How to Think About the Nature of the Family

When we stop thinking critically about the nature of the family, we start thinking (wrongly) that it can be whatever we want it to be.

Gustav Wentzel, “Breakfast II: The Artist’s Family,” 1885
Gustav Wentzel, “Breakfast II: The Artist’s Family,” 1885 (photo: Public Domain)

It has been rightly said that we are facing a crisis of critical thought.

Well, let’s face it, there are many crises, but the crisis of critical thinking is one of the most fundamental because it takes accurate critical thought to recognize and evaluate other crises. We live by slogans and headlines, and slogans and headlines are to critical thought what vinegar is to teeth. Uncontrolled reactive emotions are our standard of truth, and so all truth and all truths are undermined. It is no wonder we are facing so many other crises.

One of those other crises is the crisis of the family. In the mind of our society, the idea of the family has undergone vast changes. Without the ability to think critically about the nature of the family, we have come to the dubious conclusion that it can be whatever we want it to be. This idea is, indeed, a crisis — primarily because it is wrong, secondly because its consequences can be nothing less than devastating.

Thankfully, there are many good tools of critical thinking. One that I have come across in my philosophical studies is the “Four Causes” of Aristotle, which is a systematic way of investigating anything. Aristotle meant by “cause” more than we usually mean by it:

  1. The efficient cause is what makes something.
  2. The formal cause is what the thing is, its definition.
  3. The material cause is what it is made of, and
  4. the final cause is the thing’s purpose or end.

Take, for example, a chair. The efficient cause is a carpenter. The material cause is wood. The formal cause is that it is a piece of furniture with a low flat surface, legs and a back, all summed up in its essence: chairness. The final cause is that it is for someone to sit in.

The same process of thought can be used to analyze anything, and it can be particularly illuminating when directed toward more difficult “things” like school, the Church and the family.

The final cause of the family is nothing less than to produce and raise new humans. It is the opinion of some that family is for companionship, enjoyment or entertainment, but those goals can all be fulfilled by means other than the family. The family is uniquely suited to this goal of making new human persons. The two, the family and the person, cannot reach fulfillment without each other. According to the natural order, a mother and a father are necessary for reproduction, and reproduction is the natural result of the union of a man and woman. If we do not understand the nature of the family, we do not understand the nature of the human person; if we do not understand the nature of the human, we do not understand the nature of the family.

The formal cause, what it is, tells us about the specific and unique way that the people in a family are related to each other. A family is a group of people with a specific set of relationships to each other. A mother and a father are related by the permanent vow they have taken and the consummation of that vow. The children are the biological offspring of those parents, which is why the healthiest and most natural situation for a child is to have a mother and a father who are in a loving relationship with one another.

The material cause, what it is made of, is nothing less than the people themselves. A mother, a father and their children related to each other as already described are the matter of a family.

The efficient cause, what makes it, is the relationships themselves. The bonds that tie these people together are the forgers of the family, beginning with the mutual vows of the man and woman. No random group of people can be made into a family.

In the case of a family like mine where children have been adopted, children are also incorporated by means of parents’ vows to love and care for children as their own. This is a different situation, but it is not contrary to nature, similar to the case where one parent dies and the other gets remarried. The step-parent is not related to the children in the normal way, but the children still have a father and mother and the step-parent assumes the role of a parent to those children.

All of this flows from thinking critically about the nature of our very selves using a helpful tool from an Ancient Greek philosopher. And yet, it matches perfectly with the Church’s teaching about the nature of the family. Even sound philosophical thinking can, and should, give us the same conclusions as the Church where they overlap. But if we lack the ability to think well about the nature of the family, then the very source of society will be distorted, creating crises at every level of human civilization.

Thus the importance of education. Thus the importance of philosophy. Thus the importance of the family.