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The Beginnings Of A Social Concern For Families, Catholic Teachings On Marriage And Family Life, Catholic Teachings On Human Sexuality

The Catholic Church traces its origins directly to the person and life of Jesus Christ. Therefore, any historical presentation of family life as it relates to the Catholic Church must go back two thousand years to the very dawn of Christianity. Scholars of this early period point to a major role played by the family in the life and expansion of Christianity.

During the first three centuries of its existence, Christianity not only lacked public approval, but its followers also experienced regular persecution by secular powers. The early Christian church was an assemblage of families who met together for prayer and worship in homes, rather than in public church buildings. Such gatherings contributed to the spirit of church life by having an important family dimension. Roman society failed to value the importance of women and children. The early church took a strong position on the dignity and value of all people. Some historians claim that the church's valuing of everyone, its openness to all regardless of gender, age, or social class, was partly the reason Christianity was persecuted by the state. Its openness to all people was deeply at odds with the hierarchical values and social structures supported by the reigning authorities.

Christian families were sometimes referred to as households of faith in the writings of the early church. Both the celebration of the Eucharist, sometimes called the agape or love feast, along with the celebration of baptism, were events directly involving the family. Occasionally, whole families were baptized into the church. Further, local church leaders, both bishops and presbyters, were chosen in part because of their proven leadership of a Christian household.

Two influential church theologians and leaders, St. Augustine (354–430) and St. John Chrysostom (347–407), both referred to the family as a domestic church in their writings. Although this language was not taken up by the church in subsequent centuries until the Second Vatican Council (1961–1965), the apparent high regard for the family was nevertheless an essential dimension of church life. That their language seemed all but forgotten indicates that soon after this early period, the family seems to recede into the background as a major setting for the Christian life. Family life was no longer a central interest of the church.

Its place as the primary small community of the church was replaced by the creation of monasticism, especially through the efforts of St. Benedict (480–550) and his sister St. Scholastica (480–543). In the rule written for monastic life, they borrowed language inherent to family life. The head of the monastery was to be called the abbot (a derivation of the word for father) while abbesses headed the convents for religious women. The members of the monastic community were to be called brothers and sisters. Entrance into the monastic community was akin to being brought into a new family. Often one's name was changed to underscore a new identity and a new set of familial relationships.

From the inception of the monastic movement, the quest for spiritual perfection within the Catholic Church was largely considered a matter for vowed monks and nuns. Those who lived in ordinary families were implicitly considered second-class members of the church. As the Christian Church became more of a public institution after Emperor Constantine's Edict of Milan (313), Christian families blended in with all the other families of the west. For the next 1,400 years, there is a loud silence in the writings and teaching of the Catholic Church about the role of family life. There is no mention of the importance of family life as significant either for salvation or sanctification.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural Aspects