Family as the foundation of culture
Minneapolis Archbishop John Nienstedt’s address to this year’s Napa Institute . . .
Dear friends in Christ,
Since the beginning of man’s life on earth, the family has served as the cornerstone of society. The integrity of the family set the standard for society from the beginning of time as the underpinning of our civilization, reflecting the beneficial differences between men and women and the complementarity of their hearts, minds, and bodies. Aristotle argued that the natural progression of human beings flowed from the family via small communities out to the polis. The state itself, then, as a natural extension of the family, mirrors this critical institution. Inspired by Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas writes, “man is by nature a social being since he stands in need of many vital things which he cannot come by through his own unaided effort. Hence he is naturally part of a group by which assistance is given him that he may live well. He needs this assistance with a view to life as well as to the good life.” And Pope Leo XIII develops Aquinas’ thought further, recognizing that “man’s natural instinct moves him to live in civil society, for he cannot, if dwelling apart, provide himself with the necessary requirements of life, nor procure the means of developing his mental and moral faculties.” Indeed, just as our communities and the state itself imitate the structure of the family, our economy is also modeled after oikonomia—the Greek word for household management.
I. The Biblical Basis
In the Book of Genesis, we read the story of creation through God’s direct intervention. God breathed life into Adam and then removed one of his ribs to create a woman, Eve. God did not take a piece of the man’s head so that woman would dominate him, nor did God take a bone from the man’s foot so that he should dominate her. Rather He took a rib from man’s side, signifying that man would be an equal to woman and she to him. “And Adam said: ‘This now is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man. Wherefore a man shall leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they shall be two in one flesh.’” Two become one: male and female God created them together in His image and likeness, a reflection of the goodness of their Creator who blessed them with a command to increase and to multiply, filling every corner of the earth.
II. The Sacramental Reality
Jesus Christ elevated marriage to the dignity of a sacrament and thereby reaffirmed the moral law, reminding us why he came into this world: to perfect that which was imperfect; to loosen our hardened hearts.
“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them, but to fulfill them. For amen I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law, until all is accomplished.”
The word “sacrament” comes from the Latin sacramentum, which itself is a translation of the Greek word mysterion, a word which signifies one of the seven central liturgical rites of the Church through which participants experience the Paschal Mystery of Christ and grow in the life of grace. The Church herself is the mysterion, or sacrament of salvation, as she communicates God’s love, which, in turn, draws believers into greater levels of holiness.
The Second Vatican Council called for a renewal in the understanding, approach and practice of the celebration of sacraments within the total life of the Church. The sacrament of marriage has benefited from this renewal by receiving a greater emphasis on the interpersonal life shared between a husband and wife, on how the spiritual life of the spouses grows from this interpersonal dynamic, and how these two factors both contribute in existential quality to the ongoing development of the marital relationship in a continual process of becoming. As the result of a sacramental marriage, a couple is truly married “in the Lord” and his redeeming grace penetrates their love and deepens their union.
The family, comprised of one man and one woman, is bound by their love in a lifelong commitment that is mutual, exclusive and open to new life. Marital love between spouses transcends even each other as they enter into a triune relationship with God. The late Archbishop Fulton Sheen said, “Love is triune or it dies… [w]hat binds lover and beloved together on earth is an ideal outside both. As it is impossible to have rain without the clouds, so it is impossible to understand love without God. ” As the author of marriage and love itself, God expresses love in the giving of self, never reserved only to the spouse and the home. Certainly, it begins and ends there, but it is meant to be shared for the benefit of the common good, making good use of the three theological virtues of hope, faith and charity, and holding an exclusive and preeminent fidelity modeled in Christ and His Church.
The modern world, however, speaks to us about self-fulfillment and self-gratification. From its perspective, when other people enter into our lives they are said to give our lives meaning. Instead of looking to Christ as our true source of adoration and perfection, our neighbor becomes the source of meaning for our existence. Yet no mere human being can be substituted for God’s magnificence or His undying love. Only in Christ can we quench the longing found deep within our hearts. When we try to find perfection in another person we are quickly disappointed. Disappointment turns into divorce and divorce shatters families, leaving behind vulnerable children forced to survive the tragic circumstances of their parents’ separation.
Years ago, Fr. Patrick Peyton sounded the mantra that “the couple who prays together, stays together.” This is true because, if husband and wife are addressing God together in heartfelt adoration or petition, then the presence of the marital grace that rests in each spouse will be stimulated to new growth. The married couple should together attend Sunday Mass and other Holy Days of obligation, so as to be nourished by the Word of God and the Holy Eucharist for the sake of their own marriage and in order to be a leaven in the world.
The love that Christ has for His Church provides the model for the complementary love of husband and wife. As spouses and as parents, they are called to seek “first the kingdom of God and His justice,” pledging to raise their children in the Catholic faith. This permanent union between one man and one woman with its unitive and procreative properties, shares the joy of heaven with their offspring, their greatest treasures on the earth, gifts entrusted to parents by the love of God.
III. Two Views of Marriage
While our perspective on marriage and family life are radically influenced by our belief in God, his revelation in Jesus Christ as well as the natural moral law, nevertheless the proper use of reason can of itself teach us about the true meaning of marriage.
In a wonderful, recently published book entitled, What is Marriage? Man and Woman: a Defense, Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson and Robert George carefully delineate and evaluate two distinct views of marriage that are prominent in our nation’s ongoing marriage debate.
The first they define is the conjugal view of marriage understood as a comprehensive union, that is to say, the joining of spouses in body as well as in mind, in an act that begins by consent and is then sealed by sexual intercourse.
Being consummated in an act of bodily union, it is especially apt for and deepened by procreation, which calls for the broad sharing of a domestic life uniquely fit for family life. This all-encompassing act calls for the equally all-encompassing commitment of permanence and exclusivity. Valuable as it is in itself, its link to the welfare of children make marriage a public good that the state ought to recognize and support.
The second view proposed is what the authors call a revisionist view of marriage. Here the union is between two people who commit to a romantic partnership and a shared domestic life. It is essentially an emotional union, merely enhanced by whatever sexual activity the partners find agreeable. Such unions are seen as valuable as long as the emotion lasts. The state should recognize them, it is said, because it has an interest in their stability as well as the well-being of any children they may choose to rear.
The authors argue in favor of the conjugal view of marriage, admitting that like friendship, marriage is a type of bond between two persons. But, they point out, marriage is a special kind of bond because it unites the spouses in body as well as in mind and heart in a way that is apt for and enriched by procreation and family life. The spouses vow their whole selves for the whole of their lives. Thus, its comprehensiveness puts the value of marriage in a class apart from the value of other relationships.
The authors are also quite clear about what they see are the dangers of the revisionist view:
“If the law defines marriage to include same-sex partners, many will come to misunderstand marriage. They will not see it as essentially comprehensive, or thus (among other things) as ordered to procreation and family life—but as essentially an emotional union . . . they will therefore tend not to understand or respect the objective norms of permanence or sexual exclusivity that shape it. Nor, in the end, will they see why the terms of marriage should not depend altogether on the will of the parties, be they two or ten in number, as the terms of friendships and contracts do. That is, to the extent that marriage is misunderstood, it will be harder to see the point of its norms, to live by them, and to urge them on others. And this besides making any remaining restrictions on marriage arbitrary, will damage the many cultural and political goods that get the state involved in marriage in the first place.”
One might assert here: As the understanding of marriage goes, so goes the way of the family and the culture it shapes and fosters.
If indeed marriage is the foundation of the family and the family is the cornerstone of society, then it is essential to the progress of any civilization that the consequences of choosing between a conjugal view or a revisionist view of marriage be weighed carefully and thoughtfully, especially in regard to the other negative forces that are impinging on the social reality of family life.
IV. The family under attack
Today, many evil forces have set their sights on the dissolution of marriage and the debasing of family life. Sodomy, abortion, contraception, pornography, the redefinition of marriage, and the denial of objective truth are just some of the forces threatening the stability of our civilization. The source of these machinations is none other than the Father of Lies. Satan knows all too well the value that the family contributes to the fabric of a good solid society, as well as the future of God’s work on earth.
A. Contraception as a primary factor
Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, issued in 1968, reaffirmed the Church’s teaching regarding marital love and the rejection of most forms of birth control. Promulgated just three years after the close of the Second Vatican Council, the encyclical rapidly became the most intensely debated Church document in centuries, perhaps more than any other solemn teaching of the Church in the entire history of Christendom. Public dissent followed. Various scholars and proud public adversaries, then and many still today, view fertility as a hindrance rather than a blessing, falsely arguing in favor of the “right” to enjoy unrestrained sex, within and outside the confines of Holy Matrimony, with no regard for the rights of God or the common good.
But Humanae Vitae proved itself a prophetic witness, by warning of what would happen should contraception gain widespread acceptance, namely:
1. Artificial methods of birth control would become the leading vehicle towards the lowering of moral standards for the young and a catalyst for marital infidelity.
2. The use of contraception would objectify and disrespect women, and wives in particular.
3. That in the hands of governments, contraception would become a powerful tool in forcing the use of contraceptives on individuals, as well as institutions.
With regard to the first point, statistics reveal that today only 3% of Catholic married women rely on natural family planning. At the same time, 70% of unmarried Catholic women are sexually active by their early 20s.
Secondly, few are aware of the World Health Organization’s listing of contraceptives as “group one carcinogens” for breast, liver, and cervical cancers. Mounting evidence also shows the link between birth control pills and women’s susceptibility to immune disorders such as HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Thirdly, Pope Paul VI’s prediction about government overreach has also found vindication in our current struggle over the Health and Human Services Mandate. As you know, HHS will require employers to provide insurance coverage of prescription contraceptive drugs and devices approved by the Food and Drug Administration, including sterilization procedures and abortion-causing drugs. The mandate imposes contraception as a matter of public policy without any recourse to public debate, denying employers the right to follow the dictates of their own consciences and refusing public access to dispute the moral implications of contraceptive use. Although the purpose of health care is to diagnose, prevent and cure illnesses, and health insurance is meant to lower the cost of treatment, contraception’s raison d’être is to prevent pregnancy, to separate reproduction from the sexual act solely for the private interest of sexual recreation. Birth control, as G.K. Chesterton warned, “…does not control any birth. It only makes sure that there shall never be any birth to control.”
B. Other challenges to marriage
Besides contraception, there are other forces at work today that challenge the intended reality of marriage as a lifelong, committed and procreative union between one man and one woman, such as:
1. Five of every ten marriages end in divorce
2. Nearly one of every three Americans over the age of 15 has never been married, the highest level in a decade.
3. The rate of cohabitation has accelerated from 450,000 couples in 1965 to well over 5 million couples today.
4. The number of children under the age of 18 living with a single parent has risen from 6 million in 1960 to nearly 21 million in the year 2010.
Between 1950 and 2011, according to calculations by the University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen, the marriage rate fell from 90 marriages a year per 1,000 unmarried women to just 31, a stunning 66 percent decline. Equally disturbing, 43% of American children grow up in fatherless homes and the percentage of children born out of wedlock is now at a staggering 40.8%.
A marginal—yet growing— opinion also suggests that parental differences are merely imaginary byproducts of social gender constructs. Academic proponents supporting this thesis claim that men and women are essentially the same and are only different insofar as they are heavily influenced by child rearing, media, school, and other forms of cultural transmission. According to their theory, child development is purposely directed by the social constructs of compulsory heterosexuality—that is to say, “the social reproduction of male power.” What we need, they say, is to lift ourselves out of the “stone age” surrounding the male/female distinction. Proper child-rearing, from this perspective, does not depend on the contributions of both masculine and feminine influences, because their healthy development will occur regardless of gender.
A recent study conducted by New York University, however, claims fathers do play a decisive role in teenage sexual behavior. Teens whose fathers approved of adolescent sexual activity tended to start having sex earlier than teens whose fathers did not approve, affirming that “fathers may distinctly influence the sexual behavior of their adolescent children,” and fathers may indeed “parent in ways that differ from mothers.” A 2011 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that consistent with the absence of fathers in the home, 47% of their high school sons or daughters have had intercourse, “leading to unwanted transmission of sexual disease and pregnancy.”
The fact remains that family structure works better for children because fathers and mothers do parent differently, in ways that complement one another and boost a child’s well-being and gender identity. This understanding of the family structure gets to the heart of the same-sex “marriage” debate that many of us have engaged in recent years.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to redefine marriage by striking down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) has the intention of altering the historical, traditional and natural concept of marriage between one man and one woman. Five states retain a statuary ban on same-sex “marriage,” while twenty-eight have a ban en force. However, the tide is shifting. 70% of Americans born after 1980 believe same-sex couples should be allowed to marry legally, which is 20% higher than the population born between 1965 and 1979, and approximately 30% higher than the Baby Boomer generation.
Unlike friendships or other close relationships, the public purpose of marriage is to unite men and women and the children they create. Because the environment our children are raised in does play a significant role in their future contribution to and the overall welfare of society, government reasonably recognizes what studies have concluded: the best chance that children have for their future lives is to be raised in stable homes by their biological married parents.
Marriage is clearly a social justice issue as families are dependent upon it for their flourishing. The differences between children who grow up in intact homes as opposed to those who grow up in broken homes are not inconsequential. Children separated from their biological parents fare less well, on average, than children who grow up with both natural parents.
Studies suggest that children reared in intact homes do best on the following indices:
- Educational achievement: higher literacy and graduation rates.
- Emotional health: lower rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicide.
- Familial and sexual development: stronger sense of identity, normal timing of onset of puberty, lower rates of teen and out-of-wedlock pregnancy and lower rates of sexual abuse.
- Child and adult behavior: lower rates of aggression, attention deficit disorder, delinquency and incarceration.
Even a left-leaning research institution called Child Trends concurs with this assessment:
“[R]esearch clearly demonstrates that family structure matters for children, and the family structure that helps children the most is a family headed by two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage. Children in single parent families, children born to unmarried mothers, and children in step-families or cohabitating relationships face higher risk of poor outcomes . . .. There is this value for children in promoting strong, stable marriages between biological parents . . .. [I]t is not simply the presence of two parents . . . but the presence of two biological parents that seems to support children’s development.”
Recent literature reviews conducted by the Brookings Institution, the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, the Center for Law and Social Policy, and the Institute for American Values all corroborate the critical importance of intact households for children.
Maggie Gallagher, President of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, argues that, all things being equal, good marriages provide strong benefits for the common good of society, while the fragmentation of the home is a leading indicator of what has happened since we’ve institutionalized broken homes through no-fault divorce and other legislation. She states:
“Marriage is more than a private emotional relationship. It is also a social good. Not every person can or should marry. And not every child raised outside of marriage is damaged as a result. But communities where good-enough marriages are common have better outcomes for children, women and men than do communities that suffer from high rates of divorce, unmarried childbearing, and high-conflict or violent marriages.”
St. John Chrysostom wrote:
“The love of husband and wife is the force that welds society together. When harmony prevails, the children are raised well, the household is kept in order, and neighbors, friends and relatives praise the result. Great benefits, both for families and states, result.”
In the United States, marriage lowers the probability of child poverty by 82%, married women are less likely to experience domestic violence than cohabitating and serially dating women, and marriage increases the likelihood that children enjoy warm, close relationships with parents.
V. Faithful citizenship and the family
As Americans we are abundantly blessed with constitutional freedoms that protect and allow us to participate in public life. We are grateful to live in a nation that has bequeathed us with the latitude to engage in public discourse and contribute to policy decisions aimed at serving our families and the common welfare. Catholics have enjoyed a unique relationship that has allowed a rich development and flourishing of our teaching and activities with regard to human life, marriage and family, justice and peace, and good stewardship. The Church and her institutions, including the family, must be free to fulfill their mission and to collaborate with public authorities without pressure or sacrifice to Her fundamental teachings or moral principles.
Bound by the common destiny we share, obstacles to human flourishing are profoundly challenging for us precisely because they affect our moral being. The Gospel compels us, as a people who hold fast to faith and reason, to bring the essential truths about human life to the public square and to practice charity for the benefit of those who have less. There is no realm of worldly affairs that can be withdrawn from the Creator and his dominion. Our obligation to teach the morals that shape the lives of every man, woman and child has been given to us by Jesus Christ. The witness of the Church, therefore, is of Her nature public, and Her proposed rational arguments to shape policy decisions is a working model of the right for individual believers and religious bodies to participate and speak out without government interference or discrimination.
VI. The assault on reason
As the former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then-Cardinal Josef Ratzinger warned against allowing orthopraxis (right conduct) to command orthodoxy (right belief). Ratzinger stressed how behavior is dictated by what we believe, and if we ignore first principles, if we avoid the search for the truth, we will exercise poor judgment and thus experience poor behavior. The family today has inherited a crisis of confidence in our institutions that is filling a void of proper catechesis and education with human intuition, lacking in any genuine appeal to truth or justice. This subjectivism has soiled the good, the true and the beautiful with a culture bent on incongruous attacks on reason itself. Its violence lies in denying the reality of objective truths, thereby aiding and promoting the most intrinsic evils which undermine the meaning of relationships and, therefore, the very fabric of good social order.
To illustrate this attack on reason, one need go no further than the judicial intervention in 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey. In their plurality opinion, Justices Kennedy, O’Connor, and Souter invoked a famous “mystery clause” to uphold the Court’s 1973 decision of Roe v. Wade. One peculiar passage reads as follows:
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
If, by right, one may freely define the meaning of existence without hindrance, the provisioning of law carries no weight whatsoever. Indeed, this “mystery clause” appears inspired by the influential Age of Enlightenment which celebrates a highly individualistic and subjective view of “freedom,” and, therefore, of “choice.” It creates the impression that choice is, in and of itself, a moral act of human freedom and an ultimate expression of life and it rejects any objective criteria or moral participation in the shaping of social situations. This view, incompatible with rational thought, is surely the work of Satan, in the words of Blessed John Paul, who lusted after this so-called “liberty” above all else.
VII. The loss of a Catholic culture
Assimilation has played a significant part in diminishing our uniquely Catholic identity, which, in turn, contributed to the decline of the rich, past Catholic subculture historically embedded in our society. The respectable author Russell Shaw documents how this previous subculture protected against the secularization of Catholic citizens and immigrants. He writes,
“For a long time, the subculture of immigrant Catholicism more or less successfully shielded Catholics (“ghettoized” them, some would say). But starting in the late 1950s and continuing through the 1960s and 1970s, American Catholics, instead of reforming and updating their subculture, dismantled this network of distinctively Catholic institutions and programs, organizations and movements that had served them well.”
The Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia, concurs.
“Instead of changing the culture around us, we Christians have allowed ourselves to be changed by the culture. We’ve compromised too cheaply. We’ve hungered after assimilating and fitting in. And in the process, we’ve been bleached out and absorbed by the culture we were sent to make holy.”
Shaw’s response to the growing secularization among Catholics is the recovery of a new Catholic subculture to restore the former communities of their immigrant forefathers, embedding themselves into what were once unique, thriving Catholic communities surrounded by parishes and the pastoral care of parishes; an organic community, distinguishable by common traits that differentiate them from society at large, which witnesses to its unique values and ideals through a deliberate way of life. This also includes living in close proximity together for the sustainment and the proliferation of Catholic identity.
Politics cannot solve the cultural problems that the family faces today. Clearly, the fundamental causes of the decline of the family are rooted in an erosion of spiritual development. Those who have been baptized and confirmed in the Catholic faith share in the Church’s mission of salvation and are called to make the Church present and active as salt and light to the world. We cannot stand by and allow false ideologies to crumble the moral foundations of our civilization and the vital institution of the family.
Indeed as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out in December 2011 to the Pontifical Council for the Family, that the new evangelization will only succeed if the family is seen as a vital component of its exercise. His words:
“The New Evangelization depends largely on the Domestic Church. … Just as the eclipse of God and the crisis of the family are linked, so the new evangelization is inseparable from the Christian family. The family is indeed the way of the Church because it is the “human space” of our encounter with Christ. … The family founded on the Sacrament of Marriage is a particular realization of the Church, saved and saving, evangelized and evangelizing community. Just like the Church, it is called to welcome, radiate, and show the world the love and presence of Christ.”
As Christians, we must renew our commitment to present the truth of the Gospel to all, stepping out onto the public square, articulating a new evangelization for this secular age, submerging ourselves in the vigorous baths of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy; always displaying, as St. Paul urges, “the breastplate of faith and charity, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”
For my conclusion, I ask us prayerfully to call upon the intercession of the Holy Family.
Dear Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,
Bless us and grant us the grace of loving the Church as we should,
above every other earthly thing, and whenever duty calls, of ever showing our love by courageous deeds in the defense and propagation of the Faith,
whether by word or by the sacrifice of our possessions or even our very lives.
Bless especially our efforts to build up a culture of family life that models the example of Your Holy Family so that after battling the challenges of this earthly life we may enjoy your everlasting companionship in heaven.
MOST REV. JOHN NIENSTEDT is the archbishop of Minneapolis-St. Paul. He delivered this address at the Napa Institute on Aug. 2. An abridged version of this address appeared in the September issue of Legatus magazine