Sophia M. Feingold is a wife, mother, and freelance writer living in Florida. She is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College (B.A., 2009) and Catholic University (M.A., English, 2014). She blogs at The Girl Who Was Saturday.
Not too long ago the New Yorker published a piece on court-appointed “guardians” who steal from the elderly (“How the Elderly Lose Their Rights”). The article was full of heartbreaking personal stories and troubling legal shenanigans, many of them enabled by laws which seem to have been designed without the best interests of the elderly in mind. As the story drew near its close, I found myself quickly reviewing where my and my husband’s grandparents lived, and how they were situated, and breathing a sigh of relief at the consideration that nothing like that was likely to happen to them.
But the piece was troubling to say the least; and for hours after I had set it aside, one lingering sentence struck me as especially poignant: the notion, trumpeted by a particularly appalling “guardian,” that family members, even when present in an elderly person’s life, were not to be trusted. “They just want the money,” was the quote attributed to him. (And guardians don’t? Hm …)
The first problem with this claim is that it flies in the face of most people’s common sense and experience. Many families can relate stories of how, when Uncle Bargles died, Cousin Snoodley swooped in and snagged the coveted Moravian Tea Set. Human nature is … well, only human. But it is one thing to quarrel over tea sets (and bigger ticket items) and another to “just want the money.” I know of no one who’s experienced a loss in their family who would not say, and say honestly, that they would far rather have their relative back than have whatever was inherited. We grow old, we grow crotchety and particular, and most friendships fade; but family is family no matter what.
It is precisely because of this preeminent human instinct for family love—one we share with many, though not all the animals—that stories about family conflict have always been particularly disturbing, and injustices committed within families often seem to violate a deep-seated taboo. Every culture has its stories of family violence, from Cain and Abel to Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Usually these stories receive a prominent place in cultural history or mythology. But their prominence is precisely because they are horrifying and exceptional: warnings of what hardly anyone does, and what everyone must not do, if a society is to survive.
Likewise, experiments in structuring society without families, whether attempted like Shakerism or merely discussed like Plato’s republic, seem doomed to failure. The instinct to be with one’s own is too deeply rooted to be ignored—until now.
Without question modern Western societies have shown an increasing disregard for the family over the past fifty or sixty years. Catholics are by now used to the litany of the more prominent signs: abortion on demand, euthanasia, the rise of no-fault divorce, increasing out-of-wedlock births, the growth in number and kind of “nontraditional” family arrangements, etc., etc. All of these things have always existed; but they were exceptions, and reactions to extreme situations. Today they are celebrated and embraced almost for their own sake.
In this context, I cannot but help regard the shunting aside of families, as depicted in the New Yorker article, to be no accident. It is part and parcel of that “war on the family” that Sr. Lucia of Fatima predicted. And, as one might expect given the ultimate source of the war on the family, it is all founded on a lie. It’s not true that family members “just want the money” of their elderly loved ones. It’s not true that lacking male or female role models is just as good for kids as having one of each. It’s not true that a woman’s life will be better if her baby is dead. But increasing, society wants to believe that all these things are true, that all arrangements are the same; that as long as we agree to a certain situation and everyone does their best to be fair, things will turn out fine. Contracts and consent can cover a multitude of affairs—so the theory goes.
Will human nature stand for it? I think not. In some cases, like those of people searching for their biological parents, the desire to return to some sort of normalcy manifests directly. In other cases the reaction to familial dissolution is indirect, as Mary Eberstadt recently argued in “The Primal Scream of Identity Politics.” But whether the Western world reforms itself first or collapses (and, if the latter, how) is anyone’s guess.
There is something profoundly irreligious in this weird societal self-destruction, as well as something inhuman. Not for nothing did Plato’s examination of divine nature in the Euthyphro start from an examination of filial piety. The man who cannot understand what it is to be pious to his father cannot have a right understanding of what it means to be pious in the sight of the gods—that is Socrates’s subtle point. Euthyphro begins by attempting to “piously” prosecute his father for manslaughter, only to be flummoxed by the question that philosophers have since dubbed “the Euthyphro problem”: Are pious actions loved by the gods (or God) because they are pious, or are certain things pious because they are loved by God?
The traditional answer is Both right; both wrong. God and goodness, as Thomas Aquinas argues, are identical. In one sense, God must love what is good, because every good thing is a reflection of his own goodness, of himself, whom he cannot but love. On the other hand, one would not say that God is constrained to love the good; he chooses freely to love what he loves. A pious thing is pious because God loves it, and God loves it because it is pious.
That same paradox, ideally, should be reflected in the family. One is bound to family members both by natural ties and by good deeds, mutually performed, over years and years. In some cases, families fall short of the ideal—that is an unfortunate reality. But to move from the fact that natural families are imperfect to the modern idea that one can disregard natural ties and simply construct an ideal family out of choices is, like Euthyphro’s weak definitions of piety, a pipe dream. And its fruits, as the case of the self-interested guardians shows, are a bad trip.