things except the relation which defines their personhood (DS 800, 804-05, 1330-31). From before creation, the Father empties himself, giving himself entirely to the Son, who, in answer, empties himself, giving himself entirely to the Father. Since the Father is the source of the Son’s being—no true son dare claim to be greater than his father—Jesus does not hesitate to confess “the Father is greater than I” (Jn 14:28). Because each receives everything except personhood from the other, each lives in gratitude for the other’s love. Since humility springs from the awareness of a gift—“gift” implies that one has not deserved it and is unworthy of it—Jesus’ self-humiliation at the Incarnation reveals his divine humility (Phil 2:8). He rightly proclaims, “Learn of me, for I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt 11:29). This truth applies, not just to his humanity, but also to his divine person. He exists fully in relation to the Father, and it is his eternal joy to receive all from the Father, whom he unreservedly loves and obeys.

Divine mutual self-emptying involves going beyond oneself. This, alone, explains, to some degree, why a perfectly self-sufficient deity, eternally blissful, should create a world that could not increase his happiness, but only give him trouble. As Trinitarian love, God wishes to communicate himself to created beings capable of returning love and sharing his life fully for eternity. In the economy of salvation, Jesus likewise shares his Body and Blood, his life of love, with all those who believe in him and love him. And he commissioned his disciples to baptize all nations into the Trinitarian life of love (Mt 28:19-20; Rom 6:3-11).

Divine love is expansive. Similarly marital love is expansive—not just because nature implanted a drive for procreation, cleverly attaching it to the desire for sexual pleasure. Rather, personal love wishes to share itself. Even on the most primitive level, infatuated people insist on writing poetry, singing in the rain, and overwhelming others with the story of their love. Lest marriage, especially in its early days, be reduced to a mutual admiration society, God seemingly made prevision: children. They destroy all vestiges of whatever egoisme à deux remains after marriage’s first year. They call their parents out of themselves. That evocation occurs literally when their baby cries for comfort and nutrition at 2 A.M. No longer can the married couple live for themselves. They are to serve one of their own, one who is so small, needy, helpless. While all parents naturally rejoice in the birth of their progeny, human parents have an intensified experience. Not only can they, as self-conscious beings, marvel at their cooperation with God’s creative activity in producing another divine image, but also their freedom grows in continued attachment to their children. Whereas birds push fledglings out of the nest, and cows’ attachment to calves withers as soon as calves become heifers, human parental love grows more profound with time. Strangely, the more one suffers and puts oneself out for a beloved person, the deeper penetrate the roots of attachment. Because one suffers with, and for, another, suffering creates a commonality between parent and child.

Parents should suffer for children, since children have to be civilized. That task enjoins resistance to the fulfillment of selfish desires which, if unchecked, spoil the child and lead to spiritual ruin. This resistance, painful as it is to the parent who desires an affectionate response, purifies love in the fire of self-sacrifice. It also contributes to the growing love of parents for each other. Because they have a “common enemy,” they realize that they must stand together for their child’s good. They share many more sorrows and joys than would have been possible without children. They live together at a deeper level of encounter with the mystery of self-sacrificial love. Even in those couples who are not blessed with children, the normal fruit of love, a shared sense of loss, can bring them closer to each other in consolation and in submitting themselves to the greater mystery of God’s love, which will urge them to extend their love beyond themselves to others.

The Gift of Children and Rewards of Christian Marriage
Children, like love, are a gift, and they should never be reduced to products of technology for the fulfillment of human desire. The great deception, introducing artificial birth control and abortion into America, was the claim that every child should be “wanted”—as if a child serves the parents’ wants and needs. Surely, nature instills a desire for progeny in human beings, as in all animals. But God creates human beings, not for the fulfillment of desires—what is commonly considered happiness—but for love, the virtue of self-sacrifice for God and neighbor. Once creation’s mystery is forgotten, and children are valued only insofar as they are wanted, it becomes too easy to reject or abuse those who are not wanted. Moreover, the whole sense of joy through the bestowal of a gift is imperiled. Men restrict their vision to themselves, and self-indulgence leads to the exploitation of others. Children must be received as a gift, loved for themselves, not as means for self-fulfillment.

The loving acceptance of children beaks the ever narrowing circle of selfishness that leads to frustration. Human needs are endless, and their endless pursuit must end in despair. The Budweiser commercial touting the question, “Who says that you can’t have it all?” must have been successful, given its constant repetition. Yet, every sober human being should recognize that no one can have it all. Experience teaches that desire’s fulfillment is transient; other desires quickly surge into its place. Furthermore, no satisfaction is secure. Whatever one possesses must be continually defended against all others who strive to have it all. On earth, there is no rest for the weary. Only with death are all earthly desires stilled, and hell is the abyss of endless, frustrated desire. God has created man for himself, and nothing finite can satisfy man’s longing. Yet, God is always beyond man’s reach; on its own, the finite can never attain the Infinite. But such is God’s grace that he offers himself to men in sacramental signs. The God, whom men seek, makes himself present in humility to those foregoing their self-fulfillment or self-aggrandizement in order to accept love’s mystery. They have to forget themselves to find themselves; in order to live, they must die to self. Despite the threats which Satan employs to terrorize men in the face of death, Christ’s followers know that love unto death entails, not their annihilation, but their exaltation. So Jesus delivered himself entirely into his Father’s hands on Calvary, and St. Paul wrote, “No longer live I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20). God’s omnipotent love is stronger than sin and death. That basic truth of Christianity was established by, and in, Jesus Christ, as he rose on Easter morn. Paradoxically, all natural desires will be fulfilled in the possession of God once men forego self-fulfillment in favor of accepting love’s self-forgetfulness. Then grace fulfills nature. Already on earth, children force parents to forget themselves in living for love. They are a great blessing from God, extending sacramental marriage’s purifying power into all aspects of daily life. Indeed, already on earth, loving parents anticipate the joy and the happiness of heaven in living for others. Even temporal rewards will be in store for parents, when government programs run short of funds and the elderly must rely on family for support. In any case, by faithfully living their marital vows, Christian parents witness to a pagan world the reality of love’s mystery.

The Parting of the Ways
Public media have publicized Pope Francis’s openness to the divorced, homosexuals, and those cohabiting, and stoked expectations of change in Church discipline. Actually, Francis is reflecting Christ’s openheartedness to all sinners. Too often, the media portray the Church as judgmentally promulgating prohibitions. One suspects that their perspective is biased by their own guilt. Before a troubling conscience, one is tempted to project the problem upon others: “I would not feel guilty if it were not for judgmental Christians condemning my actions. Those hypocrites proscribe sins which they themselves commit, even while claiming to follow Christ, who preached love and tolerance to all.” In truth, believing Christians confess their own sins and temptations—“the flesh is weak” (Mk 14:38)—as they pray for the conversion of sinners, themselves and others. Mass begins with a confession of sins. The complaint of nonbelievers seems more a case of self-justification than a valid charge, even if some churchgoers may be hypocrites. (Who, but God, can judge human hearts?) Actually, all authentic values challenge men to overcome themselves. A German proverb states, “The affirmation of a great goal demands many a ‘no.’” (Da Ja zu einem grossen Ziel verlangt viele Nein.) While it is almost always possible to find some good in all human situations and try to build upon it, when confronted with erroneous substitutes for Christian marriage, the Church must remain faithful to Christ’s teaching on love. His love requires self-emptying, not self-fulfillment. He began his public ministry with the call to conversion and identified his way as the way of the cross (Mk 1:14; 8:34-38). Indeed, any alleged god who fails to challenge men to surpass themselves cannot be the true God. The prohibitions to divorce, homosexual acts, and fornication are only the inverse of Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor; they unmask the pretensions of all who confuse love with desire, charity with passion. Were the Church to condone acts not conducive to sacrificial love, she would be conducting men to damnation. Real charity demands that sins, acts contrary to love, be recognized as such, in order that true conversions occur. Jesus protected the woman caught in adultery, refusing to condemn her, but he did not condone adultery. Instead he told her, “Go and, from now on, sin no more” (Jn 8:1-11). Similarly Christ’s Church should help sinners, showing them love, in order that they mend their ways in following a crucified Savior.

  1. E.g., T. Skarōhamar, “Family Dissolution and Children’s Criminal Careers,” European Journal of Criminology 6 (2009), 203-23; W. Wilcox, “The Kids Are Not Really Alright”:; A. Desai, “How Could Divorce Affect My Kids”:
  2. Pope Francis, “Ad Participes internationalis Colloquii de complementaria indole Maris et Feminae,” Acta Apostolicae Sedis 106 (2014), 980 (Nov. 17, 2014).
  3. John Paul II, The Theology of the Body (Boston: Pauline, 1997), 333-50. Cf. J. McDermott, SJ, “Science, Sexual Morality, and Church Teaching: Another Look at Humanae Vitae,” Irish Theological Quarterly 70 (2005), 237-61, which details the implications of John Paul’s insights.
  4. Hence the Church regularly refuses to recognize so-called “pre-marital contracts,” limiting the commitment for better or worse (CC 1102-1).
  5. Insofar as man should go to death in faithful response to God’s call, God is shown to have all power over man. Every other attraction, even the whole finite universe, counts as nothing in comparison with God’s call. All is relativized by God’s love. Paradoxically, therefore, God’s omnipotence does not abolish human freedom, but is its very condition of possibility. For the metaphysics of love, cf. J. McDermott, SJ, “Faith, Reason, and Freedom,” Irish Theological Quarterly 67 (2002), 215-47, and “The Mystery of Freedom,” Lateranum 74 (2008), 493-542.
  6. Cf. G. Fee, Gospel and Spirit (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991), 49, writes “tongue in cheek”: “the reason Jesus said ‘no divorce’ is that he also said ‘love your enemies.’” Though a Protestant (Pentecostal) exegete, Fee recognizes Jesus’ express command against divorce; his Protestant presupposition, however, opposes grace to law, instead of seeing law as an expression of grace, giving Christians the norm of love.
Fr. John M. McDermott, SJ About Fr. John M. McDermott, SJ

Fr. John M. McDermott, SJ, currently teaches theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He previously taught at Fordham University, the Gregorian University (Rome), and the Pontifical College Josephinum. He was also invited professor at St. Joseph's Seminary (Yonkers) and Seton Hall University. He served on the International Theological Commission, various Roman commissions, and as consultor to the USCCB Doctrine Committee. He has published two books, edited two others, and produced more than 150 articles on philosophy, dogmatic theology, Scripture, history, and spirituality.


  1. Avatar Fran Kearns says:

    The connection of Trinitarian love to the human vocation is very helpful. It provides the foundation for the Catholic Church’s teaching on family love. The Church as mother must always invite her children to reach their greatest potential, human and spiritual. Evangelization on self giving love is foundational to any vocation ministry whether it is family life or in celibate love.

  2. Avatar Alphonsus M. Gusiora says:

    I am not in the mood to do any comment but I have to acknowledge that the author did a very good job with sound theological inferences. Keep up the good work.
    Bro Alphonsus-Mary Gusiora

  3. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    As our ‘civil’ society enters a new ‘post Christian’ era we are once again forced to understand, commit to and support the true meaning of marriage as beautifully described above. We have been lulled to sleep by our existence in a society nominally ‘Christian’ with many commonly held beliefs about the nature of marriage. We are now being rudely awakened to the reality that our society will no longer give any credence to our beliefs and we must rely on our own efforts to continue and pass on to our children the unique view of a permanent covenantal marriage blessed by a loving God. It isn’t going to be pretty or easy as the environment in which we exist becomes more and more intolerant of our beliefs and begins to respond negatively. Civil society and its institutions (including many nominally ‘Catholic’ Higher Education institutions and organizations) will actively work to undermine the teaching of our children and challenge us as we have not been in millennia.

  4. John M. McDermott, S.J. John M. McDermott, S.J. says:

    I’m glad that we agree. Now we just have to live the mystery of love. It is very hard to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Mt. 5;48) — Jesus could live that way as did His mother — but we have no choice but to struggle, admit our failures, and pray for His mercy.