Family: Rediscovering the basics
This special family issue of Legatus magazine comes at an appropriate time — only two months after Pope Francis released his apostolic exhortation on the family: Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love).
Before I look at this document and other recent statements on family, let me take you back to my seminary days. In my first sociology class, the professor opened the class with the true and profound statement: “The family is the basic unit of society.” The 2005 textbook Study of Human Relationships backs up this statement:
In an article published several years ago, writer William Sayres asked the question, “What is a family, anyway?” How would you answer? Older adults might be deeply influenced by images of family life depicted in 1950s and ’60s television programs like Father Knows Best and Leave It To Beaver.
The families in those programs were strong and child-centered. Duties within the family were rigidly defined — the father was the breadwinner and the mother was the homemaker. For some children, the most serious problems they faced were what to spend their allowances on or how to deal with having two dates on the same night. Some critics challenged these presentations of family life because the images did not accurately represent the reality of family life.
In the 21st century, television shows depict the variety found in family life. Today, the vast majority of children live in families with two working parents or with only one parent in the household. While allowances and dating are still important factors in young people’s lives, other far more serious issues have been added to the list of youthful concerns.
While the Leave It To Beaver days of the past appear to be gone, can we say that TV’s depiction of family in programs like All in the Family, Married with Children and Modern Family is the way family life should be depicted? I hope we can strike a happy medium as we look at today’s American family, which is still the basic unit of our society.
As Catholics, what should be the basis and primary focus of our family life? Allow me to cite some points Pope Francis made during World Youth Day in 2013. The Pope stressed, “How precious is the family as the privileged place for transmitting the faith! How important grandparents are for family life, for passing on the human and religious heritage, which is so essential for each and every society.”
The Pope adds, in agreement with my sociology professor, that “the family is important, and it is necessary for the survival of humanity. The family, whether we like it or not, is the foundation.” In an address to the bishops of Brazil, Pope Francis reiterated: “It is very important to reaffirm the family, which remains the essential cell of society and the Church.”
In his teaching, Pope Francis reaffirms my opening statement. The family is the basic unit of society. He affirms this even more in Amoris Laetitia. Let me refer to a recent column by Bishop George Murry, SJ, of my home Diocese of Youngstown:
The fundamental points found in Amoris Laetitia are these: First, the Church should be characterized by mercy and forgiveness, rather than judgment and condemnation. Second, marriage and family life are the bedrocks on which a healthy society is built. Third, the scriptures set before us the ideals of how love is to be lived in families. Fourth, while we must strive for the ideal, the reality is that cultural differences influence families in a variety of ways and that many families are broken or wounded. And fifth, the Church has a responsibility from God to encourage all families to grow in love and to accompany, remain close to, and integrate those who suffer the effects of wounded love.
Father Nicholas Austin, SJ, an ethics professor at Heythrop College writes: “The media will want to know: Does Francis change the doctrine of the Church? I would say that Francis does not change the content of Church teaching on marriage and family; he transposes it from the key of law to that of virtue and makes the primacy of love clearer once again. He does not abandon the rules of the Church, but it is clear now that for Pope Francis, as it should be for us, the first and living rule is the person of Jesus Christ, his humility, his gentleness, his joy and his love.”
Three Jesuits — Pope Francis, Bishop Murry and Father Austin — affirm today what I was taught almost 50 years ago in my sociology class: Family is the basic unit of society. May the Holy Family — Jesus, Mary, and Joseph — always have a presence in your home.
FR. ROBERT KAYLOR is president of Canton Central Catholic High School and chaplain of Legatus’ Akron-Canton Chapter in Ohio.