“[T]he fostering of authentic and mature communion between persons within the family is the first and irreplaceable school of social life, and example and stimulus for the broader community relationships marked by respect, justice, dialogue and love.”
Pope St. John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio
The fragmentation of the family is one of the great tragedies of the 20th century. As Pope St. John Paul II emphasized so eloquently in Familiaris Consortio, the family is the first society, and as such is the building block of the wider society (In the words of the Second Vatican Council, the family is “the first and vital cell of society”). If the family is weak, then so is the whole social structure. As the late pope famously said in a homily in Australia in 1986, “As the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live.”
If what Pope St. John Paul II said is true, then a great deal of the evils we are now experiencing in the culture must be traceable to the evils affecting the family. And if this is true, then one of the most urgent tasks facing us is the restoration of the family.
If, however, we are going to restore health to the family, it is not enough to oppose anti-family laws, or even to pass good laws that protect the family. Laws can certainly help build healthy families by creating optimal conditions for health: but only we can do something directly to help the health of our family. Healthy families are not built by laws, but rather one at a time, one day at a time.
The Household vs. the Family
But how are we supposed to go about making our families strong? A recent essay in First Things by Dr. John Cuddeback, a professor of philosophy at Christendom College, provides some excellent food for thought.
Central to Professor Cuddeback’s argument is that we need to distinguish between families and “households.” The family can be thought of in two ways: as a biological reality, and as a community of persons. The biological reality can never be added to or erased: it simply is. On the other hand, the family as community of persons pursuing some common good – Professor Cuddeback’s ‘household’ – is never a given.
A “household” suggests a family living under one roof; it is, in other words, where the rubber hits the road, where family life is lived out. And it is when we focus our attention specifically on households, contends Professor Cuddeback, that we really begin to see how sick family life has become:
Were someone from most any other age in history transported to our time, he would immediately recognize—beyond cosmetic changes—when walking the streets of town, city, or country a striking fact: people do not really live in their homes. Mom and dad are at work. The kids are off to school. And when they return, it’s often with takeout food that gets eaten while each member of the family is looking at his own screen. The bustling little community that was the household—the context in which parents would raise their children to be responsible adults and citizens, even in seriously diseased polities—has practically ceased to exist.
As Professor Cuddeback observes, the secret ingredient of a healthy household is relatively obvious: the various members of the household must truly live together. That is, they must not simply eat and sleep in the same building. But they must do things together. They must eat meals together, pray together, work together, and play together; they must, in other words, pursue the “common good” of familial living.
In healthy households in the past, writes Professor Cuddeback, “Porch times, lawn times, and by-the-fire times punctuated the more serious endeavors, and were often occasions of leisurely work, too, such as carving, fine needlework, and other hobbies. Meals called for setting aside work, as of course did prayer. These habits were times of mutual presence. To a great extent, family life meant being with at least some other members of the household for most of the day.”
The Economic and Social Attack on Households
Unfortunately, however, the economic and social realities of our frenetic and anti-family culture conspire against creating healthy households.
In another recent article on this same subject, John Jalsevac drew attention to the long-forgotten fact that prior to the industrial and technological revolutions, the lives of both the mother and father usually revolved almost entirely around the home. It’s not just that moms were stay-at-home-moms, but the vast majority of men too worked in or around the home: as farmers tilling the fields around their own homes, or as tradesmen working from workshops attached to their homes.
But the economy changed. First men went to the factories and offices, and then women followed. And once the overwhelming majority of parents began spending the bulk of their waking hours in factories and offices, work became uncoupled from homelife, so that there are now two almost completely unique spheres…one of which usually takes up far more of our time than the other.
The household is no longer the unchallenged locus of family life, but often – tragically – something akin to a hotel: a place to rest one’s weary body in the rare moments between one’s real life, as a worker. Or, as Mr. Jalsevac puts it, the house as home has been transformed into the “house as waystation: that luxurious modern repository for food, a bed, and distraction, barely inhabited by a loosely knit community of transients, for the sake of which we shoulder a lifetime’s servitude to debt.”
Sadly, in many cases now it is an economic necessity for both parents to work away from home. However, the cost of this economic burden is that if both mom and dad must work outside the home to keep the household financially afloat, then there is never anyone who with the time or energy to cook the meals that might, at least, bring the family together at least once a day.
The social realities of our culture are also rigged against family life: The onslaught of technology and low-cost, on-demand entertainment drives family members into their rooms where they passively “consume” media. Meanwhile, the mania for extra-curricular activities means that in the rare free moments between work and school, parents are shuttling their children from one expensive activity to another.
Unfortunately, this same dynamic often affects the households of “conservatives” who believe in “traditional family values,” as much as it does liberals who are actively seeking to destroy the traditional family. So immersed are we in the dominant culture, and so short is our historical memory, that in many cases we can’t even conceive of what a truly healthy, bustling household might look like. Our efforts to create a “traditional” family are vitiated by what Professor Cuddeback calls the “intangible pressures” on parents and children alike, “that seem inexorably to draw their attention and their time to activities outside of the home.”
Building Households, Building a Culture of Life
However, a house in which family members scarcely ever see one another, who never eat or pray together, is not the family that they are meant to be. Even if we cannot change the dominant economic and social culture, we can begin to change the culture of our family.
That means turning off the digital entertainment; that means taking time to cook healthy meals and to eat them together, to foster family hobbies like gardening; it means taking time to read books out loud, to sing songs together, to pray the rosary together, to do chores together. It means creating a daily rhythm that ensures family members are together in one room, pursuing common goals, being given the opportunity to deepen the given biological ties into a deep, interpersonal and spiritual communion.
Pope St. John Paul II wrote that God had established the family as an “intimate community of life and love.” As such “the family has the mission to become more and more what it is, that is to say, a community of life and love.”
The inner principle of that task, its permanent power and its final goal is love: without love the family is not a community of persons and, in the same way, without love the family cannot live, grow and perfect itself as a community of persons. … The love between husband and wife and, in a derivatory and broader way, the love between members of the same family – between parents and children, brothers and sisters and relatives and members of the household – is given life and sustenance by an unceasing inner dynamism leading the family to ever deeper and more intense communion, which is the foundation and soul of the community of marriage and the family.
This “inner dynamism” of love that makes a family more than a biological reality, but a true community of persons, cannot come about if families do not proactively, intentionally live together in ways that foster community.
The Culture of Death feeds off of alienation. Couples who do not spend time together nourishing their love or developing their relationships with their children through shared activities, are couples that get divorced. Children of divorced parents are children who have not been educated in how to love, and are in turn more likely to get divorced, or not to get married in the first place. Instead of getting married, they engage in serial sexual encounters, which inevitably lead to unwanted pregnancies and abortions. In unhealthy households, children are often left alone, without parental guidance or support, subject to the worst influence of the media and popular entertainment. Pornography, sexual confusion, and gender confusion fill the void.
Human beings are designed for community. Community is built on love. Children first learn how to love in families. And what they learn about love in their families is what they bring to society. If the Culture of Death is a consequence of a failure to love, and if the solution is Pope St. John Paul II’s “civilization of love,” then that effort must begin, first and foremost, in our own families.
As Professor Cuddeback rightly observes: “A renewal of family life will require a renewal of the household, especially as a place of shared work and a center of shared experience and belonging. We are missing out on truly human living because we fail to live together.”