Dr. Morse gave this speech April 23, 2011, at Hong Kong Baptist University, at a conference of Western and Chinese scholars, entitled “The Family and Sexual Ethics: Christian Foundations and Public Values.” China is experiencing numerous problems due to family breakdown, including the one child policy, high divorce rates, and an imbalanced sex ratio. This conference was convened because many in China, even in the Academy of Science and in government, are interested in what Christianity has to say about marriage, family, sexuality and society. The conference papers will be translated into Chinese and published in book form.
We have been invited here to describe the Christian view of family, love and marriage. I am honoured by the invitation, and somewhat overwhelmed by the task. I will take it as my duty to present the ancient Christian teaching, and show how it might inform our policies of today. First, I will explain what the Church teaches: God loves each and every person into existence, and desires that human beings love the next generation into existence. This means that children should be begotten by their parents within an institutional context of permanent committed love, in other words, in marriage.
Second, I show that science supports the broad outline of Christian teaching. The human person is meant for love. Children thrive as individuals within married households. Society needs people who have developed consciences and self-control. This takes place in childhood, by being in a relationship with a loving adult. The economy and the political system, actually depend on love. Finally, I show what this Christian understanding of the family implies for public policy.
Before I begin, I should make one clear distinction. I will be describing the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. I do this for several reasons. First, I am a Roman Catholic, and this is the tradition I know best. Second, non-Catholic Christians may differ from the Catholic Church, and indeed may differ among themselves about some of the points I raise here. Non-Catholic Christians are free to associate themselves with what I say here, as they see fit. I do not want to presume to speak for all Christians of every denomination.
I will leave it to each of you, whatever your faith background may be, to associate yourselves with what I say, as you see fit. Indeed, I hope that all of you, Christian and non-Christian alike, will wish to associate yourselves with what some of what I say here. At the very least, I hope you will have gained some respect for the ancient Christian teachings.
Part 1: What Christians believe
So what is the ancient teaching of Christianity? We believe that God created the universe out of nothing, as an act of pure love. He did not need to create: He is completely sufficient in Himself. But the Divine love among the three persons of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit gushed out into the series of creative acts recorded in Genesis. God declared everything He had created to be “good.” (Gen 1:10) After the creation of man, God declared His creation to be “very good.” (Gen 1:31)
It is an article of our faith that everything God created is good. God did not create anything evil.
“Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness…. So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Gen 1:26) What does it mean to be created in the image and likeness of God? Christians believe “God is love,” (1 John 4:8) and that God is a communion of persons, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To be created in the image of a Trinitarian God, is to be created for love and for communion with others.
Because “it is not good for man to be alone,” God created woman. Upon seeing her, Adam exclaimed, “this one at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” (Gen 2:23). Eve is not a clone of Adam, nor is she so different that she is another species. She is like him but not identical with him. Genesis continues, “Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Gen 2:24) With these words, God created marriage, the first human social institution. He told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply, which is the first of His commands. (Gen 1:28)
God created Adam and Eve out of love, and for love. God intended them to love Him and to love one another. But love cannot be coerced. Love must be freely given. Therefore, God created us with the capacity to choose to love or not love. All other choices pale before this basic choice: to love or not to love. It is the unbroken teaching of the Catholic Church, that God created us with freedom.
With that great gift of freedom comes the possibility of choosing wrongly, of choosing against the love of God. And that is exactly what our first parents did. The serpent convinced them that “You shall be as gods,” if they choose against God’s one simple rule not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. (Gen 3:5) Of course, they became no such things as gods. We men and women are not gods, but creatures of God.
The story of the Fall of Man in Genesis says that sin came into the world through the misuse of human freedom. And this continues to be the story of the human race. We are created “very good” by God. But we choose not according to the deep and unending love that He has for us. Instead, like petulant children intent on getting our own way, we choose our immediate desires over our deepest needs. Then we lie to ourselves. We try to squirm out of it, by blaming others, just as Adam tried to blame Eve, and Eve tried to blame the serpent. Freedom and responsibility go hand in hand.
But God cannot be fooled. He understood that Adam and Eve had made a fundamental choice to try to go it alone. His love continued: He didn’t destroy them or the world He had made. He permitted them to go their way. The human race continued in existence, and continued to have responsibility for creation. God never abandoned them, nor ceased loving them and their children.
Human Love in the Divine Plan
Human love is part of the divine plan. God, the author of all life, could have created us differently than He did. He could perform an act of special creation with each and every new person, without requiring any human participation at all. But as a matter of fact, in the world in which we actually live, the sexual act between a man and a woman can bring forth new life. Human participation in procreation is part of an act of love between the man and the woman. The love of human parents for each other gushes over into the creation of a new life, just as the divine love within the Trinity gushed forth into the creation of the world.
It is also a simple matter of fact that we cannot completely control the creation of new life. The creation of a new human being requires the cooperation between man, woman and God. There is a “random” element to every act of intercourse. Even artificial reproductive technology, which seems to be the ultimate in human control over procreation, has a large random element to it. It has been said that “random” acts are God’s way of remaining anonymous. But I don’t think that description does justice to God’s participation in the creation of new life.
God’s part in the creation of new life is always love. A man and woman may conceive a child by accident, or through rape. They may conceive a child in a drunken stupor or in the back seat of a car. They may conceive a child without having any relationship with each other at all, using artificial means.
But God’s participation is always love. No matter what our motives or behaviour, no matter how careless or violent or unjust or unprepared we may be, God’s participation in the process is always love. God loves each and every child conceived, no matter how they were conceived. Therefore, no matter what wrong we may have done, we must never regret the child that results. God loves the child and wills his or her existence.
This view of love in the Divine Plan, provides great hope and imposes great responsibility. Each of us can know that God wills our existence. This can be a source of great hope for those of us who have had conflicts or disappointments with our parents. No matter how disappointing our human parents may be, no matter how flawed they are, no matter how selfish and unloving they may be, we can know that God loved us into being.
We Christians are not so naive as to believe that every pair of human parents loves us like God loves us, or loves us as God would want them to. We know full well from our own experience that some parents do not bring their children into being in the fullness of love as God intended. We are all too aware that some of our parents’ love for one another dissolved or never existed, and even that their love for us dissolved or never existed. In spite of the sins of our parents, we can be confident that God loves each of us into existence. From the child’s perspective, this belief is certainly a source of comfort and hope.
From the adult’s point of view, however, the situation is a little more complicated. Believing that God wants us to love as He loves imposes some serious obligations on us.
The human sexual act was designed by God, as something similar to, but more than animal reproduction. As far as I know, our species is the only one that copulates face to face. As far as I know, our species is the only one in which the female is willing and able to participate in sex, even when she is not fertile or “in heat.” These observable facts from the natural world point to the idea that we participate in procreating through love.
God wants our participation in the sexual act to take place inside marriage. Getting married places the couple in a position to be relationally prepared for parenthood. Their relationship will be the foundation for their child’s life. By getting married, they make themselves ready for a child, even if they are poor in material things.
I know of a young man who became a father as an unmarried teenager. Many American men in his situation would have left the girlfriend to become a single mother, or would have encouraged her to get an abortion. But this young man married his girlfriend. They were poor in material terms. When the baby was born, they had no special crib or equipment for the baby. They brought her home from the hospital, and had her sleep in a drawer of a dresser that they had lined with blankets. Their love for their baby and for each other was more important than their prosperity. They now have four lovely daughters.
By getting married, the man and woman also pledge to a love that is greater than mere emotion or sentimentality. They vow to permanence and sexual exclusivity, promising to foreswear all others. They promise to share the whole of their lives, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do they part. This love is consummated in the sexual act, in which the two become one flesh.
We often chafe at these obligations. Yet in the civilizations shaped by Christianity, people have come to see that living up to these responsibilities is a great adventure, and worth the effort. God wants us to love our children into existence, as a by-product of loving our spouses.