Questions Answered – April 2024

The Mission of the Family

Question: The government seems to be usurping more and more of what are traditionally rights of the family. What is the Church’s teaching about this?

Answer: The family has four dimensions which grow out of the relationship of marriage, all of which must be protected and promoted by the greater society and the Church. These are essential to both the principle of organic growth in society and subsidiarity.

The first is that the family is natural and thus cannot be interfered with or replaced by the state. The family is not made by the common consent of human beings and so is not the result of positive law. It is rather closely connected to the act of childbearing which is one of the two essential purposes of the marriage act and so is established by God. It is a real virtual unity of will founded on the personal participation of the husband and wife in the order of providence. This is realized in both the procreation AND the education of the children. The family must therefore involve moral participation which is free and virtuous. The participation, each on their own level, of both parents of opposite sex and the children is thus essential to the realizing of the good and happiness of the members of this, the most basic of human communities.

The protection of the family by positive right is also of a juridical nature. Civil society cannot dissolve the family or seek to replace it without causing chaos in the civil order. The family is also of an economic nature. Since a decent standard of living and social peace are necessary to provide the correct environment for the family to be formed in a disinterested way, the Church has always maintained that the morality and progress of the economy must be primarily related to the society of the family and not the state. The principle good of the economic order is the satisfaction of the daily spiritual and physical needs necessary for the promotion of the family.

Because the family is rooted in divine providence turning around the sexual act, the order of authority is rooted in the personal participation of the father and the mother in the act of procreation. The parents supply the matter, but God directly creates the form of the human soul. The diverse participation of the parents in the act determine the order of authority and responsibility in which each participates in authority.

As is true of every human community, authority is primarily an application of the virtue of prudence. This prudence is different than the prudence connected to the authority of a civil or ecclesiastical community because it represents the unique good pursued in the family. That primary good is education. This education is primarily interested in inculcating virtues in all the members of the household whether they are natural or Christian virtues. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

“The fecundity of conjugal love cannot be reduced solely to the procreation of children, but must extend to their moral education and spiritual formation. ‘The role of parents in education is of such importance that it is almost impossible to provide an adequate substitute.’ The right and the duty of parents to educate their children are primordial and inalienable. [. . .] The home is well-suited for education in the virtues.”1

Elsewhere, the Catechism summarizes: “By its very nature the institution of marriage and married love is ordered to the procreation and education of offspring and it is in them that it finds its crowning glory.”2 The relationship of marriage is perfected in the nurturing of life. Because human life is spiritual, the nurture of life includes the spiritual nurturing of the seed of divine life to which the soul is called. This calling to divine life is so central to the perfection of man that Thomas Aquinas says there is “something divine” about the human seed. This is because human seed sown through the act of procreation must end in the spiritual soul. As the soul is the life of the body, so God is the life of the soul. Little trinities come forth by procreation. Since man comes forth from God in his divine image, man can only be complete when this divine image is complete. Little trinities can only fully become themselves in union with THE TRINITY. This happens when grace is completed in the vision of God in heaven. St. Thomas goes so far as to maintain that it is the lifelong nurturing of the spiritual life which prepares for the vision of God in the souls of children which is the natural foundation of the indissolubility of marriage.

Education of soul, then, is a more essential mission of the family than nourishment of the body. Parents have a necessary and inalienable right to nourish the minds of their children by spiritual instruction because this alone completes their physical procreation. Pope John Paul II has expressed this very well:

The right and duty of parents to give education is essential, since it is connected with the transmission of human life; it is original and primary with regard to the educational role of others, on account of the uniqueness of the loving relationship between parents and children; and it is irreplaceable and inalienable, and therefore incapable of being entirely delegated to others or usurped by other.3

This natural duty and right of education is true of every family by nature. In the Christian family, in which all the members are blessed by a sacrament of grace, it takes on a new and wonderful dimension. The Christian family nourishes the whole life of grace, which includes reason, prayer, moral life and theological faith. This is the reason why the Church has always called the family the ecclesia domestica, the domestic church. Christian parents nurture the Word in their children by conforming themselves to Christ. The basis of this conformity is the “character” or indelible mark which they received in baptism. This character of conformity to Christ is so intrinsic to the parents that their lives are a constant offering made to God which finds its power in the worship which Christ himself in his soul offers continuously to his Father in heaven. One beautiful application of this character is the sacrament of matrimony. By virtue of the character, Christian marriage is an act of worship in which the spouses are the ministers or priests to one another. This is the principal sacrament in which the priesthood of the laity is found.

Another beautiful application of this character of conformity to Christ is the participation of Christian parents in the education of the souls of their children. In this they exercise their role as prophets who teach the truth and fulfill their share in the common priesthood of Christ. “So great and splendid is the educational ministry of Christian parents that St. Thomas [Aquinas] has no hesitation in comparing it with the ministry of the priest.”4 They live, teach, and guide as domestic priests because the children grow in holiness through their influence. They are true other Christs to their children and prepare them in their self-offering on earth for the worship of God in heaven. Physical and spiritual paternity and maternity reach their summit in spiritual paternity, especially in instruction in taking the sacraments. “Human beings will come particularly close to God when the spiritual parenthood of which God is the prototype takes shape in them.”5

Though the Catholic school can be a powerful extension of the right and duty of the parents to grow in holiness by educating their children, when many Catholic schools are teaching secular humanism, homeschooling is certainly a fitting expression of the parents as priest, prophet, and king. In fact, this is the central apostolate of marriage. The parents are the apostles of the children.

In exercising their apostolate, parents should be sure that their education is based on a correct understanding of the nature of man. Modern education has many faults based on the error that the satisfaction of the passions is the exclusive purpose of education. Philosophies like that of Rousseau dominate the scene. He believed that reason was the enemy of the soul to such an extent that the man who contemplates was a depraved animal to him. The purpose of the teacher is not to impart knowledge, but merely to provide a milieu in which the child can express the divine in himself or herself. There is no discipline or interest in self-control. This philosophy of education places an exaggerated faith in the unfettered freedom of the human person to set his own limits and find his own truth. It is incompatible with Catholicism and also sound philosophy because it fails to find any truth outside the subject.

Based on all this, the proper conclusion would be that the State should assist but not replace parents in what is their mission to educate the soul in virtue.

The Priesthood of Christ

Question: I heard a homily in which the priest said that Christ was not a priest because he did not go through an ordination ceremony. Can you explain how and why Christ is a priest?

Answer: This seems to be a common mistake, somewhat attributable to all the fuzzy thinking today. The priesthood of the Old Testament was instituted by the Law. Like circumcision, which was the sacrament of initiation into Israel though women could not really participate fully, it was ordered to offering the sacrifice of bulls and goats, which was the cornerstone of the Old Testament religion. There are several important points to be made about this.

First, the sacrifices of the Old Testament brought grace, though according to the faith of the recipient. They did not cause grace ex opere operato. They also did not relieve from Original Sin. The sacrifices they performed were symbols of redemption and so their priesthood, though real enough, looked forward to another high priest according to the order of Melchizedech, whose sacrifice of bread and wine did free from Original Sin by atonement. In other words, they were always acting in their sacrificial actions in the name of another looking forward to his sacrifice.

Christ did not need such a priesthood because he is not just a functional priest, but the ontological priest to whom others looked forward. In other words, he is by nature a priest. This is a part of his kenosis. The union between God and Man takes place in the Person of the Word. No other union with man is like this. This means that the substance Man whose personhood is the Word is himself holy. He does not need to become holy because is always ontologically holy. This is expressed in terms like “Christ” and “Messiah.”

Since there is no human person in Jesus of Nazareth, the human nature of Christ is itself sacred and needs no charism of orders to make it holy, as one finds in the New Testament priesthood. This is because all the other priests of the Old Law look to him and to his sacrifice to atone from the Original Sin and the other priests of the New Testament act as his ministers in making his sacrifice present. He needs no additional sacrament to have grace or the ordination rite of the New Testament to apply his sacrifice through a further character in the New. Since Jesus is ontologically a priest in his human nature, his very conception confers priesthood on him and he is the High Priest par excellence.

  1. CCC 2221–2.
  2. CCC 1652; GS 48 #1; 50.
  3. Familiaris Consortio, n. 36.
  4. Familiaris Consortio, 38, quoting Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles, IV, 58.
  5. Familiaris Consortio, n. 36.
Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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