What is Family?

While many say we are witnessing a new and emerging "definition of family", we are actually seeing stark evidence of chaos and collapse

A few houses down the block from mine there’s a house with two women in their late 30s or early 40s and two boys ages 12 or 13 living in it. Just about the only man I’ve ever seen there is the pizza delivery guy, and he doesn’t get beyond the front door.

I suppose each of the women is mother of one of the boys. Now and then I think about those kids and ask myself a question: No doubt they’re members of a family—but what family?

When one of them thinks about his family, does he think about his mother and himself? About himself and his mother and his invisible father? About the four people living in that house down the street—himself, the other boy, the two women? And whatever the answer may be now, how will he think of family ten years from now? How will he picture the family he may have started by then or at least begun thinking about?

If that boy is confused, he’s not the only one. What does family mean to Americans today? As a country, as a society, isn’t America suffering from massive confusion about that?

Looking for something that might shed light on these matters, I came across a statement that President Jimmy Carter issued—January 30, 1978 was the date—formally announcing the White House Conference on Families scheduled later that year. That now forgotten White House Conference talk fest was a controversial minor landmark in the evolution of family policy in the United States. Carter’s statement is very short, but it makes three important points appropriate to the occasion.

First: “Families are both the foundation of American society and its most important institution.”

Second: “The American family is basically sound.”

Third: “The widely different regional, religious, cultural, and ethnic heritages of our country affect family life and contribute to its diversity and strength.”

The first proposition—families are the foundation of society and its most important institution—was true then and remains true now.

The second proposition—the American family is basically sound—may have been true in 1978, although I’m not persuaded. Today I think it’s overwhelmingly untrue.

The third proposition—singing the praises of family diversity and whatever contributes to it—is partly true and partly nonsense. But since 1978 the idea that family diversity is an unconditionally good thing has acquired the aura of dogma in secular circles.

Of course America still has some fundamentally sound families, and thank God for them. But the widespread pathology of families in the U.S. and countries like it is by now too obvious to ignore—although the fact that it’s ignored, or even praised, by so many political figures, mediator commentators, and other formers of public opinion is among its causes.

How far have we come since President Carter assured us of the “diversity and strength” of the American family? Looking for a quick answer, I found this summing-up by the Pew Research Center, as reported by The New York Times:

…more unmarried couples raising children; more gay and lesbian couples raising children; more single women having children without a male partner to help raise them; more people living together without getting married; more mothers of young children working outside the home…and more women not ever having children.

The Times writer called this “evidence that a new definition of family…is emerging.”

I’d call it evidence of chaos and collapse.

Whatever you call it, the numbers make it clear that something serious has been happening in recent decades.

In 1970, the number of white children in the U.S. living with two parents was 90% of the total; in 2013, it was 74%. (For Hispanic children, 78% in 1970 and 65% in 2013. For Black children, 58% in 1970 and 39% in 2013.) Over 40% of all children born in America now are born out of wedlock.

In 1960, 68% of American adults were married to a partner of the opposite sex, while in 2013 the figure was 53%. Is that 15% drop part of what a “new definition of family” looks like?

Now let’s turn for enlightenment to the Supreme Court and see what we find there. Specifically, let us turn to Justice Anthony Kennedy and his majority opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, the case in which he and four colleagues last June announced their discovery of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

I won’t dwell on the fact that Justice Kennedy’s opinion is a remarkably bad piece of writing, although certainly it’s that. But let me focus on the substance, not the style. The argument goes something like this.

Justice Kennedy concedes that up to now Supreme Court decisions involving the right to marry have taken it for granted that marriage is between a man and a woman. But not to worry. Four fundamental principles outweigh these precedents and support the right of same-sex couples to marry.

The first principle is “individual autonomy.” After all, Justice Kennedy points out, “decisions concerning marriage are among the most intimate that an individual can make.”

The second principle is that the right to marry “supports a two-person union unlike any other in its importance to” the persons involved. I confess that sounds to me quite a bit like the first principle, but Justice Kennedy seems to think it isn’t, so let’s leave it like that.

The third principle is that the right to marry “safeguards children and families.” I suppose it does, but the principle assumes that those proposing to exercise the right to marry possess the necessary qualifications to exercise that. And this is precisely what someone arguing Justice Kennedy’s case for same-sex marriage needs to prove. In other words, his third principle begs the question.

And finally, principle number four: “marriage is a keystsone of our social order.” So it is. But this is more question-begging. Marriage really is a keystone of the social order, but same-sex couples can participate in providing this particular keystone if, and only if, they are actually married. That such couples satisfy the necessary conditions for being married is, however, exactly what Justice Kennedy needs to prove, not take for granted.

What it all comes down to in the end—although Kennedy does say so—is a definition of marriage along these lines: A relationship of two (for now) persons who find the relationship a source of gratification for themselves and a necessary means for accessing the legal, economic, and social benefits of being married.

What to make of this? Justice Alito said everything that needed saying when he wrote in his dissent: “For millennia, marriage was inextricably linked to the one thing that only an opposite-sex couple can do: procreate….It is far beyond the outer reaches of this Court’s authority to say that a State may not adhere to the understanding of marriage that has long prevailed.”

Beyond the Supreme Court’s authority—yes. Beyond its naked power to do and to enforce—I’m afraid not.

In affirming a constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry, Justice Kennedy and his four colleagues were hopping on a bandwagon already occupied by the media, many educational institutions, and the secular culture as a whole, along with quite a few religious groups. It’s this mighty bandwagon that now presents the largest problem for Catholics and others attempting to live out family life in light of their religious faith.

This challenge is particularly difficult for isolated families. Living in a hostile cultural environment, people need support and encouragement from communities of faith—parishes, schools, formal and informal apostolic groups. It would be pleasant to think one could always turn to Church institutions for this help, but as the recent Synod on the Family made painfully clear that is simply not the case.

In the circumstances, the only realistic advice is to take advantage of whatever help exists wherever you can find in—in particular parishes, schools, and apostolic groups—or else, if it can’t be found, join with other like-minded people in helping to create what is needed to sustain yourself and them in realizing the ideal of family. That may not be much, but it’s all there is just now.

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About Russell Shaw 294 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).