Naturalness of the Family
We are not born virtuous, and our nature as human beings does not flower in isolation. The proper and ultimate relationship between the individual and society is developed from a basis in nature, is cultivated over time and is shaped through love.
Marriage and the family provide the indispensable matrix for the development of balanced persons and good citizens. This view, until recently, has held sway throughout the ages and has been broadly regarded as indisputable.
A sampling from diverse sources over a long span of history exemplifies the fundamental and irreplaceable function of marriage and the family. First, let us consider a passage from the I Ching (or Book of Changes), which is the oldest of the Chinese classics and has had a time-honored history of more than 2,600 years of commentary and interpretation: “The family ... is the native soil on which performance of moral duty is made easy through natural affection, so that, within a small circle, a basis of moral practice is created and then is widened to include human relationships in general.”
Here, the naturalness of the family is stressed. This naturalness leads to the affection that its members have and express to every other member of the family. Accordingly, this affection makes it easier for each person to express his moral duty within the family, which would include sacrifices and other unselfish gestures that are necessary for the family’s health and integrity. The family is not a construct, nor is it an institution that could be inaugurated or defined by political fiat.
Aristotle (384-322 BC), in his Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII, states, “The friendship between man and wife seems to be inherent in us by nature. For man is an animal more inclined by nature to connubial than political society. ... So we see that parents love their children as themselves: offspring is, as it were, another self — ‘other’ because it exists separately. Children love their parents because they were born of them, while brothers [siblings] love one another because they were born of the same parents.”
The expression “blood is thicker than water” attests to the fact that nature provides stronger bonds between people than those of a political nature. The bond between husband and wife unites them in a profound way that has implications of permanence. Political ties are to groups and are just as easily formed as they are dissolved. Moreover, the responsibilities of parenthood are to specific individuals, rather than people in general and, unlike political obligations, continue throughout life. Family life precedes political life. In fact, it prepares the person for political life.
Chief Justice John Roberts, dissenting from Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), also stresses the naturalness of marriage. He avers that marriage “arose in the nature of things to meet a vital need: ensuring that children are conceived by a mother and father committed to raising them in the stable conditions of a lifelong relationship.” It stands to reason that children should not be abandoned after they are born. Raising a child from infancy to adulthood is an arduous task and demands constant love and attention. It, therefore, requires the kind of steady sacrifice that could not be expected from bureaucrats or professional caregivers. Again, Roberts is emphasizing the naturalness of marriage.
In his apostolic exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio (The Community of the Family, 1981), John Paul II viewed the family as “the place of origin and the most effective means for humanizing and personalizing society: It makes an original contribution in depth in building up the world, by making possible a life that is, properly speaking, human, in particular by guarding and transmitting virtues and ‘values.’” Two decades earlier, Vatican II had stated that, in the family, “the various generations come together and help one another to grow wiser and to harmonize personal rights with the other requirements of social living.”
The family is the original school of learning to become a morally conscientious human being. The family, therefore, provides an indispensable benefit for society. The family operates generationally, eliciting the assistance of grandparents and others who are part of this broader, intergenerational notion of the family. There is no better environment for growing children than a family where love abounds between all its members. Parents should not be skeptical about moral values and should fully understand the importance of love, piety, generosity and social justice. The family “must have,” John Paul adds, a “special love for all the poor; it must have special concern for the hungry, the poor, the old, the sick, drug victims and those who have no family.”
Each of the aforementioned writers would agree that the family, properly understood, provides indispensable benefits for society. Conversely, the political neglect of the family endangers the common good. In order for things to go well on the societal level, things must go well with the family.
It hardly needs to be restated that family life, with its various burdens and manifold responsibilities, is not easy. But the various difficulties that the family must face should invite the assistance of the larger society. It should not invite skepticism about the very nature of the family. Unfortunately, individualistic, hedonistic and other anti-family philosophies have penetrated society, making the raising of children and keeping parents together all the more difficult. The critical point is to understand the naturalness of marriage and the family and the indispensable role they play in contributing to the common good. As a consequence, it becomes urgent to honor the family and help it to make good on the promise of its prototype.
Donald DeMarco, Ph.D.,
is a senior fellow
of Human Life International,
professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in
Waterloo, Canada, and an adjunct professor
at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, Connecticut.
- Nov. 29-Dec. 12, 2015