On Families and the Human Family
"The family is the primary cell of human society." Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris
It is becoming widely recognized that sustainable development is not primarily an economic or technological issue. It is overwhelmingly an ecological issue of the Anthropocene, whence it is essentially a social issue rooted in culturally conditioned human behavior. The family is at the epicenter of cultural evolution. It is in the family that people learn (or fail to learn) how to become integrally developed human persons in solidarity with others and the entire community of creation; and it is in the family that sustainable development must be engendered and nurtured as a synthesis of human solidarity and ecological sustainability.
The Patriarchal Family
The origins of the family are lost in human prehistory. The family, as we now experience it in most modern cultures, is the patriarchal family, traditionally composed of father, mother, and children, with the father as dominant figure. There are theories about possible pre-patriarchal (and more egalitarian) forms of family life, but reliable empirical evidence is very scarce. As we enter the Anthropocene, patriarchy is the prevalent family structure, and it has been so for at least 4,000 years.
In the biblical tradition, some authors have discerned an original unity of man and woman, but how such unity was sustained pursuant to "fill the earth with people" and "take care of it" is conflated in the Book of Genesis (written ca. 800 years BCE) with the story of "original sin" and the ensuing corruption of the original cross-gender solidarity that eventually led to the inception of male dominance and the patriarchal family structure.
The nuptial covenant was significantly improved with the advent of the Christian era. In pre-biblical times, male dominance was mostly exercised by way of brute force. In the Roman culture, the rule of patria potestas was normative. As the Old Testament shows, Jewish culture became heavily patriarchal by faith in an imageless but fatherly God that was not to be confused with pagan gods and goddesses. The God of the Hebrews was generally known and experienced in patriarchal terms, even as loyal fatherly love (hesed) was at times tempered by tender motherly love (rahamim). In the New Testament, patriarchy is significantly mitigated by the recognition of the equal dignity of men and women, but a patriarchally idealized view of women remains; the mother may be the "heart" of the family, but the father is still the "head."
But even in the Christian era, a patriarchal family is a dysfunctional family to the extent that the original cross-gender solidarity remains corrupted. Patriarchy is a cultural artifact that can and must be improved, not an immutable "natural law" that should be taken for granted. In marriage and the family, the patriarchal order of things is now disintegrating, and it is hard to deny that the cultural evolution from patriarchal to post-patriarchal family is a "sign of the times." While some cultures remain entrenched in the patriarchal mold, there is an increasing awareness that "human development, if not engendered, is endangered." While the evolution from patriarchal to post-patriarchal family structures has yet to fully unfold, it is anticipated that the nuptial covenant is tilting toward a restoration of the original solidarity between parents, and between generations.
Institutional Cloning of the Patriarchal Family
Most social and religious institutions are clones of the patriarchal family. This is not surprising, since the family is a universal institution, "the starting point of all human organization" and "the cradle of nascent culture." As the family goes, so does society. Conversely, religious traditions are born and take shape within the concrete cultural milieu of families and societies, for divinely revealed truths are always received and experienced "in the flesh."
This is the reason that most modern institutions, both secular and religious, exhibit the patriarchal bias of male hegemony. They constitute a "patriarchal milieu" of domination and control, with an inordinate propensity to seek money, power, and honors. Only those with a high degree of psychological and spiritual maturity can resist the mimetic desire to "fit" (i.e., "go along with the gang"), as evidenced by millennia of violence at all levels (domestic, local, national, international) and for all conceivable reasons (secular, religious). All forms of violence are intrinsically inhuman and morally wrong. Religious violence is by far the worst kind, as it entails delusions that violent acts are planned and carried out for the glory of God.
In the biblical tradition, as René Girard has pointed out, there is a gradual progression from extreme violence to lesser forms of violence. This progression culminates in the Christian gospels as exemplified, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount. For Christians, Jesus of Nazareth is the "model human" that shows the way to full humanity. Needless to say, orthodoxy is easier than orthopraxis, and Christian civilization has a long way to go in becoming what it is meant to be. At the moment, as we enter further into the Anthropocene and a possibly dangerous situation of ecological crisis, it seems that the next step in human development should be an evolution from a culture of patriarchal violence to a more egalitarian culture of nonviolence, solidarity, and sustainability.
There are many levels of violence (physical, psychological, spiritual) and many ways of practicing violence (exclusion, discrimination, marginalization). Gender violence disguised as religious dogma (and "sacred tradition") may be the worst form of violence in today's world, and every conceivable rationalization is being used to justify its perpetuation. In religious institutions, as well as in secular institutions, patriarchally induced cross-gender violence is one of the main obstacles to integral human development.
Patriarchal and Non-Patriarchal Families
Myths about human prehistory are hard to interpret, but it would seem that, since the original unity of man and women included both marriage (Genesis 2:24) and the mandate to populate the earth (Genesis 1:28), there were pre-patriarchal families that were, in the image of the Trinity, a communion of persons (communio personarum) living in perfect unity. The original family communion was destroyed by "original sin" with disastrous consequences for families (Genesis 4:8), humanity (Genesis 4:24), and the entire community of creation (Genesis 6:11). But the image of God in humans was not destroyed and the family endured as a universal institution, albeit with a degraded patriarchal structure (Genesis 5:1-2 ff).
In the Christian gospels, and in particular in the infancy narratives pertaining to the Holy Family, the rigid patriarchal family structure of the Old Testament is turned upside down and inside out. In the midst of the Jewish patriarchal culture, a very countercultural family is described. Surely, we see in these narratives a family in which ...
- Joseph is of the patriarchal house of David (Matthew 1:20, Luke 1:27, 2:4)
- Joseph gave the name Jesus to Mary's son (Matthew 1:25)
- Joseph takes Mary and the child to exile in Egypt (Matthew 2:14, 21)
- Joseph is present with Mary at the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:16)
- Joseph and Mary take the child to the temple (Luke 2:22, 39)
But we also see a family in which ...
- Joseph accepts a pregnant Mary as his wife (Matthew 1:19, 24)
- Mary is the one who brings God to us in the flesh (Matthew 1:25, Luke 2:7)
- Mary presides at the visitation of the Magi (Matthew 2:11)
- Mary makes her own decisions without consulting with Joseph (Luke 1:38)
- Mary goes to visit Elizabeth alone and on her own initiative (Luke 1:39)
- Mary sings a hymn of liberation to praise and glorify God (Luke 1:46-55)
- Mary and Joseph share responsibility and authority (Luke 2:48, 51)
Much ink has been spent in exegesis of these texts, but the counter-patriarchal "story within the story" is seldom noted. In these texts, the Holy Family seems to be an example of communio personarum even in the midst of a patriarchal culture. It is certainly a model of cross-gender solidarity without any semblance of one-sided domination. Many other examples could be cited of families that approximate this ideal, historically and in today's world. Families continue to be a nuptial covenant, a partnership, a familiaris consortio in which body-persons share the gift of love and the gift of life, even though the communio personarum is degraded by bad habits of domination and control. Good families are indispensable for integral human development. But patriarchal families are not sustainable anymore, for the same reason that patriarchal cultures are not sustainable anymore: solidarity must mitigate crude individualism in a crowded world with scarce resources. It is time for families to become less patriarchal and more egalitarian, cradles of solidarity and sustainability. In some countries, this evolution is already visible in many young families. In this era of instant global communications, patriarchy is dying fast. This is a "sign of the times."
Conservation and Transmission of Enduring Family Values
Patriarchy must die, but the family must live and flourish. Patriarchal families are no longer the norm in some nations, and it can be reasonably anticipated that in due time they will no longer be the norm worldwide. This "crisis of the family" entails both danger and opportunity. The danger is that people may opt for sexual promiscuity (gratification without commitment) within the context of an individualist ethos devoid of the nuptial gifts of love and life. The opportunity is to replace patriarchal male hegemony with an egalitarian covenant of mutual submission between husband and wife, with mutual agreement on sharing responsibility and authority.
During the forthcoming evolution of family life, it is critical to mitigate the danger of families being destroyed, and enhance the opportunity to recover, at least to some extent, the original structure of simplicity and inter-personal communion.
A new civilization of solidarity and sustainability is contingent on conserving and transmitting the two fundamental gifts of the nuptial covenant: the gift of love and the gift of life. Generous sharing of these gifts is indispensable for family life to sustainably flourish. Mutual self-giving between husband and wife, and between parents and children, must be extensible to sharing between generations, rather than conveniently institutionalizing old people and/or simply enjoying the "golden years" unconcerned about grandchildren, or even great-grandchildren. Old people may become physically and mentally weak but should not be discarded as old utensils that are no longer needed. Grandchildren are one of the great joys of life. Successive generations have much to give and much to learn from each other.
Families and the Human Family
"As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live." (Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio)
Yes indeed, but the most sensible way to foster the health of families and preserve the viability of the entire human family is "to ensure access to voluntary family planning, while empowering girls and women." Even if consumption is reduced to the minimum required for survival, stabilization of the global human population (currently 7.2 billion and counting) is a necessary condition for the future viability of human civilization in a finite planet.
Large families are beautiful and a blessing for those called to raise and nurture many children. Just as abortion is an objectively terrible crime, adoption is a most generous way to share the gifts of love and life. But old patriarchal notions about the honorable significance -- if not practical value -- of large families must be tempered by post-patriarchal notions about the symbolic beauty of small families in which consumption moderation and unity of hearts prevail, a notable example being the Holy Family of Nazareth. In terms of current data, a juxtaposition of worldwide human development and gender equality maps exposes a high inverse correlation between patriarchal cultures (secular and/or religious) and both human development and gender equality measures:
With few exceptions due to other factors, the prevalence of a patriarchal culture is inversely correlated with human development and gender equality. Granted that correlations should not be confused with causation, the correlations are overwhelmingly consistent across a wide range of indicators. It is a fact that "the bed is the consolation of the poor," but it seems clear that pontifications about virginity, chastity, birth control, and other issues of human sexuality that are not yet thoroughly understood, need to be reconsidered in light of the imperative to reconcile morality and mercy. Education in family planning, and people acting according to their conscience in response to exhortations to act responsibly, may be more effective to foster solidarity and sustainability than passing judgments based on traditional moralizations.
In a Christian context, a recent document worth considering is Family as Common Wealth: A Response to 'Men and Women in Marriage'. It states:
"Love of God and neighbour are inextricably intertwined, and committed loving partnerships can nurture spiritual growth as well as bringing joy. Couples and their children (where present) are also called to care for others outside their own households. In Jesus Christ, men and women are invited to be part of a wider family whose love overspills to the needy and even enemies, Christians recognise. Barriers of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and status are overcome in this divine commonwealth of justice and mercy which is the new family created by Christ." Family as Common Wealth: A Response to 'Men and Women in Marriage', Savi Hensman, Ekklesia, 23 December 2013
May the nuptial covenant of mutual submission and committed friendship continue to be a model of human relations as we struggle through the transition to a new civilization of solidarity and sustainability.
The family is a universal institution and the domestic school of social and ecological justice. The patriarchal family is a passing model of family structure. All secular and religious institutions based on the patriarchal culture are becoming obsolete in the Anthropocene. However, the conservation and transmission of enduring family values is crucial for the transition to a civilization of solidarity and sustainability. The two enduring family values that must be further developed and nurtured are the gift of love and the gift of life. These are the two basic dimensions of the nuptial covenant, and both need to evolve together in response to the signs of the times. Rigid adherence to patriarchal habits is no longer tenable and compromises the health of families and the viability of the entire human family. The Holy Family of Nazareth, as described in the gospels, is a model that radically transcends the patriarchal family mold and points the way moving forward.
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