Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Church and the Future of the Family

The contemporary obsession in western, secularized societies with questions about divorce and remarriage may be both an illustration of the uniquely modern problems of the nuclear family and an obstacle to our ever getting beyond it. So argues Seattle Blogger Arthur Rosman in "Synod 14: the Church Needs to Replace the Family" -

As he sees it, the real problem is "the breakdown of the extended family." Not only is the modern nuclear family not the traditional family, but, he argues, it is not a realistic family model in a modern world in which both parents have to work. "The raising of a solid family requires outlets and avenues of help that are not available to a nuclear family. They can only be provided by an extended family or an adequate substitute."

Reading Rosman, I could not help but recall my own experience, growing up in the 1950s, in an era when the nuclear family's dominance had by then supposedly become normative. In fact, my grandmother lived with us from my parents' marriage in 1947 until her own death 20 years later, and for many of those years her active presence in the home made it possible, for example, for my mother to work - something I think she liked doing but which was in any case an economic necessity for us. Of course, my grandmother was more than just a babysitter. Her role in the overall life of the family, her influence on me and my sister, and in particular her impact of my own personal religious formation were immeasurable. I can't say how typical we were. Probably most of my generation did grow up without resident grandparents. But neither were we that atypical. I can recall others my age who had live-in grandparents as well. Add to that the presence of grandparents and other relatives not necessarily int he same apartment but nearby, and one can make a convincing case that the extended family was still a significant component in my generation's upbringing. In my own case, I saw my aunts and uncles and cousins regularly - almost weekly - and even more often than that in summer, when we might be at the Bronx's Orchard Beach together almost daily. Obviously, all that interaction had an impact. Obviously, the presence of close relatives nearby was an important assist when family members had new babies, or someone was ill, or had some economic or other need - not to mention the informal advice that I am sure passed among my aunts and uncles in my parents' generation, among us cousins, and cross-generationally. 

While my situation may not quite have replicated the way it had once been in the old country or how farm families, for example, may have lived a few decades earlier, still it had more in common with that older world than the increasingly common contemporary experience of families as virtually isolated islands without other nearby relatives to rely on.

Rosman is not saying anything new when he asserts that "the real breakdown of the family" began "when the traditional extended family broke down due to economic pressures of capitalism" - something Karl Marx had already noted in the mid-19th century - and that it was the mobility created by the new economy that "broke up extended families and created the nuclear family." And certainly we have all, I think, experienced how it is increased mobility that continues to isolate young couples with children from the traditional supportive networks they left behind with their parents and other relatives.

What he does offer that is novel, however, is his blunt suggestion that it is the Church itself that will need to step in as a sort of substitute for the extended family. He wants parishes and dioceses "consistently providing the free services (childcare, career advice, food, and money) that would have otherwise been provided by the extended family." Such a strategy, he notes, could "give invaluable child-rearing experience to teenagers who are not usually exposed to taking care of young children," as well as "something to do for older parishioners whose biological families live far away." Only in this way, he suggests will the Church be able to  speak seriously about the family "as the first school of the faith."

What he is proposing, of course, to me resembles the apostolic Church, which (at least as portrayed in Acts) actually functioned in many ways as an alternative to the natural family. I think Acts is always a good model to start with when trying to imagine something new. I think too that the New Testament was much less family-oriented than we sometimes want to remember. What distinguished the New Testament community was the extent to which the Church itself represented a new kind of relationship, which, while it did not completely replace or suppress natural family relationships offered people a new dimension of relationship, which was primarily spiritual (rooted in a common relationship with Christ) but offered as a consequence many of the human benefits of traditional relationships. As the Church grew and became coextensive with civil society, its character as an alternative community diminished - only to see that survive in religious communities, which took the replacement of the natural family by an extended religious family to a newer level.

Whatever the Synod says about the challenges facing the family, someone certainly needs to address how to retrieve for present and future families some of the manifold benefits of the traditional extended family - something the Church is uniquely equipped and uniquely challenged to do.

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