The Human Family and the Family of God

The recent audiences by Pope Francis emphasize the intimate, familial nature of the Church

“Last Wednesday, I emphasized the deep bond that exists between the Holy Spirit and the Church. Today, I would like to begin on the mystery of the Church, a mystery which we all experience and of which we are part.” — Pope Francis, General Audience, May 29, 2013 (L’Osservatore Romano, English, June 5, 2013)

“The ‘koinonia-communio’ of the Spirit of the Father and the incarnate Son is, as it were, the Council’s master key, as the principle of communion and mission. The key opens our access to the mystery of the Church, the universal sacrament of salvation, in all its dimensions: Trinitarian, Christological, anthropological, ecumenical, and pastoral.” — Marc Cardinal Ouellet, “Communio”: Address, May 21, 2013, Sydney, Australia.


Over the years, priests are often reminded of Christ’s admonition that “you have not chosen Me, I have chosen you.” I was ordained on June 7th fifty years ago in San Francisco. In retrospect, one might question the Lord’s prudence about whom He chooses. But, if we remember that He also chose Judas and a few other sour apples along the way, we need not become too vain. The world is full of folks who purport to be scandalized by sinful priests or by a vice filled Catholic laity. Such reactions just mean that these critics have never read the New Testament. While it condemns sin at every turn, especially scandal, the Gospels gives us no indication that, with the appearance of Christ in the world, His followers will subsequently be perfect.

Rather, Christ came into the world with the clear realization that most of us would need to be forgiven many times (”yea, seventy times seven” Matthew 18:22) before it is all over. Christ did not dwell amongst us to eradicate sin’s possibility and hence our freedom. He came to provide a way in which, should we sin, we could be forgiven, but only if we choose to avail ourselves of the means He set down, not those we concoct for ourselves. The Church, with its priests and sacraments, exists in the world so that such a redemptive purpose might be carried out in the concrete context of everyday life, wherein most of our sins are committed. The place where these sins are to be forgiven is not the state, the university, the psychiatrist’s office, the hospital, the press, or the media. It was in the Church and in the sacrament of confession. About why God chose to do it this way rather than some other, we might wonder. But there is a certain good sense to it. It puts the divine power of forgiving sin also in a human context. 


In a recent General Audience (May 29), Pope Francis spoke of “the mystery of the Church.” A “mystery” in Catholic thinking, does not so much mean something we have no clue about and could not understand if we did have one. It rather means that we can understand some things correctly enough and that we should strive to do so. The fact that we cannot understand everything about any “mystery” only means our own intellects are not angelic or divine. But they do understand what is not themselves. They know what is. To have a mind means we can “be” what is not ourselves while what we know remains itself and we remain precisely ourselves.

Thus, when we call the Church a “mystery,” we recognize it as something brought into existence by God for His own plan or purpose. We need, therefore, to know something of this purpose. The Pope points out that the Greek word. ekklesia, from whence the word “church” derives, means “convocation.” “God convokes us; he compels us to come out of our individualism, from our tendency to close ourselves into ourselves, and he calls us to being in his family.” When we try to understand what the Church is, as Pope Francis indicates, we can do no better than to call it, with Vatican II, “the family of God.”

Thus, if we do not understand what a family is, we will not understand either the Church or God. A family is not an arbitrary collection of all sorts of ways of life sanctioned by law. The contemporary rejection of the nature of a family, which itself is based on the marriage of one man to one woman, is then rooted in an implicit rejection of God. The chosen revelation of God to explain Himself and the Church is in terms that can only properly be described as “familial”—Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Holy Mother the Church, brother, sister, foster-father, adopted child, and spouse. If we try to understand God after the manner of relationships contrary to or inimical to the nature of the family, we will not understand the Church or ourselves. This basis is why notions contradictory to the essence of family, such as “gay marriage,” adultery, contraception, sterilization, abortion, in vitro fertilization, sperm and ova banks are also notions that must, if followed logically, lead to an understanding of God that deviates from the being that He is.

The Pope began his remarks by recalling, as he often does, the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-39). Perhaps, he thought, it should rather be called “the Parable of the Merciful Father.” This parable is really about the “designs” of God the Father for humanity. I take this to mean that God will deal with us mercifully if we, like the prodigal son, sin. That is, we will be welcomed back if we acknowledge our sins and errors. The elder son did not need such manifest forgiveness except perhaps in the sense of his not seeing the need we have for forgiveness and mercy.

The question next arises: “What is God’s plan?” The question “What it is all about?” is a fundamental one for any human being to ask of his own life. God’s plan is “to make of us all a single family of his children, in which each person feels that God is close and feels loved by him.” The use of the word “feel” here can be confusing. The essential thing is that we are made to be members of God’s family, whether we “feel” anything or not. We live in a culture of “feeling” separated from being and intelligence. “Feelings” in contemporary culture are said to justify whatever we do. If we “feel” good about it, then it is good. Not quite. But Francis is right that we want our emotions to correspond with the facts. If we “feel” right about what is sinful, something is wrong. Yet, any true family is more than its facts. It includes its loves, experiences, and sense of belonging together, yes, under a father. 


The Church, Francis tells us, is itself “rooted in this great plan” of the Father. In other words, the Church is to be conceived after the manner of a family, not just a legal structure. We are “brethren, brothers and sisters.” The Church is “not an organization established by an agreement between a few people.” It is not merely another political organization brought into existence by a treaty or common consensus about a constitution. The Church has a plan or a constitution but it is not of human origin though it is for the ultimate human good of each existing person. Here Francis cites Benedict who called the Church simply “the work of God.” This work is a designed reality that is “gradually brought about in history.” God unfolds His plan for mankind step by step. The plan is still unfolding. 

“The Church is born from God’s wish to call all peoples to communion with him, to friendship with him, indeed, to share in his own divine life as his sons and daughters.” Thus, we need to know what sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, are, what friendship is. We need to see the dignity in each person. But it very much looks like we will never see this dignity without seeing that we each were conceived in the divine plan, in the Trinitarian life and for the Trinitarian life. God created us to share in His “divine life.”

Our participation in the Church with its purpose shows that we are conceived in a merciful love that embraces our freedom but also includes our intelligence, our knowledge of what we are. We are not gods, nor are we intended to be gods. “This call to each of us originates in creation itself. God created us so that we might live in a profound relationship with him, and even when sin broke off this relationship with him, with others and with creation, God did not abandon us.” Obviously, in creating us, God understood what we might do with our freedom. His very being meant He would include a remedy for any mis-use of our freedom. But it would not include the preventing us from sinning. To do that, God would have to deny the reason He created us in the first place, namely, that we freely choose to be His friends.

The call of Abraham and the Incarnation of the Father’s Son were steps in His “plan of love and salvation” through a New Covenant “with the whole of mankind.” The Pope adds that this path to all mankind passes through “the small community” that Jesus “gathers” around Him. From what is the Church “born”? “She is born of the supreme act of love of the Cross.” The association of love, suffering, divine and human life has to be made because we can only love God and one another in truth. That truth must include the disorder caused by our sins. God could, I suppose, have left it at that were it not for the nature of merciful love itself, as the Father in the parable showed. The fatherly love includes the possibility of forgiveness. But the New Testament leaves no real doubt that, even with this offer of forgiveness, there are those who still refuse God’s love. This ultimate rejection is what hell is about, the final refusal of a free being of the divine mercy.

 “The lifeblood of God’s family, of the Church, is God’s love which is activated in loving him and others, all others, without distinction or reservation. The Church is a family in which we love and are loved.” The Pope has no problem in admitting that in the Church, among faithful and pastors, there are “shortcomings, imperfections, and sins.” He adds, for the record, in case there be any still around who think infallibility means sinlessness: “the Pope has them too.” The great thing is that, on realizing our sins, we still can encounter “the mercy of God.” Once we realize the centrality of God’s merciful love, we can begin to see the real “beauty” of God’s merciful plan from its beginning.

Finally, Francis simply asks us: “How much do I love the Church? Do I pray for her? Do I feel part of the family of the Church?” Good questions, these. Recalling the current Year of Faith, Francis concludes: “Faith is a gift and an act which concern us personally, but God calls us to live with our faith together as a family, as a Church.” In “the mystery of the Church,” we begin to see carried out the plan that includes each of us. God had this plan in the beginning. He wanted to make us all His sons and daughters in what can only be dimly understood as a “family,” a family in which the Father is that Father whom the Son addressed in His Spirit whom He sent forth upon us.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).