Family as model of Church and as sign

I was listening today to a National Public Radio interview with Joel Kotkin, who recently co-authored a study called The Rise of Post-Familialism: Humanity’s Future?  I must say, it was a depressing hour.  Kotkin struck me as a statistician and was without bias, but the numbers, the impact, the reasons people gave for not only choosing to be childless but to be family-less: he said at minimum it should give people cause for pause.  Listen to the whole thing, but the upshot was: imagine a society with no aunts, no uncles, no siblings, no cousins, few if any kids to play with nearby, and littered with people who have been so damaged by their experience of family they choose to opt out.  We’re all singles together, sort of.  And he points out: we don’t need to imagine this: we can see it in Japan, in China, and increasingly in Europe.

The hour focused on the economic impact of such an impending reality, but I immediately thought of the theological impact.  If the family serves, even very imperfectly in this fallen world, as a sign that points to God’s desired union with humanity, what happens when we lose yet another sign given us by God?  Do we lose a window, another opportunity to perceive God? 

The understanding of Church as God’s Family is indeed part of the text:


Edith Stein, also known as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, wrote in her Essays on Woman that every human being has a threefold vocation: a universal vocation as a beloved child of God; a gendered vocation as a son or daughter of God; and an individual vocation (which begins with a call to a state of life, and moves from there: marriage, or consecrated life, or deaconate/priesthood; then perhaps to mother or father, activist, teacher, or other possibilities).[1]  We are all born to God’s family, and called to be family to each other.
The ancient call to be brothers and sisters to each other sounds like a wooden bell in a culture where families are, by definition, broken.  Many have written of the challenge of accepting the Fatherhood of God, in the experience of children with an abusive father.  Or the motherhood of Mary, given all the mixed messages we receive about the value of motherhood.  Part of the prophetism of the body, as John Paul sometimes called it,[2]is the message of the spiritual value of fatherhood and motherhood.  How beautifully we have, body and soul, been created for this gift.  How we are called to participate in the mystery of creation, the intensity of labor, the joy of new life.  When we participate with our vocational call, the path is not made perfectly straight: but there is nothing ultimately to fear. 
One embodiment of the Church that explicitly names the call to be God’s family is the Church in Africa.  John Paul II’s Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Africa notes the work of the African bishops over four weeks in 1989, and underlines with enthusiasm the synod’s call to image the Church as God’s family: a way of understanding Church and relationships which is culturally derived, but also scriptural and universal.  The Church as God’s family could be profoundly compatible with the purpose behind the images of Church asserted by the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium:   “By her relationship with Christ, the Church is a kind of sacrament or sign of intimate union with God, and of the unity of all mankind.”[3]
 Not only did the Synod speak of inculturation, but it also made use of it, taking the Church as God’s Family as its guiding idea for the evangelization of Africa. The Synod Fathers acknowledged it as an expression of the Church’s nature particularly appropriate for Africa. For this image emphasizes care for others, solidarity, warmth in human relationships, acceptance, dialogue and trust. The new evangelization will thus aim at building up the Church as Family, avoiding all ethnocentrism and excessive particularism, trying instead to encourage reconciliation and true communion…. “It is earnestly to be hoped that theologians in Africa will work out the theology of the Church as Family with all the riches contained in this concept, showing its complementarity with other images of the Church.”[4]


[1]Edith Stein, The Collected Works of Edith Stein, Vol II, Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Discalced Carmelite,trans. Freda Mary Oben (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1987), ch. 2 (especially 57-59).
[2]Man and Woman He Created Them #104.
[3]Lumen Gentium 1.1, cited in Ecclesia in Africa #63.
[4]Ecclesia in Africa #63
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