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Our families, on pilgrimage towards the domestic Church

Q: Archbishop J, is every family a domestic Church?

I wish to make a distinction between a Christian family and a domestic Church. The domestic Church may always be a Christian family, but not all Christian families are domestic Churches. Let me explain.

The term domestic Church rests on the understanding of marriage as a great mystery and a sacrament: Ephesians 5:32. The relationship between the husband and the wife is an outward sign of the inner grace of the love between Christ and His Church. This is an analogical relationship. We look at one thing that we can observe and through this observation we get to understand something else.

The term domestic Church describes an analogical relationship while also naming a reality. Thus, the relationship is also ontological. The analogy allows us to infer something about the Church miniature by observing the essence and character of the big Church. But it also brings something into reality.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The Christian family constitutes a specific revelation and realisation of ecclesial communion, and for this reason it can and should be called a domestic church”, 2204.

If the term domestic Church is dependent upon the sacramental nature of marriage, then not all families are strictly speaking a domestic Church. The term is referring to families where there is sacramental marriage as its foundation.

So, what of other families? Well, the Church always provides.

Do you know that not all marriages in the Catholic Church are sacramental? The marriage between a Catholic and a non-baptised person is not considered a sacrament.

This is important because in the eyes of the Church it is still a valid marriage. The Church has great pastoral practice to reach to the needs of all her people. So, bear with me for a while longer.

From a sociological perspective, families come in a variety of shapes and forms. Even in our description of families we speak about married, single parent, divorced and separated, etc.

The nuclear family (father, mother, and children) is not the norm in the Caribbean setting. In the Caribbean, we commonly have intergenerational families and single-parent households. Our theology teaches, however, a Catholic family, regardless of its configuration, is constituted through sacramental marriage.

Allow me to stretch you a bit for the sake of understanding. We believe the marriage of a Catholic and a non-Catholic is a valid marriage although it is not a sacrament.

All Catholic families take their ‘norm’ from, and participate analogously in, sacramental marriage which is the foundation of the domestic Church. They do so to the extent that they can.

As a norm or measuring rule, all will not fit. But you participate in as much as fits your family and each family is stretched to become a better version of itself.

I am proposing that every family of Catholics, regardless of its configuration, see the domestic Church as its ideal and aim to come as close to this ideal as is humanly possible.


Integral development

Pope Paul VI and Pope Benedict XVI taught that authentic Integral Human Development is the vocation of the Church. This concept, which is at the heart of modern Catholic life speaks to two important realities.

First, we are all capable of authentic growth and development no matter the configuration of our life at this moment. Second, our vocation as Church is to facilitate each person, every person, and every dimension of the human person to move from less human to more human conditions in incremental steps.

If we accept this vocation, then we need to apply it to every sphere of human existence. Applied to marriage then, we need to be able to see that there are different configurations of human unions that are at different stages of achieving the goal of marriage and the domestic Church.

To spell this out more clearly we need to say: a common-law relationship is not the same as a couple in a civil union, which is not the same as a non-baptised person validly married to a Catholic, which is not the same as two Catholics married in the Church, which is not the same as two Catholics married in the Church who are capable of giving themselves freely and completely to each other in faithful love, regardless of the challenges they face.

There is a hierarchy, and it is not whimsical. All these forms of union take their norm from the couple capable of living as a domestic Church. But even the couple capable of living as a domestic Church has growth steps and development goals that they too must strive for. We are all pilgrims on the journey to authentic Human Integral Development.

Pope Paul VI describes the highest form of development as: “the acknowledgment by man of supreme values, and of God their source and their finality. … faith, a gift of God accepted by the good will of man, and unity in the charity of Christ, who calls us all to share as sons in the life of the living God, the Father of all men” (Populorum Progressio, 21).

The ultimate end of development is holiness. We are all on pilgrimage. The word sin is to miss the mark—the arrow missing the target. Not all human unions hit the target. In fact, some are way far from it. But again, not all unions that hit the target also hit bullseye.

Every form of human union can be located on the continuum of human development from least developed—random unions for the sake of pleasure only—to sacramental marriage between spouses who give themselves to God and each other and their children in the most selfless way.

But every union has a sacred obligation to move towards answering the call of development that God has placed in the human heart.


Key Message:

All Catholic families take their ‘norm’ from, and participate analogously in, sacramental marriage which is the foundation of the domestic Church.

Action Step:

Reflect on the steps your family can take to become a better version of itself.

Scripture Reading:

Ephesians 5:21–32