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Chapter 9: Marriage, Sexual Acts, and Family Life

Question G: What Are the Other Responsibilities of Family Life?

The previous questions have treated the responsibilities of spouses to each other and of parents to their children. Two other sets of responsibilities included in family morality remain to be treated: those of children to honor, help, and obey their parents, and those of the family as a whole. Of course, most responsibilities of the family as a whole also are responsibilities of individuals, for example, to bear witness to faith and to practice mercy toward everyone. But two problems require special treatment: the death of a family member and out-of-wedlock pregnancy involving a family member.

1. Children Should Honor, Help, and Obey Their Parents

Parents undertake many responsibilities toward their children. For their part, the children should cooperate fully in their own upbringing and respond to their parents with love and gratitude.

Honor can include love, reverence, respect, and obedience. While Christians are bound to love and respect every person, even enemies, and to obey every legitimate authority, parents deserve special love and reverent respect (see Sir 3.1–11). In partnership with God, they are the sources of their children’s very being and of many other benefits:

With all your heart honor your father,
 and do not forget the birth pangs of your mother.
Remember that it was of your parents you were born;
 how can you repay what they have given to you? (Sir 7.27–28)
Hence, the divine precept: “Honor your father and your mother” (Ex 20.12, Dt 5.16; cf. Lv 19.3, Mt 19.19, Mk 10.19, Lk 18.20, Eph 6.2).

a) The duty to honor parents is both affirmative and negative. Affirmatively, children should love their parents and hope they will enjoy long and happy lives. They should pray for their parents, that they may be holy and good; they should strive to please their parents and be a credit to them by imitating their good example and fulfilling their good hopes and upright plans; they should express reverence and gratitude to their parents by speech and action. Grown children should continue to visit their parents, listen respectfully to their advice, celebrate their special occasions, give them gifts, and so on.276

Negatively, the sins anyone can commit against another take on a special malice when a child commits them against his or her mother or father. Old Testament precepts made this clear: “Whoever strikes father or mother shall be put to death” (Ex 21.15); “Whoever curses father or mother shall be put to death” (Ex 21.17; cf. Lv 20.9, Prv 30.17, Mt 15.4, Mk 7.10). Looking forward to greater freedom or their inheritance, children sometimes wish their parents would die, and that surely is a grave matter. But any thought, word, or deed against a parent is more likely to be a grave matter than is a similar act against someone else.

b) Children should protect and promote their parents’ welfare. In practice, perhaps the most important way for children to honor their parents is by supporting them when they become dependent and seeing to it that they are decently cared for when they no longer can care for themselves (see Sir 3.12–16). This responsibility is a matter of justice.277 If two or more of the children can help fulfill it, they should. If one provides a home or daily care, the other or others should contribute what they can, for example, enough money to compensate for the related expenses. If one or more children evade the responsibility, the other or others should use every morally acceptable means to induce them to repent and do their share. Conscientious children sometimes can forestall difficulties of this kind by working with their parents, well before help is needed, to plan how it will be provided when the time comes. In any case, children should begin to provide help before their parents are utterly impoverished and helpless, without demanding that the parents surrender their possessions and give up control over their daily lives.

A sign of this responsibility’s importance is that Jesus strongly condemned an attempt to evade it (see Mt 15.4–5, Mk 7.10–11). Moreover, New Testament catechesis forcefully affirms it: “If a widow has children or grandchildren, they should first learn their religious duty to their own family and make some repayment to their parents; for this is pleasing in God’s sight” (1 Tm 5.4). “And whoever does not provide for relatives, and especially for family members, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tm 5.8). Children fail in this responsibility not only by entirely neglecting it, but by fulfilling it minimally and grudgingly, so that parents are demeaned by being treated as beneficiaries of undeserved generosity.

In other respects too, the dignity of dependent parents and other elderly family members should be protected. Despite the inevitable diminishing of personal autonomy and functioning, an elderly person should be treated neither like a boarder in the household nor, except insofar as good care requires it, like a child.

Aging family members should provide an example of confident faith, thus making clear to others that their self-esteem is not based on what they can do, have, and enjoy but on who they are and on the heavenly fulfillment for which they hope. Moreover, due to their experience and long years of reflection, the elderly often have a special wisdom which they should make available, and the young should listen to them respectfully (see Sir 8.9, 25.5–6).278

c) Children should obey their parents’ legitimate judgments. Like other authority, that of parents is limited in various ways (see 7.E.3–4, above). But within those limits, children not yet able to judge what is in their own interests should obey any command or prohibition given for their good by a parent; and, as long as children live within their parents’ household, they should obey the parents’ rules and decisions as heads of the family for its common well-being: “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord” (Col 3.20; cf. Eph 6.1). Moreover, children should obey not only their parents’ direct commands and prohibitions, but the reasonable directives of teachers and others whom parents authorize to care for and educate them.

This does not mean unthinkingly doing whatever they are told, however, for the responsibility of children to obey their parents and others, such as teachers, in their parents’ place corresponds precisely to the responsibility and limits of parental authority (see F.4.g, above). Moreover, parental authority in the strict sense, as distinct from the authority of the parents as heads of the household, gradually ends as children grow up (see F.4.i, above).

Children obey initially by listening carefully and being willing to hear what their parents are asking of them. If what they are told to do seems impossible or unreasonable or wrong, they should discuss the problem calmly and respectfully with their parents. That usually will resolve the problem, and children will be able to obey. But if a child remains convinced that obeying really would be wrong, he or she must not do so (see Acts 5.29).

Children’s obedience should be motivated not by servile fear but by humble awareness of their need for direction, and by gratitude and love (see Sir 7.27–28). Thus, as they grow up, they will continue to respect their parents and wish to please them, but increasingly will make their own decisions. In this way, by age eighteen or so they will be ready to settle those matters which no one else should try to settle for them, such as questions concerning their own personal vocation and adult life (see GS 52).

d) Children’s disobedience can be a grave matter. It is a grave matter for a child, rejecting parental authority, to decide to conform to parental commands only when he or she considers it more convenient than nonconformity. For this reason, the Mosaic law prescribed that a stubborn and rebellious son be put to death by stoning (see Dt 21.18–21). But even apart from general contempt for parental authority, disobedience to particular judgments can be grave matter. That will be so when the commanded or forbidden act is very important in itself or in its likely consequences. For instance, children are gravely bound to obey their parents’ reasonable judgment concerning avoiding the proximate occasions of grave sin, serious risks to life, health, and safety, and so on. Even adult children living in the parental household are gravely bound to obey their parents’ reasonable judgments concerning matters which seriously affect the well-being of the family as a whole.

Often, though, children’s sins contrary to their parents’ will in grave matters are not mortal sins of disobedience.

Sometimes children disobey without sufficient reflection concerning their duty to obey, so that, even if the act they do is a mortal sin, they do not commit an additional mortal sin of disobedience. For example, the father of a fourteen-year-old girl, fearing she will be seduced, clearly and firmly tells her not to date a seventeen-year-old young man who has behaved irresponsibly with other girls; the girl disobeys and fornicates with the young man; in doing so, she overlooks the gravity of her disobedience but is conscious of the gravity of fornication; thus, while committing a mortal sin of fornication, she does not commit an additional mortal sin of disobedience.

At other times children act contrary to their parents’ will in a grave matter but do not disobey, since, fully able to make their own judgments in the matter, they are no longer under parental authority in respect to it. For example, the mother of a nineteen-year-old young man exhorts him to break off his sexually intimate relationship with a girl; he fully understands his moral responsibility, but is obdurate in his sin; still, he does not commit a sin of disobedience, since parental authority is no longer operative for the young man in the matter, and his mother’s exhortation is the admonition of a fellow Christian, not the command of a parent.

2. The Family Should Be a Community of Love and Service

While family members rightly give one another special love and service, the home should not be a closed circle, where charity, if one can call it that, ends. Instead of regarding itself as a limited and closed communion of mutual love and caring, the family should accept its responsibilities of service to others and in the Church’s apostolate. It fulfills this responsibility by sharing its spiritual riches with those to whom it extends hospitality and in neighborly fashion with other families (see AA 11, GS 48).

a) Familial love should extend beyond the primary relationships. The husband-wife and parent-child relationships are the primary ones constituting a family. Initially incapable of fully human personal relationships, children only gradually grow in responsibility and love. But since brothers and sisters are united in and through their parents, their relationships increasingly should acquire the characteristics of a good friendship, so that eventually they will fulfill in the most exemplary way the commandment: “Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 Jn 4.21).

In a large family, the elder children share in some ways in their parents’ responsibilities toward the younger, and the younger children should respond with appropriate respect and obedience. Moreover, the love among parents and children should expand to embrace in-laws (see Tb 10.12, 14.13) and others in the older and younger generations, not least grandparents and grandchildren.

b) Family members should love, forgive, and serve one another. Family life calls for the constant practice of mercy. Emotional bonds often facilitate this practice, but even when they are strained, each family member should contribute whatever he or she can to the good of the others and should readily seek reconciliation and offer forgiveness. A heartfelt “I am sorry” and a sincere “I forgive you” should be among the most common expressions of love among members of a Christian family, imperfect but drawn toward perfection by the Holy Spirit.

The family should be animated by mutual love, submission, and service. Family members should not keep careful accounts of what they contribute and receive, as if they were partners in a business. Rather, each should contribute according to his or her ability and receive according to his or her needs:

 The relationships between the members of the family community are inspired and guided by the law of “free giving”. By respecting and fostering personal dignity in each and every one as the only basis for value, this free giving takes the form of heartfelt acceptance, encounter and dialogue, disinterested availability, generous service and deep solidarity.
 Thus the fostering of authentic and mature communion between persons within the family is the first and irreplaceable school of social life, an example and stimulus for the broader community relationships marked by respect, justice, dialogue and love.279
In this way the family makes its primary contribution to society: forming its members for interpersonal relationships which humanize and personalize the wider society of which families are the living cells.

c) A family should work to maintain and build up communion. Familial communion has a specific quality, which shapes the actions necessary to sustain and perfect it. Somewhat as marital intercourse perfects the one-flesh communion of the couple, the family meal actualizes familial communion. Family members should participate in it and be generous and patient in sharing not only the food but themselves through conversation. Family members also should do their part in providing and maintaining their common dwelling and property. They should share the use of things liberally and should mutually serve one another by accepting a share of the chores, perhaps taking turns in doing the more onerous ones. Each has a special responsibility to respect the privacy and keep the secrets of the rest. The family should celebrate special occasions and sometimes recreate together. If a family member lives a sinful life, even abandons the faith, others should maintain the bonds of family communion insofar as possible, although they may never formally cooperate in sin and must take care that any material cooperation does not encourage obduracy and impede repentance.

d) Families should be neighborly and hospitable to those in need. Families have a specific capacity for neighborliness, that is, for assisting and supporting one another. Offering one another good example, encouragement, and practical assistance, they also should welcome such offers and gratefully accept the help they receive. Since neighboring families should be shown not only fairness but mercy, Christian families should hold no grudges, readily forgive faults, insist on rights only when necessary, and be kind and generous even toward difficult neighbors.

A family as a unit can engage in all sorts of works of mercy, but, being organized and equipped to meet the basic bodily, emotional, and spiritual needs of its own members, it can serve others in a unique way by providing hospitality, that is, welcoming and embracing outsiders in need as if they were family members (see AA 11). Hospitality should not be understood narrowly; it extends from “opening the door of one’s home and still more of one’s heart to the pleas of one’s brothers and sisters, to concrete efforts to ensure that every family has its own home, as the natural environment that preserves it and makes it grow.”280

3. The Family Should Deal with a Member’s Death in a Christian Way

Christians’ responsibilities in preparing for death were treated in a previous chapter (see 4.F). A death in a family creates an unusual and inescapable crisis, and every member should accept his or her responsibilities and fulfill them in a Christian way. In doing so, family members can transform their difficult situation into a time of grace for themselves and of Christian witness toward others.

a) The family should participate in the Church’s prayers and rites. The prayers for the dead and the funeral rites which the Church provides manifest the true Christian attitudes and values which should shape the family’s response to a loved one’s death.281 Death is horrible; the loss of the family member is real and irremediable; grief is appropriate. Yet a person who has lived and died in Jesus is not lost forever. Prayer for the deceased is needed and will be effective. Moreover, united with Jesus through baptism and the Eucharist, survivors can remain, through him, in communion with their departed loved ones, while looking forward to the resurrection of the dead and everlasting reunion in heaven. Therefore, family members should do their best to participate attentively in the Church’s prayers and funeral rites. In this way, they fulfill their most important responsibility toward the one who has died, while at the same time gaining for themselves sound consolation.

If a member of the family arranges the funeral liturgy, he or she should avoid anything distasteful to any of the others in selecting among options, such as the music to be used. While the homily at a funeral Mass may refer to the deceased person’s virtuous life, the homily should not turn into a eulogy.282 Therefore, the family should neither expect nor encourage the homilist to deliver a tribute to their loved one. Any speech or speeches honoring the deceased person should come at some other suitable time, for example, on the eve of the funeral or after the burial, or, at least, after the completion of the funeral liturgy but before leaving the church.

b) Family members should treat one another kindly and mercifully. When a death occurs in a family, usually it is clear which family member should make necessary decisions, and others should support that person and help do what must be done. If difficulties arise, everyone should be ready to yield on matters of taste and personal preference. The parties to an important disagreement should agree on someone to mediate it, for example, the parish priest or a prudent and trusted family friend.

Fatigue and strong emotion sometimes lead to outbursts of anger and recrimination. Family members should understand and readily forgive one another such inappropriate words and behavior. Indeed, being together during a period of shared grief affords an opportunity for reconciliation to family members who have quarreled or become alienated from each other, and they should take advantage of this opportunity.

c) Christian funerals should be simple and economical. The Church proposes a norm for the conduct of Catholic funerals: “The bodies of the faithful, which were temples of the Holy Spirit, should be shown honor and respect, but any kind of pomp or display should be avoided.”283

In former times, a family member or friend prepared the corpse, a simple box was used as a coffin, a brief wake was held at home, funeral rites were completed promptly, and burial was in the churchyard or nearby cemetery. During the twentieth century, new and costly practices became widespread: a professional mortician prepares the corpse for viewing, a fine hardwood or metal casket is provided, a prolonged reception is conducted at a funeral home, funeral rites are delayed and people travel long distances to attend, and burial is in an elaborately landscaped and perpetually maintained memorial park.

Of course, the value of bringing family and friends together sometimes justifies travel impossible in earlier times, and some other elements of current funeral practices inevitably follow. Moreover, the wake retains its important religious and human functions, and a funeral home sometimes is the only reasonable place for it. However, in many respects current funeral practices are neither reasonable nor Christian. In affluent societies, even families of modest means often succumb to the sales techniques of the funeral industry, unreasonable social expectations, and confused emotions, for example, a feeling of guilt unless they provide a lavish funeral.

Christian families should not feel compelled to conform to prevailing secular standards and should consider alternatives. In some places, funeral societies or memorial associations help arrange dignified but inexpensive funerals; Catholic families might join such a group or establish one in their parish or diocese. Prudent and competent individuals preparing for death could work with their families to plan and arrange their own funerals, thus encouraging simplicity and economy. Even if this is not done, a family member or friend can shop for an inexpensive coffin and moderately priced funeral arrangements. Sometimes, by omitting a prolonged reception and the viewing of the corpse, its professional preparation and the use of the funeral home can be avoided.

Longstanding Catholic practice favors burying or entombing the corpses of the faithful departed, since doing so provides a fitting sign of the hope that those now resting in death will soon rise to everlasting life. Nevertheless, cremation has been permitted in the past when necessary for a grave reason, such as control of a contagious disease. Today, while the Church’s law still encourages burial or entombment, it no longer forbids cremation, provided it is not chosen to express disbelief in the resurrection of the dead or for some other reason at odds with the faith.284 Therefore, a Catholic family may choose cremation if there is any other motive for preferring it.

4. Families Should Deal Responsibly with a Pregnancy out of Wedlock

If nonmarital intercourse by either spouse or a dependent child results in conception, the family has important responsibilities to the unborn child and faces difficult choices. Relevant moral norms should be kept in mind in making them.

a) Certain choices must be excluded entirely. In this situation, the temptation for men and youths, as well as for their families, is to deny responsibility, even if they are morally certain of it, and do nothing more than they legally must. This is an unacceptable evasion of responsibility, unfair to both the mother and the child, for whom the father bears equal responsibility. By the same token, a woman or girl pregnant out of wedlock has no exclusive right to decide what she will do with her child. If a girl is dependent on her parents for care and support, she cannot unilaterally decide to keep and raise the child. The child’s father and/or his parents also have the right to be heard and to have their views considered seriously.

Abortion is likely to come to mind and even be suggested as a solution. Firmly rejecting it, everyone concerned should give the pregnant woman or girl the loving support she needs to resist any such temptation. The baby has no responsibility whatsoever for the situation and has an absolute right to live, to be loved, and to be cared for as adequately as possible.

b) Certain other attractive choices often are imprudent. If the unborn child’s parents are free to marry, and especially if they already wished to, that is likely to seem the best solution. Even so, to avoid making so serious a commitment under pressure and/or without adequate preparation, it generally is wise to postpone marriage until after the baby is born. Moreover, if the couple would not marry except for the pregnancy, if they are very young, or if there are other considerations arguing against marriage, marrying is imprudent, since marriages under these conditions usually are badly troubled and often end in divorce.

In recent years, many women who have had babies out of wedlock have decided to keep and raise them without marrying. This also has several grave disadvantages. The child is deprived of a father and, often, cared for much of the time by a series of strangers. In some cases, the maternal grandparents are compelled to shoulder much of the responsibility of parenthood, even though they had sound and even compelling reasons not to adopt the child. The unmarried mother also is less likely to be able to develop a sound relationship with a man who is free to marry her, and so is less likely ever to enter a good marriage.

c) If possible, the child should have a normal family life. Like any other child, the child conceived out of wedlock needs two parents who are truly and happily married, who fully accept him or her as their own, and who firmly commit themselves to carrying out their lifelong responsibilities as father and mother. Whenever possible, families should try to meet these needs; they can do so in various ways.

One is by arranging for adoption by another suitable family, who will love and care for the child, and raise him or her in the faith. Though the arrangements often are made through an adoption agency, sometimes well-qualified relatives, friends, or neighbors are prepared to adopt the baby, and arrangements can be made directly. The mother sometimes rejects adoption out of emotional motives, for mothers naturally are attached to their babies. However, emotional attachment should not prevail over a reasonable judgment concerning the child’s best interests.

In other cases, the family itself can accept the child as its own. In particular, husbands whose wives conceive through adulterous intercourse should consider this solution and ask themselves whether Christian mercy does not require them to cooperate with it.

A family whose dependent son fathers a child out of wedlock or a man who does so should contribute to the child’s support to the extent possible and necessary to provide the child with a normal family life.

276. A thoughtful philosophical reflection on the relationship between adult children and their parents: Joseph Kupfer, “Can Parents and Children Be Friends?” American Philosophical Quarterly 27 (1990): 15–26.

277. Raymond F. Collins, “Obedience, Children and the Fourth Commandment: A New Testament Note,” Louvain Studies 4 (1972–73): 157–73, argues that the commandment that one honor one’s father and mother primarily requires adults to support their aged parents.

278. See John Paul II, Familiaris consortio, 27, AAS 74 (1982) 113–14, OR, 21–28 Dec. 1981, 6; John Paul II, Message for World Communications Day (10 May 1982), 2–3, Inseg. 5.2 (1982) 1476–78, OR, 24 May 1982, 3.

279. John Paul II, Familiaris consortio, 43, AAS 74 (1982) 134, OR, 21–28 Dec. 1981, 9.

280. John Paul II, Familiaris consortio, 44, AAS 74 (1982) 136, OR, 21–28 Dec. 1981, 9.

281. CIC, c. 1176, §1, prescribes: “The Christian faithful departed are to be given ecclesiastical funeral rites according to the norm of law.” C. 1177 states that as a rule the funeral should be celebrated in the parish Church of the departed, but may be celebrated in another church with the consent of the person in charge of that church and after informing the departed person’s pastor.

282. See General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 8.338.

283. The Rites, 652.

284. See CIC, c. 1176, §3.