Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, may have coined a new word when he described contemporary American society as “defamilied”. While some participants in the Synod of Bishops may think that the Church should make things easier for Christian spouses, the archbishop contends that “We have to ask more of families”.
His position is well taken. Contraception, sterilization, abortion, same-sex marriage, certain forms of reproductive technology, the negative birthrate, along with other divisive factors, have, according to Archbishop Paglia, caused the family to be “torn apart for the first time in history”. The last thing that is needed is to weaken marriage and the family by capitulating even further to secular mores. An athlete, whose substandard performance is due to his being overweight, does not improve his performance by becoming even more overweight. The “defamilied” family must be “refamilied”.
Currently, in America, 75% of youths grow up without fathers, while nearly 50% of adults live alone. Abortion is rampant, and contraception is taken for granted. The family has splintered. What is urgently needed is a return to the integrity of the family. The text book axiom that the family is the basic unit of society is now being replaced by the notion that the individual is the basic unit of society. Needless to say, the very meaning of society includes non-individualistic notions such as unity, cooperation, solidarity, and a common good. Sheer individualism breeds chaos, and chaos breeds violence.
The family is irreplaceable as the foundation of society. For G. K. Chesterton, “This triangle of truisms, of father, mother and child, cannot be destroyed: It can only destroy those civilizations which disregard it.” It is, as Pope Benedict XVI has stated, “an intermediate institution between individuals and society, and nothing can completely take its place.” The family, then, honors the uniqueness of each individual child, but, through love and proper education, assists and directs them toward their proper place in society. In other words, the family raises persons who are simultaneously unique individuals and responsible members of the community. There can be no real community without real persons.
Saint John Paul II has described the indispensable role of the family in the following terms: “The first and fundamental structure for ‘human ecology’ is the family, in which man receive his first formative ideas about truth and goodness, and learns what it means to love and be loved, and thus what it actually means to be a person.” This is why the former Pontiff never tired of reiterating that the person is central to the development and maintenance of culture.
The great problem that bishops face now is how to make a true Christian family attractive in a culture that is more dedicated to individualism. This problem is akin to the more universal problem of how to make personal sacrifice appealing in a culture that is dominated by self-gratification. This is essentially the age-old problem of how to make Christianity plausible in an atmosphere where sin is prevalent.
Individuality alone is an illusion. One’s moral strength, his ability to resist corrupting temptations is owed largely to the love and formation he received from his family. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas could not have said it better: “Without the family, and the inter-generational ties involved, we have no way to know what it means to be historic beings. As a result we become determined by rather than determining our histories. Set out in the world with no family, without a story of and for the self, we will simply be captured by the reigning ideologies of the day.”
The increasingly loose structure that is now called a “family” needs to return to the original notion of a family, modeled by the Holy Family and honored throughout the generations and throughout the world. By strengthening the family, the individual as well as society become strengthened. The experiment of trying to replace the family with individualism has run its course and the unhappy results should be plain to see. Archbishop Paglia is on sold ground when he says that individualism is a “virus,” and “The first victim of this virus is the family, the first place where everything begins.”