Have you ever wondered why phones are called “cell” phones? If you already know this, you’re ahead of me: “Cell” doesn’t refer to a component in the phone but the fact that service providers divide up a city or region into geographic areas called cells which are equipped with a tower and radio equipment. Because of this structure, users within a cell can communicate with those in other cells.
Each cell plays a critical role in ensuring communication for the entire city or region. In a similar way, the Church teaches that each family is a cell vital to the function of society. According to the Catechism:
The family is the original cell of social life. It is the natural society in which husband and wife are called to give themselves in love and in the gift of life. Authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society. The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honor God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society. (CCC:2207)
Marriage is a private matter between a couple but the Church teaches that the broader society has an interest in the institution because it’s where children are most often conceived and raised. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948 recognizes the family’s special role: “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”
Caring for Children
Supporting marriage is a way of protecting children even though more emphasis is often placed on marriage’s legal and economic considerations. Congress, government administrative bureaus and agencies define the word ‘marriage’ as “only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.”
The Church doesn’t disagree with this definition but she views marriage and family also through a sacramental lens, focusing more on the welfare of children and their parents, who are the future of society. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith states:
By reason of the vocation and social responsibilities of the person, the good of the children and of the parents contributes to the good of civil society; the vitality and stability of society require that children come into the world within a family and that the family be firmly based on marriage. The tradition of the Church and anthropological reflection recognize in marriage and in its indissoluble unity the only setting worthy of truly responsible procreation.
Unfortunately, many marriages today do dissolve without unity but that’s not a reason to re-engineer the institution. According to Pope Benedict XVI, “marriage and family are rooted in the inmost nucleus of the truth about man and his destiny.”
Today, the need to avoid confusing marriage with other types of unions based on weak love is especially urgent. It is only the rock of total, irrevocable love between a man and a woman that can serve as the foundation on which to build a society that will become a home for all mankind.
Consequences for Society
If government redefines marriage ignoring the particular roles of husband and wife—and mother and father—children won’t get the guidance they need as they grow to sexual maturity, the U.S. Bishops wrote in their pastoral letter, Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan. Without this protection the State would effectively deprive children of the right to both a mother and a father.
In addition, they write, expanding the definition of marriage beyond that of one man and one woman would make the pattern of spousal and familial love and the generation of new life only of relative importance rather than fundamental to the existence and wellbeing of society as a whole.
Church leaders have foreseen some consequences of fundamentally changing marriage and family but ultimately some believe it would take a generation or more to know the full effects. Bl. Pope John Paul II wrote about the possibility of “a destructive ‘anti-civilization.”
Promoting stability in marriage and the virtuous life it entails, will ensure “the happiness and well-being of the nation is safely guarded; what the families and individuals are, so also is the State, for a body is determined by its parts,” wrote Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Casti Connubii.
Those parts, or cells, are superior to other communities, wrote philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand in his book, Marriage: Mystery of Faithful Love.
We cannot dwell any further on this important question beyond seeing the rank that marriage holds among communities and understanding that it represents in itself something far superior to all others, and that in itself it would glorify God as an image of the relationship of Christ and His Church even if no other communities existed.
Continuing to Share God’s Plan
Given how vital the cell of marriage and the family is to all of civilization, the Church will continue to share God’s plan for the holy institutions as they are attacked from many sides, wrote Pope John Paul in his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio:
At a moment of history in which the family is the object of numerous forces that seek to destroy it or in some way to deform it, and aware that the well-being of society and her own good are intimately tied to the good of the family, the Church perceives in a more urgent and compelling way her mission of proclaiming to all people the plan of God for marriage and the family, ensuring their full vitality and human and Christian development, and thus contributing to the renewal of society and of the people of God.