During his term as president, Jimmy Carter, then a Southern Baptist, called for a White House Conference on Families in order to redefine family as any group of humans living together—so general a definition that college roommates or even a military platoon could be considered a family.  Even the French Foreign Legion, whose motto is Legio patria nostra (“the Legion is our fatherland”), never thought of saying Legio familia nostra.  In our era of globalization and secularization, it is becoming harder and harder to speak of patria nostra, and the familia has also become very unstable.  One reason is that family, in almost every human society, including ours, is very closely tied to religion.  In our highly secularized Western world, religion is in the process of disappearing.

There are many efforts to reassert the fundamental importance of family to the health of society.  Dr. John Howard, the founder of The Rockford Institute, continues to devote himself energetically to this project.  Because the concept of family has become somewhat fluid, Dr. Howard and others consistently refer to the “nuclear family,” by which they mean father, mother, and children.  The difficulty, however, is that this term does not go back to the source of the family, which involves the order of nature, Creation, and the nature of man and woman.

The order of nature tells us some rather rudimentary things.  The birth of children is a consequence of union between the sexes, without which, as Salvador de Madariaga told us, human life is neither possible nor agreeable.  Because the number of babies—and, hence, of human beings—is almost evenly divided between males and females (excluding the intervention of warfare, abortion, infanticide, etc.), it can be argued that every man should have one wife and every wife, one husband.  This principle has been rather generally respected, except under Islam and other nonbiblical religions.

That babies and children need a tremendous amount of care and attention is self-evident, requiring stability within the family.  Human babies take longer to reach maturity and become self-sufficient than the offspring of almost every other mammal, and it is plausible to see their care as the responsibility of the parents who produced them, a natural-law insight that promotes chastity before marriage and fidelity within it.  Once children are no longer seen as God’s gift but as a result of planning, at best, or a nuisance and an unnecessary expenditure, however, this natural-law support for marriage and the family loses its force.  

One of the fundamental insights of natural law is the responsibility to promote human welfare, which, according to Genesis 1:28, means to “be fruitful and multiply.”  By the second half of the 20th century, the ease and effectiveness of contraception and the availability and social acceptance of abortion had greatly reduced the role of premarital pregnancy as a stimulus to marriage.  When marriage was no longer seen as the normal way to fulfill sexual desires, early marriage became less and less popular.  In addition, the fact that obtaining a divorce has become at least as simple as getting married has helped to decrease the number of children born.  In the United States, the Caucasian birthrate is now 1.8 per woman, while, in many European countries, it has dropped to 1.2 or fewer—which means that Europe will soon fade away and the United States will follow a bit later.  Christianity, which promotes both marriage and childbearing, has virtually disappeared in Europe.  The loss of the Faith in a hitherto Christian society is being followed by the death of society itself.

The declining interest in a healthy birthrate has contributed to the growing acceptance of homosexuality, a clear rejection of the order of nature.  This rejection even contradicts the general ethical principle that we might derive from evolution, that the survival of the fittest is a natural goal of all biological life.  All of these developments lead to the conclusion that natural law, which depends on a sense of order and purpose in the universe and suggests Creation and a Creator, can no longer stand by itself in a deteriorating society.  While it can provide support for biblical principles, it cannot effectively substitute for them.

The doctrine of materialistic evolution could logically serve as a source of natural-law principles; most advocates of evolution, however, believe it totally excludes the concept of Creation of any kind—even of intelligent design—and, therefore, they cannot tolerate the principle of natural law as traditionally understood.

The best way to understand the Creator’s purpose for us is to see it in terms of a covenant, a theme that runs throughout the Bible.  By observing the importance of covenant to God and man, we can better grasp the importance of the covenant between man and woman in marriage.

In the biblical account of Creation in Genesis 1, only man—defined as “male and female”—is given God’s special attention among the creatures.  The other creatures are simply introduced by a general command, “Let the earth bring forth . . . after their kind,” and the two sexes are not mentioned.  Man alone is given special treatment: “Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness” (v. 26), followed by the words, “male and female created He them.”  The concluding admonition, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth,” reveals not only that male and female are both necessary to God’s plan but that their lives are not to be ruled by natural instinct alone, as with the other animals, but by a sense of responsibility to their Creator.  For some, this is the first of God’s covenants with us, the Adamic Covenant.  In Genesis 2, the creation of man and woman is shown separately.  God, regarding Adam, says, “It is not good for man to be alone” and then, after letting him name the animals, causes a deep sleep to fall on him and fashions the first woman from his side.  The man was made from the dust of the earth; the woman, from nobler stuff.  Thus, the first two chapters of the Bible speak of the special dignity of mankind, both male and female, and, at the same time, maintain a distinction between the sexes.

The tranquility of the first covenant was broken in Genesis 3, when both Eve and then Adam yielded to temptation and violated the only prohibition that God had given them.  This Original Sin brought a blight upon man and the whole of Creation, but it did not fundamentally change God’s purpose for our race.

After Adam and Eve’s rebellion and the subsequent murder of Abel by his brother Cain, the history of humanity is a tale of warfare, murder, and pillage.  In the course of this history, God continues to reveal aspects of His covenant with man, which goes through several fundamental developments before Jesus speaks of His chalice at the Last Supper as “the new covenant in my blood.”  There was, in a sense, an elaboration of the covenant with Noah, who became the head of the only family left on earth after the Flood, and another with Abraham, who was told that, through his descendant, all the families of earth would be blessed.

These covenants took on special clarity and detail with Moses, to whom the Ten Commandments were given.  The first commandment that deals with personal relationships is the Fifth (Fourth in the Roman Catholic and Lutheran numbering): “Honor thy father and thy mother.”  It clearly supposes a natural parent-child relationship: The care and nurturing that the parents provide is reciprocated by the children honoring their parents and caring for them when they are old.  This concept is only compatible with lifelong marriage.  Divorce is tolerated under some circumstances in the Bible, but God’s attitude toward it is revealed in the book of Malachi: “I the LORD hate divorce.”  The easy availability of divorce is less than half a century old in the United States; it is destructive of the concept that marriage is a true covenant.

A commandment that a large number of people readily cite is “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”  Adultery means that at least one partner in the illicit relationship must be married.  Fornication (usually designated in Scripture as harlotry) does not regularly carry the death penalty; a prompt wedding is sometimes the alternative.  Adultery, however, is punishable by death in the Old Testament.  The difference between adultery and fornication is that the former plainly repudiates the covenant between man and wife.  The Ten Commandments do not represent the fullness of God’s revelation, but they do make it very plain that the family is a fundamental example of covenant.  In the New Testament, Saint Paul states that human marriage is a symbol of the covenant between Christ and the Church.  No higher exaltation of that human covenant can be imagined.  As God said when he fashioned Eve, it is not good for man to be alone.  Nor is it good for woman or child.  An enduring family is one of the basic parts of God’s covenant with us, His creatures called to be His children.