Big happy families

Picture of Tony Kelly CSsR

Tony Kelly CSsR

Tony Kelly is a Redemptorist priest and theologian

For all the wonders of Western thought, I do not believe there is a single philosopher or theologian in the long history leading to the modern era ever to busy himself (they were all men!) with this fundamental fact of our existence: we are family people, familial beings, born, growing, learning and dying in family groupings. For all the wonders of Western thought, I do not believe there is a single philosopher or theologian in the long history leading to the modern era ever to busy himself (they were all men!) with this fundamental fact of our existence: we are family people, familial beings, born, growing, learning and dying in family groupings.

For all the wonders of Western thought, I do not believe there is a single philosopher or theologian in the long history leading to the modern era ever to busy himself (they were all men!) with this fundamental fact of our existence: we are family people, familial beings, born, growing, learning and dying in family groupings.

No doubt, our great thinkers considered it was all somehow contained in what was said in their ideas about `being’, ‘spirit’, `truth’, `love’, `beauty’, `body and soul’, `politics’, and so forth. The fact that every human being was born of a man and a woman, had brothers and sisters, and grew to feel a rather powerful impulse to unite with another, and so to be part of a generation in the most literal sense, made philosophical comment superfluous. There was no need to define what was most obvious.

Oddly, too, given current Christian concerns, and all our pieties about the ‘Holy Family’, the gospel message is a part of the problem. The Lord summoned his followers to leave behind all the familiar things and the relationships of home and family for the sake of the Kingdom: the family, the clan, the tribe were presumed to work against the freedom to be totally open to the demands of God’s reign. Those who did God’s will were Jesus’ true relations.

Early ascetics and monks, later religious orders carried that message on. Perhaps it has left us ill-prepared to think positively of the family as a place of faith and Christian freedom, even as a “little church” in a culture that has now lost what was once taken for granted?

Of course, in the New Testament itself there is plenty of evidence of a new esteem for family life in the light of the new creation. Rejoining the family with the new energies of faith, hope and love, was a necessary condition at least for the Church’s continuance. But today, it seems there is need for a second re-entry, perhaps even more positive than that which first occurred. It will means valuing family existence as a vocation, even a charism.

The gospel in early Christian times worked to free the followers of Jesus from oppressive domesticating influences. There is, however, a more recent kind of reaction to the family which, culturally speaking, has become very powerful. This is the Freudian anti-family prejudice. Where late Victorian morality began to speak of domestic bliss in the bosom of the family, Freud saw a lot of psychic mischief: possessiveness, envy, powerplays of most intricate and subterranean cunning, i.e. the battleground of the id and superego.

In such an analysis, the family emerged as a nest of dysfunctionality. Various therapies sought to diagnose the pathologies inherent in family relationships—sibling rivalry, possessive mothers and authoritarian fathers, and so on. The independence of the individual was so highly prized that the original value of the family could hardly be named in the vocabulary of a truly free person.

Along with the Freudian critique of the family came the social critique of Marx and Engels. The latter, especially, saw the family structure as the hotbed of private possessiveness, social privilege and conservatism. More recently, there was the modern technological society and its upwardly mobile devotees. For them, family commitments were untidy and led to economic timidity and irrelevance.

A strange social and psychological rift occurred. What was most humanly obvious, was reduced to the most private zone, to be excluded from the public domain and having no part on the stage of history. In other words, the big, real world starts at the point where family life finishes.

In this kind of cultural schizophrenia, politics, economics and education took the opportunity to indulge their respective totalitarian pretensions. In a world where the family could not be named as a value, it returned as a bundle of problems which only professionals could treat. The social worker, the marriage counsellor, the Family Courts judge, the divorce lawyer, the police-officer, the criminologist turned in concern to the problem children of problem parents of problem families.

And this occurred in an increasingly problematic world unable to recognise the reality of the family except as exhibiting the symptoms of the disturbed society in which it operated. Moreover, the family became the focus of political conflicts. The language of family values fitted snugly into conservative-style rhetoric. It seemed to serve the militancy of right-wing views, and, at the same time, be quite foreign to the aspirations of the Socialist and the Revolutionary.

Its traditional images – strong father, loving mother, dutiful children – more easily serve the rhetoric of those intent on defending their own authority, protecting privilege, excluding the outsider, inspiring patriotism, and oppressing women – concerns endlessly expressed in academic and political commentary – and prejudice. But beyond the ideological fixations of Right and Left, is the reality, a family as it actually and concretely is, nurturing the unique lives of individuals from generation unto generation.

The simple wisdom of the family seems a long way removed from the world’s grand strategies to combat war, injustice and prejudice. But those noble aims are doomed if the fundamental reality of the family is not given its due. When the voice of the family heard in politics, the iron-clad theories of competing ideologies become obsolete.

Families deal with the particular and personal, the loved and cherished uniqueness of human lives – all the things that get lost in the computers, the statistics, the policies and the abstractions by which life is governed. Families are here to stay if the human race is to continue.

Our biological nature gives priority of to certain feelings and ordered relationships that must be respected. It does no good to romanticise family life. Though it lives the great global values that hold the world together, it also experiences great human crises. For many, it has been a scene of the most intimate devastation including marriage break down. For all families, the question is never far away: Is it worth it? Why is it that what is most essential to human survival has become so disproportionately difficult?

Governments have been faced with a bewildering array of new social issues: womens’ rights, decriminalising homosexuality, abortion-law reform, unemployment, domestic violence and homeless youth. They probably feel that talking about the family is another instance of re-inventing the wheel, without realising that the wheel has turned, and has a crushing effect on what is most precious and vulnerable in family life.

The Church has long been natural champion of the family with its affirmation of the sacramental reality of marriage and the sanctity of family life. But it has had to address new problems in a new context. Prohibitions against divorce, contraception and abortion have their own hallowed logic, given the loftiness of the Christian vision. The problem has been that such a vision is not so simply available anymore: often warnings and condemnations were the only message struggling families heard from the Church. When families desperately needed bread, they were too often given a stone.

The tendency is therefore for the family to be viewed as a problematic sub-division of human relations. Secular expertise now analysed it, diagnosing its problems and prescribing its remedies, ignorant of the biblical sacredness of the family and the sacramental significance of marriage. When the culture as a whole exalted the role of the self-fulfilling individual and pandered to the solitary consumer, family life had little to fall back on. And when it turned for entertainment to TV or film, `family entertainment’ favoured Disneyland.

And yet, the family survives, defying its oft-predicted doom, and is now even in a stage of rediscovery. Governments have realised that it is the main welfare agency in society, and the Church has rallied to recognise the mission of family people. Recent popes have spoken about the ecclesiola, the domestic church, the basic community in the household of the faith.

The source of a new confidence lies, it seems, in a deeper appreciation of what the family is. God is not remote from experience, but the mystery intimately lived in the depths of human relationships. In the family all the issues of life and death, human dignity and human belonging, of love, forgiveness and hope, in a quite literal sense, come home.

The family is not only facing the great human questions. It is generating the great human answers. It gives a living texture to the vocabulary of love, hope, reconciliation, faithfulness and celebration. Not without heartbreak and tears, it is still the place where most love is felt and most laughter is heard.

And if it is to recover a new wholeness, which cannot be far from holiness, it will come to a new knowledge of what the great Christian tradition speaking of a limitless love incarnate in our humanity, and of the Holy Spirit in our midst, inspiring and enabling the gracious relationships that make human life possible and hopeful.


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