Happy Families

Family of four people walking a dog in forest
Picture of Tony Kelly CSsR

Tony Kelly CSsR

Tony Kelly, a priest of the Redemptorist Order. Doctoral and post-doctoral studies in Rome, Toronto and Paris

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.  Living as family belongs to the practical implementation of faith and love confronted with inhumanity in all its guises.  That is a gift of the Spirit, as well as it a necessity for human welfare.

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, the battleground of the id and superego, etc., etc… 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. And then, 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. The family appeared as a massive incubus weighing on the economic productiveness of individuals and disempowering their enterprise.

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. The family, therefore, was classified as a particularly problematic subset of `human relations’.

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.  It is through families that an elemental renewal of the world takes place, as the generations are linked, in giving and receiving, in living and dying.

In its particular care for the uniqueness of individuals, the abstract notion of humanity to which some high-minded thinkers are devoted is called into question.  Likewise, the inflated balloon of an oppressive and ideologically driven common good is pricked by the spikey, ever- unfinished reality of real people in their most essential relationships and development.  Before there is any philosophy or theology of sociology there is a family living in the actuality of its existence, with its joys and responsibilities, trials and surprises, diversity and uniqueness.

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. The words of a recent Pope make this point :

The social role of families is called upon to find expression also in the form of political intervention .. families should grow in awareness of being protagonists  of `family politics’, and of assuming responsibility for transforming society. Other wise they will be the first victims of the evils they have noted only with indifference.. (Familiaris Cconsortio, par. 44)

Problems there are: the family is so elemental and reflection is so abstract. In its own circle, and on its own scale, the family is engaged in the very dramas that agitate the world scene. It knows that strutting generals of every junta and murdering ethnic cleansers of the Balkans, Rwanda were once little boys who played as soldiers. It knows too that those most entrenched in greed were once little children who were never taught to share, and that those whose whole lives are lived in a lonely intense hatred of others, betrayed, exploited or destroyed as the case might be, were once and still remain the son or daughter who never knew the warmth of home. More soberly, it knows that the hatreds and prejudice that continue to embitter the world were allowed to flourish in a human home. Poverty, unemployment, war or political unrest are not abstract negative factors in a demographer’s graph.  In the family, such considerations have a piercing particularity: the empty space left by a boy dragged off on some unintelligible summons of war; the worry in parents’ eyes meeting over the table as the children eat the last of the food; the shambling depression of unemployment; the commotion in the house next door when the police come; waiting up at night in dread that son or daughter will not be coming back…

On the family scale, there are no theoretical issues. 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. But, as the home of the personal and the particular, the family is the living subversion of the generalisations and abstractions that are used to control its world: “It is within the family that citizens come to birth… and find the first school of social values which are the animating principles of the existence and development of society itself” (FC *42).

In the meantime, families are there, and here to stay if the human race is going to continue. The problem is one of devising a new language suitable to the enduring, life-giving love that is the makeup of family existence. It is first of all ‘body language, more basic than spiritual, scientific or even religious ways of speaking. We are not `pure spirits tentatively considering possible incarnations’ (Mary Midgely), but concrete embodied human beings with `highly particular, sharply limited needs and possibilities’[1]. Our capacities to bond, to care for our young, to feel for the whole group are rooted in our evolutionary animal nature: `We are not just like animals; we are animals’[2].

Such perceptions counteract the prevailing liberal conception of the human person as an isolated, self-sufficient individual, jealously asserting his or her own rights. It also presents a healthy challenge to any theology of universal love which might tend to be excessively ethereal and unaware of its limitations. Our biological nature gives priority of to certain feelings and ordered relationships that must be respected.  Consequently, we interact within the particularities of time and space in accord with our evolutionary heritage. Consequently, love for the other is not a purely spiritual virtue and gift, but is something bred into us within the dynamics of evolutionary survival and development. The gift of grace and charity comes to heal and bring to perfection what we naturally are. And what we are in the world of nature precedes personal consciousness and freedom, and can never be repudiated without denaturing ourselves in a fundamental manner. For example, we do not live in a non-sexual or unisexual biological world, nor do we suddenly appear as individuals without the generative intervention of parents, and all the connections and dependencies that make up the family. We belong to the whole human family from our membership in a particular family, at a particular time and in a particular place. And yet such a particular belonging is the basis for a deep sympathy and an immeasurably larger belonging to the whole community of living things on this planet. Family life will not let us forget that we are embodied, as earthlings, in the biology of our planet.

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 in an inescapable manner. For many, it has been a scene of the most intimate devastation: marriages break down, families break up. 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? The harrowing decisions implied in a couple’s staying together, in having their children, in staying with them through all the crises and stages of development, in coping with the manipulations of the consumer society, in just surviving and providing … ‘it is worth it’ only if our humanity is worth it.

Governments have been faced with a bewildering array of new social issues: womens’ rights, decriminalising homosexuality, abortion-law reform, decent procedures to facilitate the decomposition of marriages and families subject to irretrievable breakdown, social services responsive to the problems of unemployment and all the issues related to violence in the home, homeless youth and childcare centres. 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, that 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. Dozens of different organisations, religious and otherwise, are attempting to interpret the family, not as a victim of social change, but in its potential to be the agent of social transformation.

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 deepening its sense of God, the family can be on the way to a rediscovery of both its wholeness and holiness. The family provides the matrix for the great elemental experiences of life, love and relationships that a jaded secularism can repress for only so long. 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. To live and thrive as a family is to live from the deepest roots of our humanity. Family life is an ongoing experiment with those ultimate values of which the larger worlds of our lives are now starved. In its rhythms and routines, the family remains the tough, durable, surprisingly flexible embodiment of the whole of life’s hopeful mystery.

Before any theory of human rights, there is the individual’s experience of an unconditional acceptance within a family. Home is the gift of belonging to a family, and of enjoying membership of the human race. In the home, we did not have to establish our worth or credentials. It is where we are taken in, accepted, without regard to age or sex, success or failure, talent or the lack of it. Through a family, I exist, find a place, and am encouraged to learn and grow. Out of such fundamental acceptance, we all experience the basic stuff out of which human rights are made.

In something the same way, before we can begin to think about human dignity or the status of the human person.  In the primary communication of the family circle, I have the elemental experience of being the irreducible uniqueness of who I am, with all the necessary surprise, pain and paradoxical solitude of this. For within that intimate circle, it becomes clear that no parents ever really chose, let alone planned the personality of the child: it is simply given; just as children will make abundantly clear, that they never really chose the personalities of their parents.  And more, no matter how intense the days of young love, no spouses ever fully understood the person of the one they married. The essential reality of the human person resists definition. In the intimacy of the family, we are all first of all made familiar with the mystery of the other as gift, the principle on which all democracy must finally rest.

Again, before we conceive of human existence in the larger structures of community and society, the family brings home another great truth: the human need to live from and for the other. Our existence is communication: without it we die; without it, perhaps, we never lived. Sexual, parental, filial relationships in the family circle display the essential relatedness of our human condition: the need and promise of co-existence, the radical incompleteness of each of us, as we look for a fulfilment that can only come by being with and for others. Written into the relationships of wife and husband, parent and child, brother and sister, of relative, friend and neighbour is the vital fact: we are members of one another. We necessarily co-exist, to form and be formed by a circle of others, in a community.  Our humanity is co-humanity, so much so that we live on this earth as the shared body of our co-existence.

            In the family, the experience of time—of a lifetime, of the generations— comes home in the poignant uniqueness, vulnerability and in the attainment of each human life. It comes home how we are each passing though time to both a ripening and a falling away. No love or loyalty or insurance can forestall an inevitable decline. But the family natively nourishes a vision of the whole of life; and in doing so lives not far from the questions that agitate all history: where are we really going? What is the meaning of our time together? How finally do we belong to one another? What are we dying into?

            Finally, as the matrix of such elemental experiences and values, the family embodies a question of the very nature of the world. Is that infinitely wider world, even of the universe itself, finally to be conceived of as a family, a home, a communion in which the values and relationships of home are still real? Is the family, when all is said and done, an anticipation of the world as home?,

            Only families can answer such questions. For 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.

[1]. Mary Midgley, Beast and Man: The Biological Roots of Human Nature, Cornell University, Ithaca, 1978, p. 71.

[2]. Midgely, Beast and Man…, p. xiii.

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