Alvaré at Family Conference

«The Family Provides Ample Homework on the Give and Take of Love»

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MEXICO CITY, JAN. 14, 2008 ( Here is the conference Helen Alvaré, law professor at George Mason University, gave today at the 6th World Meeting of Families, being held through Sunday in Mexico City.

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«The Family and the Values of Human Life»

In 1995, in his encyclical «Evangelium Vitae,» Our Holy Father John Paul II wrote that you and I are the «people of life because God, in his unconditional love, has given us the Gospel of life, and by this same Gospel we have been transformed and saved.» (EV 79) Over the last 40 years in particular, several of our beloved modern popes have repeatedly urged Catholics to understand themselves as created with a call, an orientation to revere life itself, to guard it, from the moment of its first conception unto natural death. Just last month, on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, in the instruction «Dignitatis Personae,» we were exhorted to give «unconditional respect» to the «fruit of human generation,» «to the human being in his bodily and spiritual totality» from the first moment of its existence.» (DP4). Often these exhortations have a joyful tone. They also convey a sense of urgency.

Occasionally, even secular journalists marvel at the Catholic Church’s willingness to speak so unequivocally and so inclusively about the value of human life. In the United States, for example, when Pope John Paul II issued «Evangelium Vitae,» several leading newspapers — even those which supported legal abortion, could not help but grant that the pope had put his finger on a profound truth when he identified a prevailing «culture of death,» as «a veritable structure of sin,» fostered by powerful cultural, economic and political currents which encourage an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency,» a «war of the powerful against the weak.»(EV 12). And on the occasion of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Washington DC last year, a prominent Washington DC journalist gave thanks for the Roman Catholic Church’s constant expression of the equality and dignity of every single human person across the globe, and urged readers to do the same in the name of world peace, no matter their disagreements with the Church on any particular matter.

If you reflect at greater length upon this call to respect human life, and particularly if you see it against the backdrop of the world’s situation today, it appears even more remarkable. The word «countercultural» is almost not strong enough to capture its effects. It is rather like a call which feels out of time or from another world. Why do I put this so dramatically? First, because this call is a demand to respect each and every human life. As Our Holy Father Benedict XVI said so plainly and so poignantly in «Deus Caritas Est» — as if answering our interior skepticism that it is possible for us to give love to so many: «Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave.» Second, I speak in this way because this call encompasses human lives at every moment of their existence — from the first moment of fertilization until their last breath. Third, this call by its nature requires us to extend ourselves — in a sacrificial matter – precisely on behalf of persons in situations that most challenge us, that most defy or exhaust our sense of competence.

With rare exceptions, other national and international institutions simply do not speak this way, do not make such passionate, or sweeping statements in defense of the great good of human life itself. Rather, as observed both by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the world seems to respond to the call to respect human life in a distinctly bipolar manner. John Paul II observed in «Evangelium Vitae,» for example, that nations’ and international bodies’ noble proclamations about human rights are «unfortunately contradicted by a tragic repudiation of them in practice. The denial is …distressing, indeed…scandalous precisely because it is occurring in a society which makes the affirmation and protection of human rights its primary objective and its boast.» (EV 18). Now the Church is not blind to progress. We recognize that there are influential voices resisting precipitous moves to warfare. That voices are more united in opposition to various weapons of mass destruction. That there is a growing call to abolish the death penalty, and a growing resolve to put racism and sexism unequivocally behind us.

There is a genuine crisis of contradiction, however, between the teachings and the aspirations of the Catholic Church regarding welcoming a new life into the family, and the respect owed to nascent human life, and the policies and rhetoric of powerful national and international governments and organizations. There is also a commensurate crisis in the hearts of women, men and couples, who more and more seem to believe that their limited reason (and worries) about accepting new human life are sufficient for their needs, and for the needs of the world. Many reject, or ignore the possibility of received wisdom, of objective truth, and of any religion’s acting as a graced, chosen instrument for helping to reveal God’s plan for the human person. Many women, men and couples reject in particular interventions pertaining to the meaning of their own bodies in the world, the meaning of intimate love, and the meaning of God’s choosing to bring new life into our world by means of this love.

In fact, the gap between the Church’s call to respect the «language of the human body» and the gift of human life, and positions assumed by influential groups and governments about marriage and children, is nothing less than alarming. Tens of millions of nascent human lives are annually terminated by abortion because the child would interfere with somebody’s plan of life. An untold number of embryos are made to order out of a desperate demand for children. Many, many embryos are de facto abandoned in storage. Others are created overtly as «research material,» with not the slightest acknowledgement of their co-membership in the human race. Among even those who oppose abortion or destructive embryo research, there is what can only be described as a fear of caring for «too many» children. There are many possible explanations for this — among them economic and psychological ones — but certainly we cannot exclude an impoverished and incomplete appreciation for the meaning of life itself: loving service, death to self as the path to «finding oneself.» Marriage and childbearing are a privileged symbol of and path to this wisdom, but leading bodies appear to be drifting away from or denying this truth. On the contrary, a growing body of nations insisting even that it is a matter of «human rights» to confer state benefits upon intimate adult relationships which are by nature sterile. This is a move destined to further distort the already fragile human perception that authentic love must always in practice, and in its very structure, move beyond the me and the you, and overflow onto another and many others.

Still, as John Paul II pointed out in Evangelium Vitae — there is something overtly ugly about the demand for «rights» to kill family members at the weakest points of their existence, whether we are speaking about abortion before birth, or about euthanasia or assisted suicide when a family member is ill or disabled. A more subtle, and seemingly less ugly, undermining of respect for human life comes by means of calls to defer to, to respect, and sometimes nearly to worship human technological prowess instead, even as it embraces research upon human embryos. Similarly, respect for life is subtly undermined with the insistence that we view the human populace primarily as a threat to a cleaner or sustainable environment. While there is truth in the calls to marvel at nature, or to marvel at what the human mind can do, these messages, in their overt or subtle forms, fail to mention, and sometimes contradict, the preciousness of human life. When we o
bserve the gulf between these equivocal evaluations of the worth of the human person, and the Church’s celebration of the same, we are more than a little tempted to despair. In fact, like Our Blessed Virgin Mary at the Annunciation, we may find ourselves «deeply troubled» (Lk 1:29) by the words of the Church. We might find ourselves saying «how can this be?» (Lk 1:34), given our opposition by powerful forces in the world today. It remains for us, like Mary, to come to understand how with man alone, this is impossible, but with God, «nothing is impossible.» (Lk 1:37)

And so I come to the heart of my presentation to you today. How are we to do what we have been asked of us regarding fostering respect for life, within our own circles of influence? And — for those with a vocation to go out to the world — how are we to approach the institutions wielding worldly power, with the argument, with the demand to respect all human life. I am here today to urge you to consider that one possible, one promising, one ingenious way given to us by God, is through the family. Why and how is this so? An attempted answer will constitute the remainder of my presentation, according to the following points:

— First, the family as the place where, ordinarily, and for the vast bulk of the human race, one learns to love, or not. In John Paul II’s words, the family was designed to be the «school of love.»

— Second, this school of love provides essential human and social skills. Skills necessary to realize the meaning of our own lives in loving relationships with one another and with God.

— Third, family as the place possessing the real potential to transcend any political «dividing up» of issues or causes in favor of human life and dignity. Another way of putting this: the family has the potential to transform political obstacles when it comes to questions about the respect owed human life.

Beginning with the first point: for most people, the family is the place where one learns to love, or not. We can see this most clearly by distinction. We most likely do not learn to love from our school, or from our place of employment, or from our interactions with the government. Now we might, when we are older, learn a lot about love from our friends or a romantic love. But at crucial developmental periods prior to adulthood, if we do not come to understand the contents of attentive, secure, sacrificial love from our family, we will likely be impaired in ways difficult if not impossible to transcend in the matter of giving and receiving love.

Like other «schools,» the family provides ample — some might ironically say, «relentless» — homework on the subject of the give and take of love. The day-to-day life of a typical family means that graduates will not be launched into the world in the situation of a popular American cartoon character who opined: «I love humanity; it’s people I hate.» The school that is the family — assuming of course that there is not significant conflict or even violence there — determines that you will have learned to love actual people before you «graduate.»

The lesson that begins the family is about the love of a spouse. In the words of the philosopher and theologian Vladimir Solovyov, loving one’s spouse leads us to understand how someone else might occupy the center of the universe, might be a gift from God to the world. We appreciate the total importance of the spouse — body and soul — and the totality of gifts they have to share.

Marriage also leads us toward grasping the value and meaning of procreation; we find ourselves, are taken aback at the remarkable feat of our love giving forth new life, and at the mystery of God’s deciding to bring new life into the world via an act of love, when He could have done it any way he wished.

There is no mystery therefore regarding why married couples feel themselves able to welcome new life, and choose abortion so rarely as compared with single persons, who are uninitiated into the adult aspects of this school of love. Of course, too, the circumstances that correlate with and constitute marriage make it the place where new life can be given its most full-throated welcome. In marriage, we find the long-term commitment necessary to rear relatively slowly-maturing human infants to adulthood. We also find in marriage greater economic stability, extended families well-disposed to assist the new parents, and social satisfaction with the married couples’ initiation into the ways of sacrifice, long-term planning and care for the next generation.

On the other hand, non-marital unions are unsuited by their very natures to offer a similar welcome to new and vulnerable life. Cohabitation, for example, because of its instability, its association with later divorce in many cases, and even its higher rates of infidelity and violence, is very poorly suited to welcoming a child. The poverty and instability correlating with single parent households, and the absence of necessary role models there, also render this situation difficult for children and parents alike.

There are influential voices today, however, who insist that children are as well (or better!) served by non-marital or one-sexed upbringing, as they are by being reared by their own married, biological parents. These voices point to the increasing numbers of children born or reared without the steady presence of their parents and insist even that laws and cultures which prefer marriage, actively discriminate with public resources against such children. To this they will sometimes add that since marriage is an inherently sexist institution, which devalues women and their service, it is just as well that we move to overtly or implicitly de-institutionalize it, and concentrate rather on the mother-child pair, if, of course the woman alone chooses to become pregnant, or to carry the child to term. This argument concludes, therefore, with the remarkable claim that marriage is not the cradle of respect for life, but the actual enemy of respect for the lives of women and children.

Even if we set aside our initial incredulity at such a hypothesis, we find that it is not supported by a substantial, credible body of research. Indeed, there are many and increasing numbers of children born or reared without the benefit of married parents, and they most definitely command our attention and our help. But it appears that the Church’s (and still, generally, the world’s) intuition is correct: children made by love, and reared in low-conflict, stable home environments, with knowledge of their heritage as well as the presence of their heterosexual parents, are significantly advantaged in this world. Of course, some fragile families overcome the odds. Of course, sexism continues to happen in some marriages. These are reasons to affirm the Church’s constant teachings about the equality of the woman and the man, and our insistence that fragile families deserve the assistance of the state, not reasons to deinstitutionalize the historically, globally constant role of marriage as the place in which human life can thrive.

A second, and more brief point on the relationship between the family and respect for human life has to do with the particular lessons learned in the family. So many of these are the stuff of daily life, that they go unremarked. But their importance cannot be overlooked. The family is where we first see the building of a bridge between males and females, between younger and older, and between diverse personalities. In the close-range give and take between family members, we learn to model male or female traits and gifts. We learn the meaning of compromise, sacrifices and sharing. We learn what religion «looks like» when it is lived out. Culture and values are transmitted, social capital is exchanged, and the practical skills necessary for living independently are acquired.

In the family, we learn — because we experience it totally with our bodies, our minds, our emotions and our spirits — the relationship between adult love and the blessing of children. No matter how often
this happens in history, every one who experiences it marvels at it.

Is it any surprise, then, as John Paul II has said so often, that the family is where we get our first and most important glimpse of the character and quality of God’s love? First with our spouse — maybe the first person we have truly understood to be as important as ourselves, and indispensable to our happiness — and then in our children, understood similarly. The world understands this part of our teaching perhaps the least. Rather, increasingly marriage is labeled by courts and legislatures as a purely human institution, alterable at will by the state. There is resistance, maybe disbelief, in understanding the link between physical union, procreation, and the very meaning of our lives as destined for permanent union with God. In the world today, physical union often understood is a free-floating event, a category with no meaning beyond what we ascribe to it, and a choice without implications for the rest of our lives. Whether observers hold sex to be too humble, too earth-bound, or too marred by dysfunctions, infidelities, passions, and other failures, there is real resistance to linking the language of our bodies to the meaning of our lives. Catholic teaching brings it all together. It «rescues» the body and the meaning of spousal unions and of procreation. It elucidates the contents of the family as the school of love.

A third and final point about the precise relationship between the family and respect for human life. It seems to me that the family transcends a common tendency to divide up as between competing political parties, various issues or causes, all of which issues or causes should be seen together to support the overall cause of life. To explain: I feel that I have been searching for years for the «Holy Grail» of messages to communicate effectively the inseparability the cause of the defense of life and the cause of guaranteeing to every human person a dignified way of life. Our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI has commented upon the troubling evidence that many people and political organizations take sides as between these causes. Bishops’ conferences around the world have spoken similarly.

I have regularly made the case in my own country about the need to extend our moral imaginations so that those easily condemning injustice they can see — violence, racism, sexism, and more — could come to understand the injustice happening in places they cannot see such as in abortion clinics, and in the storage tanks housing hundreds of thousands of «spare embryos.» I have exhorted those who were not in the thick of the struggle over abortion to understand the legitimate claims of those suffering poverty or violence or discrimination, whether they were the victims of others’ individual choices or of sinful social structures.

Recently, though, I have wondered if there is perhaps no one messages or set of messages guaranteed to open up people’s eyes of people to the entire panoply of causes on behalf of human life. Perhaps, instead of a message, there is a place. Perhaps there is a group of people, and a way of life, that can do this better than any message. I am suggesting, in other words, that perhaps the family — the family which cares automatically for both the sanctity of human life, and its dignity — can and will mediate respect for human life at all times and in all conditions better than any verbal formula. In the family we practice loving the human person in his or her entirety — their body, their soul, their gifts, their promise, their hopes – and we love persons from the first moment of their existence to their last. We do not say we want our spouse or our children or our mother to have life but not dignity, or dignity but not life.

Perhaps, it is living in this reality which is the key to helping people understand what other people’s children, what all God’s children, must mean to us . . . and to God. I can never forget bringing my first child home from the hospital when she was one day old. A tiny, wrinkled creature in a car seat that seemed giant in comparison to her fragile body. I guarded her little head against every movement of the car. It came to me in a flash during this short ride home: this how every mother, every parent feels, how every mother in history has probably felt, in every place in the world. As my children grow closer to the age of my grown students, I have now begun to see in my students’ faces, the traces of the small boys and girls they were. It is all I can do not to address these hard-working, seemingly self-sufficient, smart graduate students, as if they were my own children. And I have considered the possibility that this is just another lesson in the school of love that is the family.

To conclude then. Several weeks ago, a doctor I had just met asked me about the nature of my work. I told him the subjects about which I taught and wrote: «marriage, family, children,» I offered. «Very controversial stuff,» he replied. Internally, I mourned at this instinctive characterization. I mourned that the beautiful realities that are romance and marriage and children and human love, could be seen more in the light of controversy than as gift, mystery, joy. I mourned that God had given us our spouses and children, and the institution of marriage, as crucial parts of His plan for our happiness, only to watch as many tried to turn their meaning upside-down. But then, of course, I remembered, as I urge you to remember, that we do not alter God’s plans.

Marriage and the gift of children remain among the greatest blessings God has given us. Human beings in history will always glimpse God’s face in such love. The unique constellation of total union, commitment, fidelity, and openness to new life that is marriage, will continue to offer the safest haven for the children God entrusts us. Like our Mother Mary, our human exemplar, we must heed God’s words, «Do not be afraid» as we recommit ourselves to God’s causes in marriage, motherhood and fatherhoo

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