10 Things That Are Strengthening the Family

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It’s impossible to dispute any item on Father Dwight Longenecker’s list of things that are killing the family. To have eyes is to see that we are in deep trouble, for all the reasons he notes. 

And yet, I want to say, “And yet, for all that...”

It’s tempting for conservatives to get so appalled by the losses we see all around us that we fail to take note of the good that’s been unfolding too. It’s important to notice the good, not just so that we don’t get depressed, but so that we have a more complete and balanced sense of reality — what God is about in the world, and which of our efforts are most likely to bear fruit.

Here is a conscious thought I have nearly every day: I’m so glad I get to be married now, in this post-JP II world!

Jules and I had read Love and Responsibility before our wedding 25 years ago. We had read The Jeweler’s Shop and Theology of the Body. We’d read von Hildebrand’s books on MarriageMan and Woman, the Heart, and Purity. We’d had courses on the nature of love and on Christian marriage. 

Maybe even more significantly, at Franciscan University we were drawn into the charismatic renewal. We were encouraged daily by happy, faith-filled friars, faculty and fellow students to know Jesus personally, to receive the sacraments, to love the Church, to pray, to grow in holiness, to live for God. ... During our courtship we would often meet in the morning for Liturgy of the Hours with the TORs and again later at daily Mass with all our friends. 

Our parents’ and grandparents’ generations had nothing like these advantages — nothing like the transcendent theological, philosophical and poetic vision of marriage that had been revealed to us, nothing like that inspiring and sustaining atmosphere of prayer and praise. They had all been raised Catholic. They knew that marriage was about children and that it was supposed to be for life.

But did they have the thrill and intimate consolation of understanding that it was a font of grace and a path to sanctity? Did they know that it was a living icon of the Trinity? Had they been taught that the Church celebrates conjugal love and promotes the genius of woman? I don’t think so. All that came later, mostly through Vatican II, the “new movements” in the Church, and the papacy of John Paul II.*

All I have to do to be flooded with fresh gratitude for the gains of modernity is read an old book or watch an old movie. Fiddler on the Roof, anyone? It wasn’t so long ago that fathers chose their daughters’ husbands. Or how about The Quiet Man? Wife-beating used to be thought amusing. Sexual morality in pre-conciliar Catholic mores basically boiled down to sin avoidance — a list of things that you weren’t allowed to do. Courting couples needed constant chaperones. Young women who got pregnant out of wedlock were disgraced. And so on.

The developments of our age haven’t been all bad, have they?

Here are 10 “modern goods” for the family I wouldn’t want the world ever to be without again.

  1. The valid achievements of feminism. I’m not talking about the man-hating, abortion-celebrating, bra-burning radicals. I’m talking about those who fought for and established the equal dignity of women in society, law, and culture. I’m talking about the end of patriarchy — the practical assumption that women are to be subordinate to men in the social hierarchy. I’m talking about women’s right to vote, to higher education, to full participation in public life, and to equal dignity with her husband in marriage. Things like that.
  2. NFP and a much deeper and richer understanding of married love and sexuality. Before Humanae Vitae, a normal Catholic couples’ options were essentially limited to more children or total abstinence. Before John Paul II, there was very little understanding of the unitive meaning of conjugal relations. It was normal for Catholic husbands to think of sex as their right and for wives to think of it as their duty. Humanae Vitae didn’t just condemn artificial contraception, it endorsed family planning. John Paul II’s writings afterward extolled the beauty and greatness of spousal love, and its central place in God’s plan of redemption for the world. That vision is a constant source of help and strength and joy and gratitude to married couples everywhere now.
  3. Greater respect for children. This one is especially counterintuitive for conservatives, since we live with constant anguish over the evils of abortion and fatherlessness and IVF and such horrors. But consider, for just a small instance, the growth and spread of Montessori education, which centers on respect for the dignity and individuality of each child. Think, too, about how commonplace corporal punishment used to be, even in schools. Browse the psychology and biography sections of a bookstore and take note of how much damage an authoritarian, emotionally cold, conformist model of parenting that used to be normal and acceptable has done in the world. As a society, we have become much more aware of the child’s fundamental right and need to have her individuality affirmed, respected, and encouraged by the adults in her life. This is genuine progress.
  4. A better appreciation of and care for those with handicaps and/or mental illness. My grandmother was an exceptionally virtuous woman, Catholic for all her 90+ years. But I will never forget the ugly look of disgust on her face when she talked about her “retarded” niece. Birth defects, special needs, and mental illness used to be seen as shameful. It was decades before the world knew, for instance, that JFK had a sister in a mental institution, or that Arthur Miller had a disabled daughter locked away somewhere. Now there is a huge amount of social acceptance, care and practical support for those afflicted with these conditions and for their families. This, too, is progress.
  5. The dying-away of clericalism and the emergence of the lay vocation. The relation between the hierarchy and the laity used to be highly paternalistic. Priests were the experts, the leaders, the superiors. They were in charge. The role of the laity was to “pay, pray and obey.” It’s radically different now, isn’t it? The lay vocation is widely understood to be a path to holiness. There are countless lay theologians and philosophers teaching in Catholic universities and seminaries. The great initiatives that are renewing the Church in our day are for the most part lay initiatives — in the pro-life movement, evangelization, catechesis, education and the arts. We have a ways to go before the work is complete, but there is no question that the laity are gradually coming into our own in the Church, as Vatican II intended and called for. 
  6. Social mobility. The rootlessness that plagues our culture is bad, just as Father Longenecker says. On the other hand, it’s not all bad. Some extended families needed breaking up. Some local cultures — places mired in chronic welfare dependence, say, or where organized crime has a choke hold on the economy — are dysfunctional and impoverished. The freedom young people have today to decide what to do with their lives and where to center them, while not unproblematic, is basically positive. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the way the Church would “grow smaller,” but that vibrant communities of faith would develop and draw many in. It’s good that we have the possibility of helping establish those communities, and of moving freely toward them — leaving desolate places in search of a land richer in milk and honey, according to longstanding tradition.
  7. Twelve-step programs. Is there a family left in the country that hasn’t been helped, or saved even, through AA and its offshoots? It has justly been called the most successful renewal movement of all time, considering its numbers, global reach, efficacy and duration. And to be familiar with its essence and method is to recognize Pope Francis’ (notably personalist) themes for the New Evangelization. It advances through “attraction, not promotion”; it’s about sharing stories, not proselytizing; it’s about fellow sinners helping each other, rather than moral instructors and judges being expert in the law and in pointing out others’ faults. And it is, quite distinctly, a fruit of modernity.
  8.  Social networking. I know. I hate it, too. It’s ephemeral, disembodied, unreal, distracting, addictive and depressing. But it’s also great. It allows far-flung families and friends to keep in touch with each other’s lives. It’s a way for like-minded people to find each other, connect with each other, and encourage each other. It is a useful tool for the New Evangelization, compensating to a degree for the problem of geographic dispersion and isolation among the faithful, and making it possible to reach and nurture open hearts and minds the world over.
  9. Annulments. No one should be surprised to find that one of the consequences of a deeper and fuller understanding of the nature of marriage is that many apparent marriages will be exposed as unreal. Too many couples live together in misery, without love, and without the grace of the sacrament. It used to be that their options were practically reduced to stick it out or go to hell. The wider availability of annulments in our day gives them hope of human happiness again. (I know a Catholic woman in her 70s who got married after a whirlwind courtship, saying to herself, “If it doesn’t work out, I can always get a divorce.” Only 30 years later, having mentioned it in confession, did she learn that that thought was grounds for annulment; that she hadn’t really been married. She was surprised at how difficult it was for her afterwards to choose true marriage; to close the mental escape hatch she had kept open all those years.)
  10. The homeschooling movement. I have dear devout friends who scrimped and saved and sacrificed to put their 10 children through Catholic parochial schools in the late ’60s and ’70s, not realizing what was happening to catechesis at the time. They trusted the nuns. That was what Catholics of that generation did. Now we know better. Now Catholic parents take responsibility for their children’s education. We have resources and support groups.

All of these good developments spring, I propose, from the same truth-root, viz. an emerging new appreciation of what Karol Wojtyla called “the inviolable mystery of the human person,” his freedom and responsibility as a unique, incommunicable, self-determining moral agent, called to love and communion. It’s the valid “theme” of the modern period. Wojtyla again:

“The Council and the Church … regard the call concerning the dignity of the human person as the most important voice of our age.”

If we want to “hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches” in our day, we should open our ears to that essential message.

*Of course it was always implicitly given in the doctrines of our faith, and there have always been a few who found a way to live it. But it was John Paul II, above all, who “cast into the deeps” of the mystery of conjugal love, drew it out, and made its truth and beauty widely available to ordinary Catholics. He was able to do it in part because of his intense, receptive listening to the concerns and aspirations of modernity. His relationship to modern thought wasn’t rejectionist, but discerning. He separated the wheat from the chaff, then reinvigorated Catholic thought, by assimilating “whatever is true” into her living tradition.