The Family, the Synod, and the Social Teaching of the Church—Russell Hittinger
Catholic Social Doctrine speaks of three societies “necessary” for human flourishing. Pius XI states: “Now there are three necessary societies, distinct from one another and yet harmoniously combined by God, into which man is born: two, namely the family and civil society, belong to the natural order; the third, the Church, to the supernatural order.” Leo XIII put marriage first because, while people not “born into” marriage, matrimony is the “principle and foundation” of domestic society. To paraphrase and revise the Aristotelian dictum, the human person is a matrimonial-familial animal, a political animal, and an ecclesial animal. (Pius XI Casti Connubii (31 Dec. 1930), §11; Leo XIII Arcanum Divinae (10 Feb. 1880), §4).
During the centuries following the Council of Trent (1563), magisterial teachings on matrimony were quite clear and rather well developed in comparison to teachings on the family. This makes sense, among other reasons, because the theological disputes of the Reformation era concerned the sacramental status of matrimony. That children and family are a blessing of marriage was not a church-dividing issue. But the magisterium was not completely silent. It emphasized, for example, that for Christians the sacrament of marriage commissions the parents to participate in the religious education of their children. “By the command of Christ, [they look] not only to the propagation of the human race, but to the bringing forth of children for the Church, fellow citizens with the saints, and the domestics of God.” (Leo XIII, Arcanum §10). The family is a primary site of Christian formation, and therefore it is a kind of domestic church. As Pius XI made bold to say: “the family is more sacred than the State and that men are begotten not for the earth and for time, but for Heaven and eternity.” (Casti, §69).
In the early twentieth century, this teaching was deepened and made more urgent because of what was called “the school question.” In the face first of nationalism, and then in response to emerging totalitarian regimes, the magisterium defended the rights of parents to be the first educators of their children. Leo XIII approved the decrees of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1884) which launched the largest parochial school system in the history of the Catholic Church.
Although seeds were sown for the doctrine of the family as an ecclesiola (little church), its theological development during fell well short of the work of the Second Vatican Council and the magisterial documents of John Paul II – Familiaris Consortio (1991) and Gratissimum Sane (1994). After two synods devoted to the family (1980, 2014-15) theology of the family has become a major concern of Catholic theology. Even so, given the fact that the revised Code of Canon Law (1983) mentions “familia” in the substantive only three times, much work is still be done on the ecclesiastical status of the family.