National Catholic Register

Books

The Countercultural Truth about Families

BY Raymond J. De Souza

April 11-17, 1999 Issue | Posted 4/11/99 at 2:00 AM

 

Defending the Family: A Sourcebook

edited by Paul C. Vitz and Stephen M. Krason

(The Society of Catholic Social Scientists, 1998, 277 pages, $20)

Scholarship is essentially an ongoing conversation between experts, and, as in everyday conversation, it is often necessary to restate the obvious if an interlocutor is unaware of it, or contradicts it. Thus the physicist who seeks to re-establish the discoveries of Newton against those who are denying them is making a useful contribution. And in restating the obvious, he might even find he has discovered something genuinely new.

The men and women who comprise the Society of Catholic Social Scientists know something about restating the obvious. The society was formed only a few years ago and is an association of scholars who take both their scholarship and their faith seriously. Dr. Stephen Krason of the Franciscan University of Steubenville, president of the new association, along with the noted psychologist Dr. Paul Vitz, has shepherded this first project of the society to publication.

The release of this book, Defending the Family, is a suitable occasion to note with gratitude the existence of the society. It does not propose that there is a Catholic way to do psychology, or economics, or sociology, but rather that Catholics ought to bring to their work in these fields a competence borne of their vocation to holiness, and an understanding borne of their Catholic faith. Social science is fundamentally about how and why man, a social being, behaves as he does. Social science that lacks a proper understanding of man will soon lose itself in either irrelevance or error. Economics, for example, suffers acutely today from its flight into quantification and its neglect of actual human experience. As this field of study becomes more focused on hypothetical models than on actual people, its status as a social science is weakened.

Catholics believe that only in Christ is the mystery of man fully revealed (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22). The Catholic social scientist, therefore, conducts his research according to the proper methods of his discipline, but faith provides him with an anthropology that allows him to avoid errors that others make because of improper conceptions of man.

The volume reviewed here is an example of the right kind of social science in action. It collects papers about the current crisis in family life that flow from an understanding of the traditional family — a husband and wife with their children — as the best institution for the successful continuation of the human project on earth. Human well-being requires strong families. One can come to that conclusion either by revelation — from Scripture as interpreted by the Church's magisterium — or by reflection on experience, which is the work of scholars. Indeed, the necessity of strong families is obvious. But today it is much denied, and so the social scientists' group has decided to devote its first book to restating what we ought to know.

That is not to say that the scholarship presented here is simplistic or boring. The editors clearly intend this “sourcebook” to give Catholic leaders and intellectuals valuable articles on a range of topics that can be useful in their own work. The academic style of many of the articles, dripping with citations and footnotes and sporting lengthy bibliographies, ensures that it will be helpful to other professors, university students, writers and commentators who need to know what scholarly material is available to defend the traditional family.

It does not propose that there is a Catholic way to do psychology, or economics, or sociology, but rather that Catholics ought to bring to their work in these fields a competence borne of their vocation to holiness...

The articles cover liberalism, feminism, sexual morality, homosexuality, economics and welfare policy, popular culture, theology, practical aspects of child-rearing (parental authority, nurturing, breast-feeding, home-schooling, corporal punishment, child abuse). They are introduced by an extraordinarily helpful article by Paul Vitz documenting the decline of the family as measured by the various statistics of social science.

Vitz's article represents the collection at its best, with a careful examination of the facts, an avoidance of strident language, and provision of the sources for others who are working in this field. A similarly outstanding contribution is Richard Cross' article on corporal punishment, which does not present unwar-ranted conclusions, but solidly refutes claims not supported by the evidence. His assessment of the research to date concludes that prudent use of corporal punishment is not damaging to children, and his mastery of the nuances of a complicated topic is a good example of careful scholarship.

In a collection of this range uneven quality is to be expected. Some of the articles rail against the modern world in a way that is jarringly strident and unfortunate in a “sourcebook.” James Likoudis contributes such an article on liberalism, which misses the opportunity to carefully sift the wheat from the chaff in our dominant political-cultural ethos. William Marra, in his article on home-schooling, confesses that he has a dream in which a “massive bolt of lightning envelops the entire world and melts every copper wire in existence. Just think: no more radio, TV, video or audio tapes, no phones or faxes: just humans talking to each other!”

These kinds of statement are not particularly helpful, even though they are surely tongue-in-cheek. The battle for the family is not going to be won if the anti-family forces suspect the pro-family movement is purely reactionary. Thankfully the other broad survey articles on philosophy (Bryce Christensen on the utopian impulse against family life), morality (especially the careful treatment of homosexuality in Judaism by Dennis Prager) and theology (Father Richard Hogan on Pope John Paul II's theology of the body) show a sensitivity to contemporary concerns for freedom and autonomy that strengthens their arguments.

Vitz concludes the volume with a short proposal for a political and religious defense of the family. Politically he proposes some very bold measures, including taxing married people at lower rates than divorced people, and penalizing participants in state-sponsored retirement schemes who have fewer children. Many objections to such proposals immediately come to mind, but it is reasonable to hope that the scholars of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists will devote further effort, either collectively or individually, to developing more comprehensive ideas.

In the end, Vitz acknowledges that the state of the family is fundamentally a cultural, that is, religious, matter and that it will not be rectified by politics. Indeed, how one works for the kind of religious revival that would renew the family is something beyond the specific expertise of social science.

Raymond de Souza, a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario,writes from Rome..