Family, Marriage and "De Facto" Unions

Society and the State must protect and promote the family based on marriage

(29) To summarize, the human, social and material promotion of the family based on marriage, and the juridical protection of the elements that comprise it in its unitary character are not only a good for the members of the family considered individually, but also for the structure and appropriate functioning of the interpersonal relations, the balance of powers, the guarantees of freedom, the educational interests, the personalization of the citizens, and the distribution of functions between the different social institutions: "Consequently the role of the family in building a culture of life is decisive and irreplaceable".[60] We cannot forget that if the crisis of the family has been, on certain occasions and for certain aspects, the cause of greater intervention by the State in its sphere, it is also certain that in many other cases and for many other aspects it has been the initiative of lawmakers that has facilitated or promoted the difficulties and breakdowns of many marriages and families. "The experience of different cultures throughout history has shown the need for society to recognize and defend the institution of the family; society, and in a particular manner the State and International Organizations, must protect the family through measures of a political, economic, social and juridical character, which aim at consolidating the unity and stability of the family so that it can exercise its specific function".[61]

Today more than ever, adequate attention becomes necessary for the sake of the family and for society itself to the current problems of marriage and the family, a special respect for its freedom, legislation that will protect its essential elements and not weigh on its free decisions regarding: women's work that is not compatible with their situation as wives and mothers,[62] a "culture of success" which does not allow those who work to reconcile their professional competence with dedication to their family,[63] the decision to have the number of children which the spouses decide in conscience,[64] protection of the permanent character to which married couples legitimately aspire,[65] religious freedom and the dignity and equality of rights,[66] the principles and carrying out of the kind of education desired for their children,[67] fiscal treatment and other norms of a patrimonial nature (inheritance, housing, etc.), treatment of their legitimate autonomy, and respect and encouragement of their initiative in the social and political sphere, especially with regard to their own families.[68] From this comes the social need to distinguish phenomena that are different in their legal aspect and in their contribution to the common good, and to treat them accordingly as being different. "The institutional value of marriage should be upheld by the public authorities; the situation of non-married couples must not be placed on the same level as marriage duly contracted".[69]

V - Christian Marriage and de facto unions

Christian marriage and social pluralism

(30) More intensely in recent times, the Church has repeatedly stressed the trust that is due to the human person, his freedom, dignity and values, and the hope that comes from God's saving action in the world which helps overcome all weakness. At the same time, it has made its grave concern known regarding different attempts against the human person and his dignity and pointed out some ideological presuppositions typical of the so-called "post-modern" culture which make it difficult to understand and live the values required by the truth about the human person. "It is no longer a matter of limited and occasional dissent, but of an overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine, on the basis of certain anthropological and ethical presuppositions. At the root of these presuppositions is the more or less obvious influence of currents of thought which end by detaching human freedom from its essential and constitutive relationship to truth".[70]

When freedom is disconnected form truth, "any reference to common values and to a truth absolutely binding on everyone is lost, and social life ventures on to the shifting sands of complete relativism. At that point, everything is negotiable, everything is open to bargaining, even the first of the fundamental rights, the right to life".[71] This is also a warning that is surely applicable to the reality of marriage and the family, the sole source and fully human channel for the realization of that first right. There is "a corruption of the idea and the experience of freedom, conceived not as a capacity for realizing the truth of God's plan for marriage and the family, but as an autonomous power of self-affirmation, often against others, for one's own selfish well-being".[72]

(31) In the same way, from the beginning the Christian community has held that the constitution of Christian marriage is a real sign of Christ's union with the Church. Marriage was elevated by Christ to a saving event in the new order set up in the economy of the Redemption: i.e., marriage is a sacrament of the New Covenant,[73] an essential aspect for understanding the content and importance of the marital community between baptized persons. The Magisterium of the Church has also pointed out clearly that "the sacrament of Matrimony has this specific element that distinguishes it from all the other sacraments: it is the sacrament of something that was part of the very economy of creation; it is the very conjugal covenant instituted by the Creator 'in the beginning'".[74]

In the context of a society that is often de-Christianized and removed from the values of the truth about the human person, it is now of interest to emphasize the content of "the matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, [which] is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring",[75] as instituted by God "from the beginning",[76] in the natural order of Creation. A serene reflection is useful not only for faithful believers, but also for those who are now far from religious practice, who lack faith, or hold beliefs of a different kind: for every human person, men and women, members of a civil community and responsible for the common good. It is also useful to recall the nature of the family that originates in marriage, its onto logical and not only historical and conjunctural character, over and above the changes in time, place and culture, and the dimension of justice that flows from its very essence.

The process of the family's secularization in the West

(32) At the beginning of the process of secularization of the matrimonial institution, the first and almost only thing that was secularized was the wedding or the way of celebrating marriage, at least in the Western countries with Catholic roots. For a certain period of time, both in the people's conscience and in the secular systems, the basic principles of marriage persisted, such as the precious value of the indissolubility of marriage and, in particular, the absolute indissolubility of sacramental marriage between baptized persons, ratified and consummated.[77] The widespread introduction of legislative systems which the Second Vatican Council described as "the divorce epidemic", gave rise to a progressive darkening in the social conscience regarding the value of what constituted a great conquest of humanity over the ages. The early Church did not succeed while in making sacred or Christianizing the Roman concept of marriage, it did restore this institution to its origins from creation, as explicitly willed by Jesus Christ. It is certain that in the conscience of the early Church it was already understood clearly that the natural essence of marriage had been conceived originally by God the Creator as a sign of God's love for his people, and when the fullness of time came, of Christ's love for his Church. But the first thing the Church did, guided by the Gospel and the explicit teachings of Christ, was to bring marriage back to its beginning, aware that "God himself is the author of marriage which he endowed with various goods and ends"[78]. Moreover, the Church was well aware that the importance of this natural institution has "a very decisive bearing on the continuation of the human race, on the personal development and eternal destiny of the individual members of a family, and on the dignity, stability, peace and prosperity of the family itself and of human society as a whole"[79]. Those who get married according to the established formalities (by the Church and the State, according to the cases), can and normally want to contract a real marriage. The inclination toward the conjugal union is innate in human persons, and the juridical aspect of the conjugal covenant and the origin of a real conjugal bond is based on this decision.

Marriage, the institution of conjugal love and other kinds of unions

(33) The natural reality is taken into consideration in the canonical laws of the Church.[80] Canonical law describes substantially the essence of marriage between baptized persons, both in its moment in fieri - the conjugal covenant - and as a permanent state in which the conjugal and family relations are situated. In this sense, the ecclesiastical jurisdiction over marriage is decisive and represents an authentic protection for family values. The basic principles of the essence of marriage with regard to conjugal love and its sacramental nature are not always sufficiently understood and respected.

(34) As to the first, love is often spoken about as the basis of marriage, a community of life and love, but its real condition as a conjugal institution is not always affirmed clearly by not including the dimension of justice proper to consent. Marriage is an institution. Failure to note this deficiency usually produces a grave misunderstanding between Christian marriage and de facto unions. Partners in de facto unions can also say that they are based on "love" (but a "love" described by the Second Vatican Council as "sic dicto libero"), and that they constitute acommunity of life and love, but they are substantially different from the "communitas vitae et amoris coniugalis" of marriage.[81]

(35) With regard to the basic principles related to the sacramentality of marriage, the question is more complex because the pastors of the Church have to consider the immense wealth of grace that gives dynamism to the sacramental essence of Christian marriage and its influence on the family relations derived from marriage. God wanted the conjugal covenant from the beginning, the marriage of Creation, to be a permanent sign of Christ's union with the Church and thus a real sacrament of the New Covenant. The problem lies in understanding properly that this sacramentality is not something that is added or extrinsic to the natural essence of marriage, but that it is the same indissoluble marriage willed by the Creator that was elevated to a sacrament through the redeeming action of Christ, without this implying any "de-naturalization" of the reality. By not understanding the particular feature of this sacrament compared to the others, some misunderstandings can arise that obscure the notion of sacramental marriage. This is especially important in marriage preparation: the praiseworthy efforts to prepare the engaged to celebrate the sacrament can vanish if there is no clear understanding of what the absolutely indissoluble marriage is which they are about to contract. Baptized persons do not present themselves to the Church just to celebrate a feast with some special rites, but to contract a lifetime marriage which is a sacrament of the New Alliance. Through this sacrament they share in the mystery of the union of Christ and the Church, and they express their intimate and indissoluble union.[82]

VI - Christian Guidelines

Basic approach to the problem: "At the beginning it was not that way"

(36) The Christian community is challenged by the phenomenon of de facto unions. The unions without any legal institutional bond - civil or religious-constitute an increasingly frequent phenomenon to which the pastoral action of the Church must pay attention.[83] Not only through reason, but also and above all through the "splendor of truth", which has been given to them through faith, believers are capable of calling things by their own name: good, good and evil, evil. In the current context, which is highly relativist and tends to dissolve all differences, including essential ones between marriage and de facto unions, greater wisdom and more courageous freedom are needed to avoid errors or compromises, with the conviction that "the most dangerous crisis which can afflict man"[is] the confusion between good and evil, which makes it impossible to build up and to preserve the moral order of individuals and communities".[84] When carrying out a specifically Christian reflection on the signs of the times before the apparent obscuring in the hearts of some of our contemporaries of the profound truth about human love, it is good to draw closer to the pure waters of the Gospel.

(37) "Some Pharisees came up to him and said, to test him, 'May a man divorce his wife for any reason whatever?' He replied, 'Have you not read that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and declared, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and the two shall become as one'? Thus they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore, let no man separate what God has joined.'. They said to him, 'Then why did Moses command divorce and the promulgation of a divorce decree?' "Became of your stubbornness Moses let you divorce your wives,' he replied; 'but at the beginning it was not that way'" (Mt 19:3-8). These words of the Lord are well known, like the reaction of the disciples: "If that is the case between man and wife, it is better not to marry" (Mt 19:10). This reaction was certainly framed in the prevailing mentality of the time, a mentality that broke with the Creator's original plan.[85] The concession by Moses expressed the presence of sin which took on the form of a "duritia cordis". Today, perhaps more than in other eras, this obstacle of the intelligence must be taken into consideration, the hardening of the will, the fixation of the passion, which is the hidden root of many of the factors of fragility that influence the present spread of de facto unions.

De facto unions, factors of fragility and sacramental grace

(38) The presence of the Church and of Christian marriage over the ages has made civil societycapable of recognizing marriage in its original condition to which Christ alludes in his response.[86] The original condition of marriage and the difficulty of recognizing it and living it as an intimate truth in the depths of one's being, "propter duritiam cordis", always seems to be a current question. Marriage is a natural institution whose essential characteristics can be recognized by intelligence, over and above cultures.[87] This recognition of the truth about marriage is also of a moral nature.[88] However, the fact cannot be ignored that human nature, wounded by sin and redeemed by Christ, does not always succeed in recognizing clearly the truths written by God in the human heart. Hence Christian witness in the world, the Church and its Magisterium have to be a living teaching and a testimony in the world.[89] In this context it is also important to stress in this context the real and proper need for grace so that married life can reach its true fullness.[90] Therefore, when making a pastoral discernment of the problem of de facto unions, it is important to consider human fragility and the importance of a truly ecclesial experience and catechesis which will guide toward a life of grace, prayer, the sacraments and in particular Reconciliation.

(39) Different elements must be distinguished among these factors of fragility that give rise to de facto unions characterized by what is called "free" love which neglects or excludes the bond characteristic of conjugal love. Moreover, as we said earlier, a distinction must be made between the de facto unions into which some consider themselves compelled by difficult situations, and the others which are sought by people who "scorn, rebel against or reject society, the institution of the family and the social and political order, or who are solely seeking pleasure".[91] It is also necessary to consider those who are driven into de facto unions "by extreme ignorance or poverty, sometimes by a conditioning due to situations of real injustice, or by a certain psychological immaturity that makes them uncertain or afraid to enter into a stable and definitive union".[92]

Ethical discernment, pastoral action and Christian engagement in political realities will thus have to take into consideration the many real situations included under the common term "de facto unions" as we said earlier.[93] Whatever the causes that give rise to these unions, they entail "serious pastoral problems, because of the grave religious and moral consequences that are derived from them (loss of the religious meaning of marriage seen in the light of God's Covenant with his People, deprivation of the sacramental grace, serious scandal), as well as social consequences (destruction of the concept of family, lessening of the significance of fidelity, also toward society, possible psychological traumas in the children, and the reaffirmation of selfishness)".[94] For this reason, the Church is sensitive to the spread of non-matrimonial unions due to the moral and pastoral dimensions of the problem.

Witness of Christian marriage

(40) The efforts to obtain legislation favorable to de facto unions in many countries with an ancient Christian tradition are of great concern to pastors and the faithful. Often it might seem that one does not know what answer to give to this phenomenon, and that the reaction is merely defensive, thus giving the impression that the Church only wants to maintain the status quo, as if the family based on marriage were simply the cultural model (a "traditional" model) of the Church that it wants to keep, despite the great transformations in our era.

In this regard, the positive aspects of conjugal love must be deepened so that it will be possible to return to inculturating the Gospel truth in a way similar to that of the Christians during the first centuries of our era. The privileged subject of this new evangelization of the family are Christian families because they, being the subjects of evangelization, are the first evangelizers of the "Good News" of "fair love",[95] not only through their words, but above all through their personal witness. It is urgent to rediscover the social value of the wonder of conjugal love because the phenomenon of de facto unions is not on the margin of the ideological factors that obscure it and which correspond to an erroneous conception of human sexuality and of the man-woman relationship. From this comes the transcendental importance of the life of grace in Christ of Christian marriages: "The Christian family too is part of this priestly people which is the Church. By means of the sacrament of marriage, in which it is rooted and from which it draws its nourishment, the Christian family is continuously vivified by the Lord Jesus and called and engaged by him in a dialogue with God through the sacraments, through the offering of one's life, and through prayer. This is the priestly role which the Christian family can and ought to exercise in intimate communion with the whole Church, through the daily realities of married and family life. In this way the Christian family is called to be sanctified and to sanctify the ecclesial community and the world".[96]

(41) The very presence of Christian married couples in many milieus in society is a privileged way of showing contemporary people (whose subjectivity is destroyed to a good extent, who are exhausted in a vain search for "free" love, opposed to real conjugal love, through a multitude of fragmented experiences) that it is really possible for human beings to find themselves again and to help them to understand the reality of a fully realized subjectivity in marriage in Christ the Lord. Only in this kind of "clash" with reality can the nostalgia emerge for a homeland of which every person has an indelible memory. To the disillusioned men and women who ask themselves cynically, "Can anything good come from the human heart?", it is necessary to be able to answer them: "Come and see our marriage, our family". This can be a decisive departure point, a real witness whereby the Christian community, with God's grace, will manifest God's mercy toward men. It can be seen that the substantial influence exercised by faithful Christians in many milieus is very positive. By reason of a conscious choice of faith and life, in the midst of their contemporaries, they appear to be the ferment in the mass, the light in the midst of the darkness. Pastoral attention to their preparation for marriage and the family and follow-up in their married and family life is of fundamental importance for the life of the Church and the world.[97]

Adequate marriage preparation

(42) The Magisterium of the Church, especially since the Second Vatican Council, has referred repeatedly to the importance and the irreplaceability of marriage preparation in ordinary pastoral care. This preparation cannot be reduced to simple information about what marriage is for the Church; it has to be a real path of personal formation based on education in the faith and education in the virtues. The Pontifical Council for the Family has dealt with this important aspect of the Church's pastoral care in the documents: Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality (December 8, 1995), and Preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage (May 13, 1996).

(43) "Preparation for marriage, for married and family life, is of great importance for the good of the Church. In fact, the sacrament of Marriage has great value for the whole Christian community and, in the first place, for the spouses whose decision is such that it cannot be improvised or made hastily. In the past, this preparation could count on the support of society which recognized the values and benefits of marriage. Without any difficulties or doubts, the Church protected the sanctity of marriage with the awareness that this sacrament represented an ecclesial guarantee as the living cell of the People of God. At least in the communities that were truly evangelized, the Church's support was solid, unitary and compact. In general, separations and marriage failures were rare, and divorce was considered a social 'plague' (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 47). Today, on the contrary, in many cases, we are witnessing an accentuated deterioration of the family and a certain corrosion of the values of marriage. In many nations, especially economically developed ones, the number of marriages has decreased. Marriage is usually contracted at a later age and the number of divorces and separations is increasing, even during the first years of married life. All this inevitably leads to a pastoral concern that comes up repeatedly: Are the persons contracting marriage really prepared for it? The problem of preparation for the sacrament of Marriage and the life that follows emerges as a great pastoral need, first for the sake of the spouses, for the whole Christian community and for society. Therefore, interest in, and initiatives for providing adequate and timely answers to preparation for the sacrament of Marriage are growing everywhere".[98]

(44) At present, the problem is not limited, as in other eras, to young people being unprepared for marriage. Due in part to a pessimistic anthropological vision that de-structures and breaks down subjectivity, many young people even doubt that it is possible to achieve real self-giving in marriage that will give rise to a faithful, fruitful and indissoluble bond. In some cases, this view results in the rejection of the institution of marriage as an illusory reality to which only persons with very special preparation can aspire. Hence the importance of Christian formation in a correct and realistic idea of freedom in relation to marriage as the ability to choose and direct oneself toward the good of self-giving in marriage.

Family catechesis

(45) In this sense, preventive action through family catechesis is very important. The witness of Christian families is irreplaceable both with regard to their own children and the society in which they live. Not only pastors must defend the family; the families themselves must demand respect for their rights and for their identity. The important place of family catecheses today in pastoral care of the family must be emphasized. In such catecheses, the family realities are tackled in an organic, complete and systematic way, subjected to the criterion of faith, and clarified by the Word of God interpreted in an ecclesial way, in fidelity to the Magisterium of the Church, by legitimate and competent pastors who will truly contribute, in a catechetical process, to deepening the saving truth about man. Efforts must be made to show the rationality and the credibility of the Gospel on marriage and the family by re-structuring the Church's educational system.[99] In this way, the explanation of marriage and the family based on a correct anthropological vision will not fail to surprise Christians themselves. They will discover that it is not only a question of faith and will find reasons for confirming this to themselves, acting through personal life witness, and developing a specifically lay apostolic mission.

Means of communication

(46) In our times, the crisis of family values and the concept of the family in State systems and in the means of transmitting culture- press, television, Internet, film, etc. require a special effort to make family values present in the communications media. Consider, for example, the great influence of these media in the loss of social sensitivity with regard to situations such as adultery, divorce or even de facto unions, as well as the pernicious deformation in many cases of the "values" (or rather the "non-values") that the media sometimes present as normal possibilities in life. Moreover, it should be kept in mind that on some occasions, and despite the praiseworthy contribution of committed Christians who collaborate in these media, some programs and television series contribute to misinformation and the growth of religious ignorance rather than to religious formation. Even if these factors are not found among the fundamental elements that shape a culture, their influence is not negligible among the sociological factors to be kept in mind in pastoral care inspired by realistic criteria.

Social commitment

(47) For many of our contemporaries whose subjectivity has been ideologically "demolished", so to speak, marriage appears to be more or less unthinkable. For these persons, the reality of marriage has no meaning. In what way can the Church's pastoral care be an event of salvation for them too? In this sense, the political and legislative commitment of Catholics who have responsibilities in this area is decisive. Laws constitute to a great extent the "ethos" of a people. With regard to this point, it seems very useful to make an appeal to overcome the temptation to be indifferent in the political-legislative area, and to stress the need for public witness to the dignity of the person. As we said earlier, making de facto unions equivalent to the family implies an alteration in the system for the common good of society, and this is detrimental to the institution of the family based on marriage. Therefore, it is an evil for persons, families and societies. What is "politically possible" and its evolution over time cannot be detached from the ultimate principles of truth about the human person which must inspire attitudes, concrete initiatives and future programs.[100] It also seems useful to criticize the "dogma" of the inseparable connection between democracy and ethical relativism that is at the basis of many legislative attempts to make de facto unions equivalent to the family.

(48) The problem of de facto unions constitutes a real challenge for Christians in their ability to demonstrate the rational aspect of the faith, the profound rationality of the Gospel of marriage and the family. A proclamation of the Gospel without this challenge to rationality (in the sense of an intimate correspondence between man's desiderium naturale and the Gospel proclaimed by the Church) would be ineffective. For this reason, today more than in other eras, it is necessary to make known in believable terms the inner credibility of the truth about man which is at the basis of the institution of conjugal love. Different from what occurs with the other sacraments, marriage also pertains to the economy of Creation and is inscribed in the natural dynamics of humankind. Secondly, a renewed reflection is also necessary on the fundamental bases, the essential principles that inspire educational activities in the different milieus and institutions. What is the philosophy today of the educational institutions in the Church, and what is the way in which these principles flow into an appropriate education to marriage and the family as both fundamental and necessary nuclear structures for society itself?

Pastoral care and closeness

(49) Understanding the existential problems and the choices of persons living in de facto unions is legitimate and, in some cases, a duty. Some of these situations should even arouse real and proper compassion. Respect for the dignity of persons is not subject to discussion. However, understanding circumstances and respect for persons are not equivalent to a justification. On the contrary, in these circumstances, it is a matter of emphasizing that truth is an essential good of persons and a factor of authentic freedom, and that from the affirmation of truth an offense will not result, for "it is an outstanding manifestation of charity towards souls to omit nothing from the saving doctrine of Christ".[101] On the other hand, "this must always be joined with tolerance and charity. Of this, the Lord himself in his conversation and dealings with men has left an example".[102] Therefore, Christians must try to understand the personal, social, cultural and ideological reasons for the spread of de facto unions. It must be remembered that intelligent and discreet pastoral care can, on certain occasions, favor the "institutional" recovery of some of these unions. The persons who find themselves in these situations must be kept in mind in a detailed and prudent way in the ordinary pastoral care of the ecclesial community. This care implies nearness, attention to the related problems and difficulties, patient dialogue, and concrete assistance, especially with regard to the children. Prevention, also in this aspect of pastoral care, is a priority concern.


(50) Over the ages, the wisdom of peoples, albeit with limitations, has substantially been capable of recognizing the essence and the fundamental and irreplaceable mission of the family based on marriage. The family is a necessary and indispensable good for the whole of society, and it has a real and proper right in justice to be recognized, protected and promoted by the whole of society. It is this whole of society that is damaged when this precious and necessary good of humanity is wounded in any way. Before the social phenomenon of de facto unions, and the postponing of conjugal love which this implies, society itself cannot remain indifferent. Merely erasing the problem through the false solution of granting them recognition and placing them on a public level similar to, or even equivalent to families based on marriage, is a detrimental comparison to marriage (which further damages this natural institution, that is so necessary today, rather than providing real family policies). Moreover, this implies a profound lack of recognition of the anthropological truth about the human love between a man and a woman, and its inseparable aspects of stable unity and openness to life. This lack of recognition is still more grave when the essential and very profound difference is ignored between conjugal love, that comes from the institution of marriage, and homosexual relationships. The "indifference" of public administrations toward this aspect is very similar to a kind of apathy with regard to the life or death of society, an indifference about its future projection or its degradation. If suitable remedies are not applied, this "neutrality" would lead to a serious breakdown of the social fabric and of the pedagogy of the future generations.

The under-evaluation of conjugal love and its intrinsic openness to life, with the instability of family life that this entails, is a social phenomenon that requires proper discernment by all those who feel committed to the good of the family, and in a very special way by Christians. This means first of all recognizing the real causes (ideological and economic) of the situation, and not giving in to demagogic pressures by lobbies that do not take the common good of society into consideration. The Catholic Church, in following Jesus Christ, recognizes in the family and in conjugal love a gift of communion of the merciful God with humanity, a precious treasure of holiness and grace that shines in the midst of the world. Therefore, it invites those who are fighting for the cause of man to unite their efforts in promoting the family and its intimate source of life which is the conjugal union.

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