The Holy Family and Catholic Social Doctrine
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
The Advent and Christmas seasons are great times to reflect on the lives of the Holy Family and how they relate to God’s concern for the poor, justice, and human life.
Central to the Church is her concern for the poor and the marginalized. The Holy Family was most certainly poor, even by the standards of their time. The sacrifice offered at the presentation in the temple was one prescribed for poor people. Nazareth and Bethlehem were not centers of wealth. Our God’s closeness to the poor is also expressed by the fact that our Lord was born in a stable.
The infancy narratives contain other examples of the Holy Family’s lowliness and marginalization, as well as special concern for justice. Mary’s Magnificat praises God because he exalts those of low degree, fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty. They lived in a conquered nation subject to the whims of the often brutal Roman empire. They were Jews in a pagan world. They were homeless, with no room at the inn. Jesus’ first visitors were shepherds, who at that time were considered dirty outcasts.
Mary and Joseph most likely experienced first-hand what it is like to be subjected to ridicule and rejection. We know in hindsight the circumstances of Jesus’ conception, as did Mary and Joseph. Those around them, however, probably saw only a girl who conceived out-of-wedlock and a man who was willing to bring shame on himself by marrying this “fallen” girl. Although they committed no sin, we can be assured that they hear the prayers and feel the pain of those ostracized and feeling alone.
The innate dignity of all human persons is, of course, brought forth in the lives of Mary and Joseph, but it can also be seen in others in the infancy narratives. We live in a society that often marginalizes the old. At Jesus’ presentation in the temple we see the prophetess Anna. Working from Luke’s text, some scholars conclude that she might have been 105 years old. Elizabeth and Zachariah were old, at least beyond child-bearing years. Yet God answers their prayers and they conceived John the Baptist.
John the Baptist’s story demonstrates the dignity of the human person at the other end of the spectrum. When Mary, bearing Jesus, visits Elizabeth the babe “leaped in her womb” and she was filled with the Holy Spirit. Note to abortion advocates: clumps of tissue do not leap or receive the Holy Spirit.
After Jesus’ birth, the Holy Family again experiences some of the same pains and trials experienced by people today. Like refugees fleeing places like Syria and Somalia, the Holy Family was forced to leave their homeland for Egypt. They became immigrants, aliens in an strange land. The massacre of the children by Herod’s men that followed should remind us of the children today who are killed by war, terrorism, and abortion.
We usually gloss over these facts when remembering Christmas. Our Christmas cards and nativity scenes present an ideal pastoral image rather than the aesthetic ugliness of poverty. We sanitize the portrayal so we are left only with the Holy Family’s humility. They truly were humble, but their humility and faithfulness should not cause us to lose sight of their plight. Nor should we twist the scriptures to conclude that because Mary and Joseph did not complain the poor should “buck up” and accept what is dealt them. On the contrary, because Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were poor, we need to help the poor. Because they were immigrants, we need to welcome the immigrant. Because they were human persons, we should protect and embrace all human life.