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Here’s something shocking that the bishops said about marriage—not the bishops in the Synod in Rome right now, but the Fathers of Vatican II. In Gaudium et Spes, they said that the task of being a father or mother is a munus, a Latin word that means “service, gift, duty, and office.” It is also the same word used to describe the gift and burden of offices in the Church. The munus docendi is the teaching office that bishops hold, the gift of grace and the responsibility they have for preaching and upholding the truths of the faith. A munus is an honor to receive and a burden to bear. In their exercise of their office, the bishops wrote:

Authentic married love is caught up into divine love and is governed and enriched by Christ’s redeeming power and the saving activity of the Church, so that this love may lead the spouses to God with powerful effect and may aid and strengthen them in the sublime office [munere] of being a father or a mother. For this reason Christian spouses have a special sacrament by which they are fortified and receive a kind of consecration in the duties and dignity of their state. By virtue of this sacrament, as spouses fulfill their conjugal and family obligation [munus], they are penetrated with the spirit of Christ, which suffuses their whole lives with faith, hope and charity. Thus they increasingly advance the perfection of their own personalities, as well as their mutual sanctification, and hence contribute jointly to the glory of God. (48) 

Here the bishops show how high and grand the Catholic understanding of marriage is. As it is lived out, marriage is perhaps the most ordinary of vocations. It involves cleaning dirty socks, reading stories, correcting and listening, exchanging gentle glances, and having bad sex. Yet this ordinary life can be “caught up into divine love,” the divine love of which it is a sign. It leads spouses to God and helps them exercise the office given to them by God. It is the means of their salvation. As parents exercise their office of motherhood and fatherhood, the bishops continue, they should know the importance of that to which they have been called:

Parents should regard as their proper mission the task of transmitting human life and educating those to whom it has been transmitted. They should realize that they are thereby cooperators with the love of God the Creator, and are, so to speak, the interpreters of that love. Thus they will fulfill their task [munus] with human and Christian responsibility, and, with docile reverence toward God, will make decisions by common counsel and effort. (50)

This is why Lumen Gentium 11 speaks of the family as the domestic Church. In the realm of the home, parents take on a similar role to that of bishops in the broader church. They are interpreters of the love of God to those under their care. They are, to use the phrase of Benedict XVI on the night of his election, co-workers in the vineyard of the Lord—in that particular corner of his vineyard in which they and their children live. Their role as fathers and mothers is truly a munus not unlike that of the shepherds of the Church.

Gaudium et Spes also teaches that the family is “a kind of school of deeper humanity,” as the Vatican’s website translates it. But “deeper” is actually uberioris. It means “more fertile, rich, abundant, fruitful.” The family is a school of richer humanity. It is one of the gateways Christ has provided to those who wish to receive the abundant life he offers. It is a means of knowing and loving the one who is the glory of God, man fully alive, in the words of Irenaeus of Lyons.

As the bishops continue their deliberation, we should hope and pray that they remember these passages from Gaudium et Spes. We should pray that they would be mindful of how to exercise their office so that mothers and fathers can better exercise theirs. For that, in the end, is the point of the exercise of all munera in the Church: living lives penetrated by the love of Christ, becoming more conformed to him, and inviting others—children spiritual or natural—to receive him. 

Nathaniel Peters is a doctoral student in theology at Boston College.

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