John Paul II goes on to emphasize that the family—comprised of mothers, fathers and children—is the specific way that humans are made in the image of God:
God creates by the power of his word: “Let there be…!” (e.g., Gen 1:3). Significantly, in the creation of man this word of God is followed by these other words: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’ (Gen 1:26). Before creating man, the Creator withdraws as it were into himself, in order to seek the pattern and inspiration in the mystery of his Being, which is already here disclosed as the divine “We.” From this mystery, the human being comes forth by an act of creation: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27).
John Paul II is charting new intellectual territory in this passage. After two millennia of philosophers and theologians explaining humans being “made in the image of God” (in imago dei) with reference to our intellect or our will, John Paul II is explaining it instead with reference to the family. He claims that before God created human beings, he withdrew into himself, identified the pattern of his own being which John Paul II calls “the divine We,” and from that pattern creates human beings, Adam and Eve, who are made to be together as a husband and wife, and whom God commands to be fruitful and multiply, and bear a family. On the occasion of the Year of the Family (1994), John Paul II is making new inroads, developing a theology of family. His insight is that mothers and fathers together are a better reflection of God than one individual is, since mothers and fathers reflect the Blessed Trinity better than one person does.
Human reproduction is a reflection of the creative power of God, and the human family is creation’s best reflection of God himself. “The primordial model of the family is to be sought in God himself, in the Trinitarian mystery of his life. The divine “We” is the eternal pattern of the human “we,” especially of that “we” formed by the man and the woman created in the divine image and likeness.” John Paul II is making the bold claim that motherhood and fatherhood together reflect the divine image.
John Paul II elaborates on ways motherhood reflects God. In describing Trinitarian “communion,” he says that communion has to do with the personal relationship between the “I” and the “thou.” He writes: “On the human level, can there be any other ‘communion comparable to that between a mother and child whom she has carried in her womb and then brought to birth?” John Paul II sees in a mother’s relationship with her newborn child perhaps the greatest image of the communion of the persons of the blessed Trinity. The early Church fathers understood the imago dei Christologically: Iranaeus, for example, said that the human being is made in the image of Christ. Augustine developed this notion and saw the human person as made in the image of the Trinitarian mystery. Although Gregory of Nyssa understood the imago dei corporately, as reflective of the body of Christ, I am unaware of any doctor of the Church that has seen it as reflective of the family as such. John Paul II has taken great strides forward in developing a theology that allows for a concept of motherhood as reflective of both the divine essence and divine creation.