Rabbi Sacks at Humanum: Marriage is “the single most humanising institution in history”

The family is “a work of high religious art”

As I work my way through all the thoughtful and thought-provoking material coming out of this week’s Humanum colloquium in Rome, I want to encourage CWR readers to read—or watch—Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ speech, which was given Monday morning. Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, organized his presentation around what he calls the “seven key moments, each of them surprising and unexpected” by which we can track the development of the institution of marriage. Austen Ivereigh (whose tweets from the colloquium are also worth catching up on) posted the full text of Sacks’ speech; the video is below, along with a few excerpts.

The second unexpected development was the unique challenge posed to Homo sapiens by two factors: we stood upright, which constricted the female pelvis, and we had bigger brains – a 300 per cent increase – which meant larger heads. The result was that human babies had to be born more prematurely than any other species, and so needed parental protection for much longer. This made parenting more demanding among humans than any other species, the work of two people rather than one. Hence the very rare phenomenon among mammals, of pair bonding, unlike other species where the male contribution tends to end with the act of impregnation. Among most primates, fathers don’t even recognise their children let alone care for them. Elsewhere in the animal kingdom motherhood is almost universal but fatherhood is rare.

So what emerged along with the human person was the union of the biological mother and father to care for their child. Thus far nature, but then came culture….

What was new and remarkable in the Hebrew Bible was the idea that love, not just fairness, is the driving principle of the moral life. Three loves. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might.” “Love your neighbour as yourself.” And, repeated no less than 36 times in the Mosaic books, “Love the stranger because you know what it feels like to be a stranger.” Or to put it another way: just as God created the natural world in love and forgiveness, so we are charged with creating the social world in love and forgiveness. And that love is a flame lit in marriage and the family. Morality is the love between husband and wife, parent and child, extended outward to the world. …

What made the traditional family remarkable, a work of high religious art, is what it brought together: sexual drive, physical desire, friendship, companionship, emotional kinship and love, the begetting of children and their protection and care, their early education and induction into an identity and a history. Seldom has any institution woven together so many different drives and desires, roles and responsibilities. It made sense of the world and gave it a human face, the face of love.

For a whole variety of reasons, some to do with medical developments like birth control, in vitro fertilisation and other genetic interventions, some to do with moral change like the idea that we are free to do whatever we like so long as it does not harm others, some to do with a transfer of responsibilities from the individual to the state, and other and more profound changes in the culture of the West, almost everything that marriage once brought together has now been split apart. Sex has been divorced from love, love from commitment, marriage from having children, and having children from responsibility for their care. …

[Our] compassion for those who choose to live differently should not inhibit us from being advocates for the single most humanising institution in history. The family, man, woman, and child, is not one lifestyle choice among many. It is the best means we have yet discovered for nurturing future generations and enabling children to grow in a matrix of stability and love. It is where we learn the delicate choreography of relationship and how to handle the inevitable conflicts within any human group. It is where we first take the risk of giving and receiving love. It is where one generation passes on its values to the next, ensuring the continuity of a civilization. For any society, the family is the crucible of its future, and for the sake of our children’s future, we must be its defenders.


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About Catherine Harmon 573 Articles
Catherine Harmon is managing editor of Catholic World Report.