The Five Marks of a Strong Christian Family
To understand what is best soil for nourishing the faith of children, we ask: what does a flourishing Christian family look like?
To get a better idea of what the best soil is for nourishing the faith of children, it is helpful to paint a picture of the ideal Christian family. So, what does a flourishing Christian family look like?
Let’s answer that first by examining something that might look like a sign of an ideal Christian family but is not. A flourishing Christian family does not have to be one with no trials or serious difficulties. In fact, many trials—financial failure, personal tragedies, accidents, sickness, physical or mental disabilities—are not only compatible with a flourishing Christian family, they often cause the supernatural character of a strong Christian family to shine forth.
Even the Holy Family experienced hardship through misunderstandings, such as when St. Joseph did not understand how his wife was with child (Matt. 1:19) or when Jesus’ parents did not understand why he had left without telling them (Luke 2:48). These misunderstandings became the occasion of great trust and the love that “believes all things” (1 Cor. 13:7).
Having set aside that misconception, what are the marks of a flourishing Christian family?
A flourishing Christian family is marked, first, by all its members—father, mother and children—being present and active. The family is not divided by strife between the parents or among the children. The family is often present together as a whole on a daily basis. The father or mother does not go off frequently on their own away from the family. The children spend most of their time together, not out with their friends or at functions apart from the rest of the family.
One of the most difficult challenges young people face is the expectation that both parents must work to maintain an adequate standard of living. The powers behind these expectations are largely cultural. Against these cultural influences it is often heard that in a traditional Catholic family, Dad works while Mom stays home.
But the truth is, in a traditional Catholic family both parents were usually home with their children. For most of human history, life was agrarian in nature and the family lived and worked together on their farm or in some sort of trade that could be done from home.
It was only with the industrial revolution that fathers left home to work, essentially leaving their wives to be single mothers for most of the day. It’s no surprise that women, finding this kind of life excessively burdensome, began to look for relief outside the home as well. This led to the daycare system, in which children from a young age are cared for and educated outside the home.
In many cases, perhaps, this situation is unavoidable. But this should not prevent us from recognizing that it is not best for children to be cared for by persons other than their parents. No one knows or loves children and seeks their good more than their parents. Not only that, but it is easy to see that the natural bonds of affection that children bear toward their parents are weakened when their parents are only part-time caregivers.
So what are some ways to promote and preserve integrity in the modern, post-industrial-revolution family?
First of all, it is important to examine honestly what you really need to live on and raise your children. Many of the amenities and comforts that have become expectations in the modern world (especially in wealthy countries like the United States) are not really necessities. You don’t have to keep up with the Joneses; you have to care for your children. You are raising them for heaven, not Harvard. Cutting unnecessary expenses can make it possible to be a better-integrated family.
One of the blessings of the information revolution is an increase in opportunities to earn a living wherever you have a phone and a computer. Many companies are becoming comfortable with remote employment, allowing parents to work from home. It may take some extra discipline to work well and productively while under the same roof as your spouse and young children, but more and more families are showing that this is a viable option that strengthens their integrity.
Another step you might take is to cut back on social activities that take you away from your spouse and children. Of course, there may be circumstances in which it’s impractical to include your family in such activities, but the general principle holds: if you are married, most of your social interactions should be together with your family.
Communion is when members within the family share one life. Each person knows, loves, is known by, and is loved by all the others. Typically united by ties of blood and generation, in family communion there is a mutual containment of each in each, or of all in all, by love and knowledge. The partaking together of daily activities, such as meals and prayer, exemplifies this unity.
Within a family, the life of the father is in some sense lived by every other member, since the wife and children know and love and enjoy it with him (or sorrow with him). So too the life of the mother is in some sense lived by every other member, and so on. So the family is not only a community, but also a communion of persons, since all the members in some sense live the life of the others.
Communion between spouses is also reflected in marital intercourse that is open to the generation of new life. Self-possession and the capacity to take initiative make communion possible, since nothing gives what it does not possess, and communion at its highest level involves giving oneself. For spouses to reflect and signify the mystery of trinitarian communion, their mutual giving must be a giving of the totality of self.
Last of all, communion implies openness and honesty among the members of a family. Spouses should have no secrets from each other—in imitation of Jesus, who said that he called his disciples friends and not servants. Likewise, parents should be proactive in letting children know that they want to know about their struggles and difficulties and should make them feel confident in their parent’s help.
But think twice about preemptively striking with information your child is not yet seeking. Better to make a habit of checking with your children and of asking them questions about what’s on their minds. This is especially true in matters pertaining to sexual morality, since the proper forum to learn about bringing new life into the world is within one’s own family.
Children on their part should be open with their parents, especially when they find themselves confronted with temptations to sin. In my experience, children want their parents to talk to them about sexual morality when they are ready. In fact, those times when children do show some embarrassment when parents speak to them about sexual morality are often a sign that the children have already heard something from outside the home about these things. If this is the case, you should be sure to console them and assure them that they should always come to you in the future to talk about these matters.
3. Order and harmony
In a flourishing Christian family, the love of a husband for his wife leaves no doubt that he exercises his authority for her good and that he respects her as an equal, not as if she were one of the children. The husband is called to love his wife as Christ loves the Church—Christ who came to serve and who died for love of his bride. A husband must respect her dignity in this regard both as to the matters and manner in which he exercises his authority.
Because the wife, as the bearer and principal caretaker of small children, must first of all attend to the internal ordering of the household, deference should be given to her decisions and desires regarding matters pertaining to it. Moreover, the husband should restrict the exercise of his authority to those areas which truly pertain to the common good of the marriage and family.
In response to her husband’s love, the wife is called to acknowledge his legitimate authority. This is an unpopular teaching today, but it is inescapably revealed in Scripture. And the truth is, in spite of the cultural bias against this teaching, a wife will find it easy to accept her husband’s authority when she knows that he loves her as himself. For she will be secure that his choices arise from a genuine desire for her good and the good of the family.
When legitimate disagreements occur between spouses, they should discuss things reasonably, and when (as often happens) the wife has the more reasonable position, the husband ought to defer to it. But sometimes even two reasonable persons can be at an impasse, where no agreement can be reached. And in a family, with only two parents, there is no tie-breaker vote.
If the unity of the family is to be assured, it is necessary that there be a final authority for making important decisions bearing upon family life. And it is a revealed truth that this authority belongs to the husband (see 1 Cor. 11:3, Eph. 5:23-24, Num. 30:7-17). This is not because the husband is smarter or holier or more dignified than his wife by virtue of his sex. Even in the Holy Family this was not the case. The reason why authority belongs to the husband is because he is a sacrament of Christ, who is head of the Church. As a consequence, God guarantees that he will guide the husband’s choices by his special providence.
In a family of order and harmony, the children give honor and cheerful obedience to their parents. Children need to be taught the importance of responding with cheerful obedience to their parents’ requests right away, the first time. Teaching this requires day-to-day persistence and patience for months or even years, which can be exhausting, but it yields tremendous fruit.
Moreover, the love of the parents for their children leaves no doubt that they exercise their authority over their children for the children’s good. As a consequence, the family is able to act together as one and work in harmony with one another. Each member of the family prefers the common good of the family to his private interests.
4. Generating new life
A happily married couple that lives in a communion of love will be generous in bringing new life into the world and communicating their own happiness to their children. Indeed, this communication of goodness and life to the children is the main business of Christian education, for the life of man is primarily the life of the spirit. It is also a sign for the children of God’s love for them as well as the love of the Father for the Son in the Trinity.
Today, even among Catholic spouses, it is often presumed that the Church’s teaching that every marital act must be open to life is optional or merely an unrealistic “ideal.” In reality, the Church’s teaching on sexual morality is essential and absolutely realistic—with the help of God’s grace.
The Church does not teach that Catholic couples must have as many children as physically possible. In fact, the Church teaches that, for serious reasons, couples can use periodic abstinence to prevent conception even for significant periods of time. But contraception is something completely different morally, spiritually, and psychologically.
The power of reproduction is the essential power of all living things. Every human being, every animal, every living thing has a nature that is inclined to reproduce. The ability to reproduce touches us at the most fundamental level, such that any disorder in the use of the reproductive power has harmful consequences in the whole life of a living being. For human beings, moreover, reproduction transcends the purely physical order since it causes a new human person with an immaterial and immortal soul comes into existence.
God intends the generative act itself to be a sign of supernatural realities: a sign that the union of the divine and human natures in Christ as well as the union of Christ with the Church are meant to beget new children in faith: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:12). Contraception denies this supernatural significance, doing violence not only to the intimacy of husband and wife but to the sacramental meaning of the marital act.
5. Striving beyond the natural to the supernatural
The strongest and most proper mark of a flourishing Christian family is that the supernatural goods of family life are preeminent, completing and perfecting the natural goods of family life.
Sometimes we see Catholic families in which the truths of the Faith hold first place in the lives of the parents and children but in such a way that natural goods are ignored or even looked upon with suspicion. The family attends daily Mass, the children are all perfectly dressed and well-behaved. But there might be a lack of genuine affection between the husband and wife or between the parents and the children. The father or mother might have a drinking problem. Fear, rather than joy, might be the predominant emotion among the children.
In the long run, such a household is more likely to produce animosity toward the Faith, since the children will associate its truths and practices with negative and painful emotions over the lack of natural goods in the family.
On the other hand, sometimes we find Catholic families in which the natural goods are emphasized while the supernatural goods are treated as mere icing on the cake. Prayer and the sacraments are seen as accessories, not necessary elements of a truly happy family life. Given the opportunity to go to Mass or else spend a leisurely breakfast at home; or given the choice of saying a family rosary or watching a movie, the choice is rarely for the supernatural good. Such a family prefers to walk by sight, not by faith.
Both the family that disdains natural goods and the one that neglects supernatural goods miss the mark of a truly flourishing Christian family. This most proper mark of a flourishing Christian family should be evident in all the other marks listed above. The integrity and unity of the family find their primary motive not in natural benefits but in the fact that it is a living witness to the integrity and unity of the Trinity.
The communion and openness among the members of the family are lived in a way that reflects the perfect communion among the three Persons. Spouses are aware that their relationship reflects the relationship between Christ and his Church. Parents see clearly in their love for their children a reflection of the Father’s love for themselves.
The goods that the parents communicate to their children and to others outside their homes are primarily spiritual goods: the truths of the Faith, the love of prayer and the sacraments, a peaceful and joyful spirit, and so on. The entire life of a flourishing Christian family will be suffused with the supernatural—with faith, hope, and charity—in a way that perfects its natural goods.
The family that exhibits these marks will be fertile soil for vocations to consecrated life. Furthermore, the family itself will, in some way, strive to share in the goods attained through the evangelical counsels (poverty, chastity, and obedience). Pope St. John Paul II said that “the monastic experience constitutes the heart of Christian life, so much so that it can be proposed as a point of reference for all the baptized” (Address to the Congregation of the Holy Ghost, May 25, 2002).
Monastic life is a life given wholly and completely to God. It typically takes the form of three vows or promises that dedicate the whole person to God: the vow of poverty by which all one’s external possessions are given over to God; the vow of chastity, by which the goods of the body are given over to God; and the vow of obedience, by which the goods of the soul are given over to God.
Though people in the married state of life do not take such vows, in some way these vows nonetheless find expression in a happy Christian family. Detachment from wealth, and perhaps even times of actual poverty, will arise naturally from a preference for spiritual goods, such as the virtue of generosity. A love for communion with God in prayer will moderate the desires of the flesh for procreation. The desire to serve one another will express itself in humble mutual subordination.
Sidebar: Hope for the Single Parent
In our world today, it’s a sad but unavoidable reality that many Catholic parents find themselves raising children without a spouse—because of death or divorce, or because they were never married to begin with. This creates all kinds of practical parenting challenges, but, given the importance of the witness of marriage in raising Catholic children, perhaps none greater than in the task of passing on the Faith.
In the modern world where abortion is so accessible and lauded as a means of empowerment, and where there often is pressure for a woman to abort a child conceived outside of marriage, it is a heroic act for a woman to bring her child to birth. God is pleased with such a sacrifice. If you have been in this circumstance, you should make sure your child knows that it was for love of him that his mother chose life. Although sex outside of marriage is wrong, children are always a blessing no matter when or how they come. Your child should understand that too.
The sacrament of matrimony is meant to be a sacred sign to everybody—including children—of the union between God and man, Christ and the Church. And so just as the perception that the Faith is a wedge between mom and dad can make children unfavorably disposed toward it, so too can the absence of a marital union, or one rent by divorce, negatively affect a child’s spiritual development. Ideally, it is best to repair the situation first by marrying or reconciling with the other parent of your children, but circumstances may make this imprudent or impossible.
In such a case, you should strive to help your child to appreciate happy, healthy, Catholic marriages among your family members and friends. If at all possible, try to find someone in such a marriage (perhaps a parent or a sibling or close friend) with a strong faith who can commit to becoming more deeply involved in your child’s life and modeling the virtues of being a Catholic father/husband or mother/wife. The earlier in your child’s life that you can do this, the better it will be for your child. Young children may not always seem to need both parents, but in fact, the early years are a most important time for their formation.
You can also encourage your children to believe and hope that even if their own parents were not married or are separated, nevertheless they can enter into a happy marriage and give their own children something they themselves did not have.