The Christmas season brings families together for meals and celebrations. The liturgy of the season brings us into the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The Archdiocese is bringing to Catholics who have fallen away from the regular practice of their faith an invitation to come home, to reconnect with the family of the faith (see www.catholicscomehomechicago.org). Our lives begin in families. Our formation as human beings begins in the family, where we learn how to live lovingly with others. Our growth in faith begins in families where we first learn to pray, to speak with the God who made us and redeems us and makes us holy. No one can be conceived and born alone; and those who, as they continue in life, are alienated from others live less than human lives. A family begins with the marriage of a man and a woman who promise to be faithful to one another until death for the sake of family, especially for the sake of the children who may be born of their loving union. This is how the human race understands marriage and family. This sense of family does not begin with Christianity; marriage is a universal natural institution. The Chinese, whose history antedates Judaism or Christianity, understand marriage as the union of a man and a woman that establishes a family. The Eskimos would give the same answer to the question about marriage and family. Only in recent years in some formerly Christian countries and in our own have some people decided that the state can, through an exercise of sheer political will, change the universal and public meaning of marriage and family. The political movement to change the meaning of marriage and family comes from a changed sense of what it means to be human. For those who see themselves only as individuals with rights rather than as persons with relations, there is no reason not to redefine marriage or anything else to correspond to whatever one might want it to be, using the power of the state to force others to conform. The various gay liberation movements build on this changed sense of what it means to be human in order to redefine sexual relations and move homosexual unions to the status of genuine marriage. The force of the movement comes from the desire of all, including homosexually oriented men and women, to find a love that will give life. Since the understanding of marriage is a matter of principle, reducing it to a matter of politics or a question of “rights” is destructive of the social order itself. The media, which are at home with politics and uneasy with principles, often cover the story inadequately. Reaction to this movement to redefine marriage arises, rather, from ordinary people themselves in referenda and also from those who try to contribute to the public conversation about the basis of society itself in the common good of all. In recent weeks, both the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a more informal group of Catholic, Orthodox and Evangelical Christians have issued important statements about marriage and family. The Bishops’ Pastoral Letter is called “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan.” It speaks of marriage as a blessing and a gift from God, as is all of nature. It starts by pointing to some of the forces that weaken marriage today and includes an extended theological reflection on marriage and a pastoral reflection on the ways that spouses can help each other to grow in holiness. It is thorough and clear; and it can be read online at www.usccb.org/laity/LoveandLife and at www.foryourmarriage.org and ordered from the USCCB at www.usccbpublishing.org. The letter will influence the work of our archdiocesan Family Ministries office and, I hope, will be helpful in every parish and read in every home. The second document issued recently is entitled the “Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience.” It goes beyond teaching clearly the truth about marriage and family and calls for prophetic witness against genocide, the destruction of the innocent in both war and in abortion, the neglect and abuse of children, the exploitation of vulnerable workers, the sexual trafficking of girls and a number of other issues related to the sanctity of human life and its transmittal in marriage and family. Keeping love and life united preserves the common good of all in any society. Adding to the importance of the “Manhattan Declaration” is the way it addresses the threat to religious liberty and to freedom of conscience should the state presume to redefine marriage. Calling upon the memory and the example of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the declaration states: “Because we honor justice and the common good, we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family.” As the group who wrote the declaration was being formed, I was asked to participate. I could not do so, not only because of time constraints but also because, as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, I cannot sign statements or give endorsements that might seem to engage the bishops’ conference itself. The bishops who head up important committees of the USCCB, however, are able to sign and have done so. I intend to do so in a year, when my term as president concludes. In the meantime, I would encourage everyone to read the declaration available at www.manhattandeclaration.org. Those who agree with its call can signal their approval by signing it electronically. Forming a family is never a purely private affair. Families are small societies that create the larger society we all participate in, whether or not we are married. Every one of us has a vested interest in protecting marriage and strengthening family life. This is God’s will for us as we move into celebrating the birth of Jesus. It takes faith to recognize who is born of the Virgin Mary. It takes love to offer our lives to him. It takes courage to follow him all our lives in his family, the church. God bless you.