|Lexicon: The Family and Philosophy|
The attacks which human beings and the family suffer today are in large part the result of confusions of language. These confusions refer to fundamental questions: person and individual, equality and identity, liberty and lawfulness, pleasure and happiness. They are at the same time a consequence of a reconsideration of marriage, which is the foundation of the family. This natural institution, which is the family, is characterized by a stable union between a man and a woman, who commit themselves to love each other and to transmit life. From the moment in which the two aspects of the conjugal institution are separated, the natural institution is trampled on, and the legal dispositions that regulate it remain without object. The artifice of contraception, dissociated from the two goals of marriage, attacks the very heart of the institution of marriage. Moreover, the words “marriage” and “family” can be used in order to define any kind of union. Semantic anarchy can only produce harmful effects for the social fabric, whose axis has always been the heterosexual and monogamous family. (Enlarged Family; Single Parent Family; Family, Nature and Person; Traditional Family; New Family Models)
In the Encyclical Letter Fides et ratio Pope John Paul II writes: “Every philosophical system while it should always be respected in its wholeness, without any instrumentalisation, must still recognise the primacy of philosophical enquiry, from which it stems and which it ought loyally to serve” (4). The Pope’s thought is that the great systems of thought constructed with rigour and systematic order by philosophers must serve the inclination to philosophical questions that is found in the heart of every man and woman. All people are filled with wonder at the contemplation of creation, including the creation of the human; wonder stirs even the simplest to seek true answers to life’s most important questions. Thus the role of the philosopher is rationally to guide and inform the human attempt to create a wisdom for living by, a philosophy of life, and to indicate the differences between reality and appearance, truth and falsity (Fides et ratio 81-83; Familiaris consortio 8).
Contemporary secular philosophers often dismiss concepts of wisdom, reality and truth. It is argued that if all thought is relative to cultural contexts (“cultural relativism”), there is no wisdom deeper than the wisdom of our own times, our own peers; if all categories are impositions by powerful males (“postmodernism”), nothing is real, everything is just as it appears to the individual; if all choices are personal tastes (“subjectivism”), there are no moral truths and any sort of vice and imperfection can be judged acceptable and admirable. These and other views are prevalent today in all areas, including the area of family. The philosophical attack on family life does not generally hold “families are bad” but rather “your definition of family is discriminatory; we wish to redefine family to include new forms of relationship.” In this contribution I discuss and respond to the various motives and arguments for redefining family today. In doing so, I am guided by the Pope’s call in Fides et ratio for a philosophy that is richly realist-objectivist and provides people with a guide for good living in the world.
Personal relationships involve distinct individuals who form a unity. Some relationships, e.g, commercial or legal relationships, have a unity that is variable, fixed only by custom and use. Other relationships possess an objective unity; these relationships are family and friendship. The unity in friendship is the result of distinct individuals wishing and striving for the good of each other; the unity in family is the result of distinct individuals giving themselves totally to each other (see Familiaris consortio 19: “The indivisible unity of conjugal communion”). Just as all friendship proceeds from mutual well-wishing, all family life proceeds from mutual self-giving. Mutual well-wishing is not sufficient for total self-giving: friendship, however rich and loving, is not family. For total self-giving requires complete acceptance–physically, psychologically and spiritually–by the other of what is offered; complete acceptance can only be of someone relevantly “other” than oneself; and this means total self-giving requires sexual differentiation as well as sexual consummation. Family is founded on the marriage of a man and a woman, a relationship in which individuals are united by radical self-donation that is open to the prospect of offspring (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2202; see also Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility [London: Collins, 1981], p. 242: “The family is an institution created by procreation within the framework of marriage”). From this concept of family comes the associated concept of extended family, formed from the close relatives of spouses and children who support and enjoy the environment of love which is family life (Pope John Paul II, Letter To Families 1994, 14).
One of the great achievements of the modern era has been gradually to win equal recognition of the dignity of all human beings. Equality, however, is often misunderstood. It is a moral and political principle which states that since human beings have value just in virtue of being human, no human being can be treated as if they have greater or lesser value than any other. Some thinkers, however, claim that we treat people as if they have greater or lesser value whenever we make any differentiation concerning what is due to them; thus when we refuse to call a relationship between two women and a child conceived by artificial insemination a family we are said to be denying equality by treating their relationship as of lesser value than relationships between spouses. Of course, we are doing no such thing. Rather, we are claiming that whereas their relationship might possess unity based on mutual well-wishing, between genuine spouses there is a very different sort of unity based on total self-giving, which requires sexual differentiation. We do not offend against equality by treating different forms of human relationship differently.
Nor do we offend against equality by denying that it is the supreme moral value. The purpose of equality, and of every other moral and political principle, is to assist us to adopt reasonable means in promoting the common good, the full flourishing of all human persons in community. The common good requires a diversity of persons working on different tasks and so possessing different duties and rights: it requires inequalities of role and responsibility (Benedict Ashley, Justice in the Church: Gender and Participation [Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1996], Ch. 1). This in no way suggests individuals are unequal in dignity or in basic human rights. Indeed, to serve the common good in the ways for which one is suited is to enhance one’s dignity (see Laborem exercens 40) and to foster basic human rights.
Those who call for the natural family to ‘lose its privileged position’ and make way for a more equal attitude towards personal relationships have thus made equality the master instead of the servant. The type of unity created by family life and the types of unity created by other loving and morally reasonable relationships are both important for the common good–but they are different forms of relationship giving rise to different rights and responsibilities.
The growth in political freedom in the late twentieth century was a tremendous achievement. Pope John Paul II has counseled, however, that we may lose this advantage if we hand ourselves over to oppression by the values of the consumerist-individualist West. Many philosophers argue that we are free as long as we are not constrained from doing what we want to do–a view classically argued by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. But this is simply not so. A person brought up in a severely deprived environment and offered no significant choices throughout his life might now have everything he wants but he is clearly less free than a person who has learned to criticize the objects of his wants and to strive to make better and richer choices. Freedom is not doing whatever one wants, but having the opportunity to discover how to want wisely (Wojtyla Love and Responsibility, p. 115: “truth is a condition of freedom”). In other words, freedom is making morally reasonable choices that direct us towards ends that contribute to genuine happiness (Veritatis splendor 35).
People who believe that freedom is simply lack of constraints may insist on family status for their same-sex relationships, intentionally sterile relationships, casual relationships, group relationships, relationships with minors, and so on. They may argue that refusing to acknowledge these relationships as families amounts to violating their freedom to relate with others as they choose and not as Church or State dictates. The response to this is twofold. First, the natural family is not a creation or construct of any religion, philosophy or political creed (Catechism 2202): it is a form of relationship that is as natural to the human person as friendship (and as physical exercise, intellectual activity, delight in beauty, worship of God etc.). It is found and always has been found in all societies, of all creeds and none, and where it is unsupported or attacked, individuals and societies are destabilized (see Gaudium et spes 52). Secondly, people are of course free to form their own relationships, for better or worse, but they are not free to declare that just any form of relationship constitutes a family. This is a form of reductivism: attempting to reduce an independent reality (e.g., family) to some other class of reality to suit our convenience. In fact, all this does is to disguise the truth; it is no more successful than declaring that Christmas falls on 17 June because I like to open presents on that day.
Part of the failure to understand the philosophy of family is a result of the failure to understand the nature and purpose of sexual relationships. In the contemporary world people often form romantic and sexual unions with little commitment and ambivalent feelings concerning permanence and exclusivity (see Germain Grisez The Way of the Lord Jesus, vol. 2, Leading A Christian Life [Quincy, Ill.: Franciscan Press, 1993], pp 574-580). These are widely referred to as ‘relationships’. When the relationship has lasted for a brief period and both parties would like it to continue, they may describe themselves as ‘partners’, a term in fact from corporate life which (ironically) perhaps well expresses the secular and contractual elements often found in contemporary love affairs. Many people believe that forming these relationships is the normal and respectable way in which to order one’s personal life, and that marriage (and children), if they come at all, are later and separate developments undertaken closer to middle age by those with a special interest in these things.
On this view, family life is not the natural goal of sexual union and setting up home together, but a minority taste indulged in by those with a religious commitment, need for social acceptance, or strong personal wish to have children. Understandably, if family life is not considered necessary for personal and sexual relationships, it will come to hold a severely limited place in the choices we make about how we are to live: either it will become an option for “traditionalists” only or it will be adapted so as to include all intimate relationships and not only spousal relationships.
In the face of this view we must realize that sexual relationships formed in advance of total (that is: marital) self-giving are misuses of the body and of persons for temporary pleasure or convenience. To hold that such relationships are the norm and that family life is a secondary, “optional extra” is to place physical pleasure over mutual joy, convenience and gratification over commitment and sacrifice, and self-interest over the possibility of new life. On the other hand, where family founded on marriage and childbirth is treated as the natural goal of romantic and sexual attraction these relationships will be guided by the wellbeing of the individuals involved and by the common good. This may be more difficult than forming liaisons and contracts with sexual “partners”; but the deep fulfillment and contentment it promises both offer more to and require more from loving adults.
Attacks on marriage and childbirth
The respectability of unmarried sexual relationships is part of the wider movement to destabilize marriage and decrease childbirth. These two natural institutions–the source of all family life –have collapsed in many parts of the western world in particular. The reasons for this are complex. They include widescale distrust of permanent and exclusive commitments, and of what is seen as the inconvenience of children. In a world that looks no higher than earthly and man-made values, the temporary and replaceable becomes the norm. This leads to the fear of permanence, including permanence of human relationships. Also, the pursuit of temporary, replaceable partners means people fear exclusive relationships; and the pursuit of a ‘quick turnover’ in relationships means children are seen as a hindrance to adult plans and a restriction on their freedom.
All evidence points to massive individual unhappiness and serious social problems due to the collapse in marriage and the birth rate (for example, see Mary Eberstadt, “Home-Alone America,” Policy Review 107, June 2001). Undoubtedly, this has helped fuel confusion over what a family really is. Courts, media and public opinion throughout the world regularly assume that it is for the individuals concerned to decide whether or not they may marry–even if they are same sex. It is also thought to be a purely personal choice whether to have children–and by what means: natural intercourse, or one of the many assisted reproductive technologies available on the market. If marriage and childbirth can be redefined to suit the wishes of casual sexual partners, family life too will continue to be redefined and the natural family will be treated as only one “option” among others.
In the face of these very worrying developments, we should recall that marriage and childbirth are the conditions and the ends of all sexual relationships; without these there is no genuine family life.
Sex and sexuality
Human persons are sexed: male or female is a deep part of each individual’s identity. Some people are troubled by their sex, attracted to people of the same sex, or even wish they were of the opposite sex. These experiences of sexuality are clearly imperfect and inappropriate. Because human sexuality is not only physical but also involves our minds and emotions, imperfect sexuality often involves cognitive “thought” and affective “mood” disturbances that can be confusing and distressing.
Unfortunately, many thinkers today view inappropriate sexual thoughts, feelings and deeds as merely “alternative” methods of expressing sexuality. It is common now to argue that gender (if not sex) is socially constructed and may be chosen by the individual, who is free to lay down his birth-gender or learned-gender and adopt the opposite gender, or at least to live and act as if he were of the opposite gender. In certain jurisdictions it will now be argued that, for example, two men may form a family as long as one of them believes he is a woman. Their family status can then be consolidated by the adoption, or more likely creation through assisted reproductive technologies, of a child. At international conferences it is commonly argued that there are not in fact two genders but many genders (male heterosexual, female heterosexual, male homosexual, female homosexual, bisexual, transgendered persons, hybrids….) and that people are free to construct and alter their genders from a wide range of options.
Why cannot same sex or transgendered or, allegedly, multi-gendered couples form a family? Simply, there are other forms of personal relationship open to them that allow them to find love in morally acceptable ways, without falsifying and undermining the nature of the family. First, we should note, in charity and compassion, that due to original sin the sexual impulses of all humans are imperfect and disordered (Catechism 1607); sexual temptation, intemperance, confusion, and curiosity are part of fallen human life. Those who are confused by, and suffer because of, their sexual impulses are our brothers and sisters and need wise and gentle counsel in the field of sexual ethics.
This will always begin by noting that we are created in love and we need to love and be loved. It will be pointed out that the most complete form of this loving is spousal which may begin with physical attraction but will soon ripen into a co-mingling of souls as well as bodies. If no love is withheld between spouses, the marriage will be open to children, who will share in this love, i.e., form together with their parents a family. Those who for whatever reasons of natural constitution or social experience cannot contemplate or consummate a marital relationship have the difficult burden of avoiding unmarried sexual acts, which, however well meant, will treat others not as self-donors but as means to self-gratification.
This burden is often difficult because of loneliness or guilt, and undoubtedly chastity requires of unmarried people great moral heroism and the good fortune to be taught and advised by wise and compassionate friends.
Love, pleasure and happiness
Part of the philosophical confusion over family is a confusion about human motivation. Many commentators accept a human psychology in which our choices are always motivated solely by feelings, especially pleasure and pain. These feelings are judged to be our goals as well as our motives: we do what we do because of some positive feeling which it provides or promotes. In the area of relationships the relevant feeling is generally described as “love”, and love is considered to be one valuable component of a more general positive feeling called “happiness”.
This psychology misrepresents the goods at stake in human relationships and, indeed, in all worthwhile human activity. Feelings do play a role in our choices but they are not usually our reasons for choosing: we choose because of the objects which cause our passionate feelings, we do not merely respond like machines to whatever arouses feeling (for example, see John Finnis, Aquinas [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998], Ch. 3). In the area of relationships love is certainly a reason to act but it is not just a feeling: it describes the reality of relationships in which individuals acknowledge and contribute to the forms of union that exist between them. There are many forms of love–all of them precious. Only certain loves, however, have the nature and purpose of family love.
It is not possible to announce that one has established a family simply by loving someone: the love has to be of the relevant form. All love contributes to the objective happiness or fulfillment of persons but married and family love does so in a particular way. Our happiness is not just a matter of positive feelings: people can be truly happy yet feel bad or can feel good yet be truly unhappy. Happiness is an objective matter of a morally reasonable approach to all things that are good for us, including family life.
There are senses in which it is perfectly appropriate to extend talk of family beyond the spousal/offspring relationship. In common parlance “family” often refers to the system of kindred by which relatives such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, nephews, nieces and in-laws are included within the domestic circle and share in some of the rights and responsibilities of family life (Familiaris consortio 21).
The extended family will include different relatives in different cultures and will also hold to different degrees in different cultures. One sad effect of the declining marriage and birth rates is that parents and children lack this traditional system of care, encouragement and education. Single parents and unmarried couples may have less need of extended family, less sympathy from them, or have less readiness to call on them in need. The decline in extended family life both demonstrates and reinforces the decline in strong community life generally: an interest in the welfare of their families shared by many grandparents, aunts and uncles and others in a particular community helps bind people together in extended networks of support, concern and practical help. Where extended family is based around the natural, marital family is focused on these committed relationships that are open to the gift of new life; this is of course very different from “extending” the term “family” to refer to forms of relationship that are extra-marital or contraceptive.
Family life must always be child-friendly because it is directed towards having and loving babies. Sometimes, however, couples cannot conceive in the normal way; in these cases the techniques of medical science can often be used to assist reproduction in morally good ways. There are, however, widely available reproductive technologies which are morally wrong: e.g., reproductive technologies that kill or attack any human being, enslave or degrade them, in any other way violate their human status or dignity, or violate the nature of marriage or the marital act (Evangelium vitae 14; see also Donum vitae: Instruction on Respect for Human Life). The use of technologies such as in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, cloning and artificial insemination is increasing all the time. By their use people who could not–or choose not to–have children by normal means are given (immorally) an opportunity of procreating.
This means that there is a sense in which families can now be manufactured and to some extend designed, rather than received as a gift from God through the expression of mutual self-giving. Children born of these new technologies and societies composed of these children will naturally come to think differently of family life than people have done hitherto. Since children can now be conceived outside the body and outside love, people may come to think of family as an outmoded system for reproducing.
In addition to damaging the institution of family generally, these technologies damage family life by adopting immoral means such as substituting for loving sexual intercourse the skills of a medical technician (Catechism, 2376). They may also involve use of the sperm and eggs of those who are not married, indeed of those who are strangers (or worse, related). At their worst, fertility technologies will involve the creation, abuse and destruction of embryonic human beings. With respect to family what such technology does is to pervert all of the human relationships that constitute and define family life. Parents will use each other as sources of reproductive material to achieve their own ends; children will be willed into existence and then live with the knowledge that though created by God, their conception was also masterminded by manufacturers. The manipulation of reproductive material means children may be born to their own grandparents, cloned from pre-existing human beings, or carried to term by siblings. These attacks on family must be resisted. Family life is not available on demand.
Fears over growth or decline of populations in different parts of the world lead some philosophers and politicians to advocate population policies designed to reverse these trends. Many advocate access to contraception, sterilization and abortion as a way of addressing concerns with over-population (Evangelium vitae 91). These methods amount to a sustained attack on family life in the name of economic progress and political ideology.
Instead of these policies, the Church recommends that a true concern for the flourishing and the fundamental rights of all involved, including parents and children, born and unborn, means we should first address any outstanding injustices committed against persons that limit their ability to lead fulfilled and contented lives. In addition to remedying such large-scale social injustice, education, including sexual education and basic economics, should be provided and all possible help given to encourage parents and families to make morally responsible decisions about their own fertility. The measures often adopted by governments and other agencies can result in harm to millions of families and to the institution of family life in the region. Governments and other agencies ought to pursue the protection and encouragement of family life as a major value–something that certainly requires economic security of individuals but is not replaceable by economic security of individuals.
Campaigns to decrease population are often highly politicized and ideologically biased. In certain cases coercion or deception has been practiced in order to promote contraception or sterilization as a “duty”, or the only true option. Sound philosophy will always oppose any such manipulation of the person and of the family in the name of an ideology, economic interest or political power. The family is based on mutual love and openness to life; the claim that real love might be closed to life represents the sterility and lack of imagination of contemporary public ethics.
Attacks on ethics
Philosophers from the ancient Greeks to the late medieval period concurred that ethics involves critical-rational thought concerning the human good and the appropriate methods of realizing the human good. This broad consensus broke down at the beginning of modernity. It has, however, shown signs of renewal from the mid twentieth century onwards. Today, a significant number of philosophers, many but not all of them Catholic, take part in important discussions about nature, human existence and values, relationships, and objective morality. Nevertheless, the philosophers most heeded by politicians, media and strategists are those who subscribe to views of ethics that support unrestricted personal freedom, the personal creation of values, and culturally relative morality. One of the many areas in which these attacks on critical-rational ethics flourish is the area of family.
If the family is built on the objective truth about the human person, those who believe there is no truth about the human person will obviously deny the significance of the family. Thus in libertarian, subjectivist, relativist, and nihilist thought family becomes, respectively: whatever we choose, whatever we enjoy, whatever the majority or the elite says, or nothing worthwhile at all. To oppose these ideologies of family and to establish a contemporary philosophy of family we must vindicate a realist-objectivist view of anthropology and ethics, as Pope John Paul II suggests.
Although many philosophers are engaged in this realist-objectivist ethics at the moment, few philosophers focus their work on the topic of family. Most prefer the more common philosophical themes of life, truth, justice, health, and politics. Nevertheless, the resources for a philosophy of family are available to us in the works of many classic and some contemporary philosophers, in the tradition of the Church, and, particularly, in the teachings of Pope John Paul II. These resources are widely available and together form the basis of a contemporary Catholic philosophy of family.