Take a look at your family photos going back to your grandparents and great-grandparents, if you happen to have them. I have a nice one of my late father’s family when he was a little boy of three, circa 1939, taken on the family farm in North Dakota. A serious, hardscrabble Friesian family stares back at me: eight siblings; one father; no mother, as she had recently passed. Ten. I look at photos of my family of origin: Mom, dad, me, sister. Four. A photo of my own family: Me, my wife, son, daughter. Currently four. A photo of my sister and her husband. Two. Photos of friends: Many singles, many childless couples.
These photos tell the story, I think, of the transformation of the family over the past three generations. My grandparents’ generation took larger families for granted, while my parents’ generation, the Boomers, had ready access to the technology of chemical contraception, and then abortion. My own generation—X? I forget—delays or forswears marriage and children yet more.
The consequences are upon us. Economically, the great welfare states of Europe are set to collapse, as is Social Security in the U.S., as there are not enough younger people working to pay for them. Whole nations are set to disappear in coming generations, as birth rates in many European countries hover around 1.3 children per woman, about half of the stable replacement rate of 2.1. Demographer Nicholas Eberstadt claims that by 2040 “there could almost be one centenarian on hand to welcome each Japanese newborn.” The breakdown of the family tracks with increased social pathologies.
J.S. Mill’s idea of “experiments of living” has failed. Why? Human beings are meant to live in community, and the first community is the family. Saint Augustine, explaining to Christians wary of marriage that it was indeed a good, claimed that “the first natural bond of human society is man and wife.” The East has seen this as well, captured nicely in a statement attributed to Confucius: “To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.” More recently, the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts in Article 16 that “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”
What are we to do? Government cannot save the family and thus the nation—Scandinavian and other European initiatives to reward childbearing through financial compensation and time off have so far failed. Perhaps cultural and political pressures on the family will subside in a couple generations as more fertile communities—whether Christian, Muslim, or (in Israel) Haredi—gain ground and cultures are reordered to habits of life focused on family.
Just as the state must worry about the breakdown of the family, so must the church. For the family is not just an essential social support, it is above all a vehicle for evangelism. Pope Benedict, in Milan a couple weeks ago for the seventh World Meeting of Families, recognized the challenges facing the contemporary family while stressing its continuing social and evangelical function. At the closing Mass in Milan, Benedict pointed to the dangers posted to the family by our current cultural and economic values:
In modern economic theories, there is often a utilitarian concept of work, production and the market. Yet God’s plan, as well as experience, show that the one-sided logic of sheer utility and maximum profit are not conducive to harmonious development, to the good of the family or to building a just society, because it brings in its wake ferocious competition, strong inequalities, degradation of the environment, the race for consumer goods, family tensions. Indeed, the utilitarian mentality tends to take its toll on personal and family relationships, reducing them to a fragile convergence of individual interests and undermining the solidity of the social fabric.
Benedict’s remedy is holy resistance through the family as “a living Gospel, a domestic Church.” Benedict echoed historic Christian teaching in stating, “It is in the family that one experiences for the first time how the human person is not created to live enclosed in himself, but in relationship with others; it is in the family that one understands how one’s fulfillment does not lie in putting oneself at the center, led by egoism, but in self-giving; it is in the family that the light of peace begins to shine to illumine our world.”
As regards the family’s evangelical function, Benedict pointed out how the human family itself is an image of the Trinity: “[W]e have been given the task of building church communities that are more and more like families, able to reflect the beauty of the Trinity and to evangelize not only by word, but I would say by ‘radiation,’ in the strength of living love. . . . It is not only the Church that is called to be the image of One God in Three Persons, but also the family, based on marriage between man and woman.”
For the renewal of culture and Church, then, the family abides as an indispensable resource, ordained by God and Nature. May our families’ photographs find us faithful.
Leroy Huizenga is Director of the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Vatican Information Service: World Meeting in Milan: An Epiphany of the Family
Benedict: Papal Address at La Scala Theater in Milan
Benedict: Pope’s Homily at Closing Mass at VII World Meeting of Families
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