Helping the Family Navigate the 21st Century

There’s no doubt the family is rapidly disintegrating throughout Western countries. The advancement of the homosexual culture — recently illustrated in the movie Brokeback Mountain is but the culmination of a series of attacks to the natural institution.

So how can the family sail in the troubled waters of the 21st century?

That’s the question addressed by the Jan. 21 conference in Rome on “The Family in the New Economy: Reflections on Centesimus Annus.” Sponsored by the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, the conference took place at the North American Pontifical College in Rome, where some 170 seminarians and 60 priests from across the United States are trained.

It was a fitting site. Perched on top of the Gianicolo Hill, the college overlooks St. Peter’s Square — the square that represents the Catholic Church as the stronghold of the family.

Pope John Paul II strongly defended the family throughout his pontificate. The Polish Pope established the international John Paul II Institute for Family Studies, sponsored the Holy See’s “Charter of Rights of the Family” and dedicated 1994 as the Year of the Family. He inaugurated the first World Meetings of Families in Rome (1994), presided over the second one in Rio de Janeiro (1997) and sponsored the third in Manila (2003). In 2000, he led the Jubilee of Families.

Beside his 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio (On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World) and his 1994 “Letter to Families,” he wrote a “Letter to Children” (1994), a “Letter to Women” (1995), the apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, 1988) and a “Letter to the Elderly” (1999).

The role of the family in today’s circumstances is also defined in Centesimus Annus, John Paul II’s landmark 1991 social encyclical that commemorated the centenary of Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum on capital and work.

“John Paul’s encyclical is prophetic,” Father Robert Sirico, founder and president of the Acton Institute, said in his introductory remarks. “It is more consequential today than 15 years ago, when it was written.”

In his speech, Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, reflected on the urgency to defend society’s most basic institution.

“The family is the greatest wealth of a nation,” he said. “It fosters the economy, social peace and justice. It is the place where men and women learn values and recognize their own dignity.”

Jennifer Roback Morse, the Acton Institute’s senior fellow in economy and a columnist for the Register, spoke about the family crisis in Europe stemming from anti-family cultural and social policies.

“The most evident sign of the crisis lies in demography,” she noted. In the 15 Western nations of the European Union, the birth rates per woman range from 1.2 in Spain and Italy (among the lowest in the world) to 1.9 in France and Ireland, all below the minimum 2.1 rate necessary to maintain a population.

Europe, Morse said, desperately needs to create a family-friendly milieu and help young people marry and have children by offering them institutional and financial support.

The relationship between family and society was the topic of the third lecturer, Manfred Spieker, professor of Christian Social Sciences at the German University of Osnabrück. John Paul II saw the family as the sanctuary of life.

“The family is indeed sacred,” he said in Centesimus Annus. “It is the place in which life — the gift of God — can be properly welcomed and protected against the many attacks to which it is exposed, and can develop in accordance with what constitutes authentic human growth. In the face of the so-called culture of death, the family is the heart of the culture of life.”

The family can also be called, John Paul noted, “a community of work and solidarity.” That description that also fits the Acton Institute, as I noticed once again when speaking to its staff and members. I first became familiar with the institute in 1996, when it organized a congress to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Centesimus Annus at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum University.

The Acton Institute was founded in 1990 as a nonprofit, ecumenical think tank located in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Rome. It “promotes a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.” (For more information:

I believe that the testimony of solid Christian families together with the work of pro-family organizations such as the Acton Institute will not only help families sail safely into the new century, but also, slowly but surely, change our culture.

If we take John Paul’s ideas seriously and imitate his zeal to foster the natural institution, we may see the day when abortion, same-sex “marriages” and movies like Brokeback Mountain will be tolerated as little as human sacrifices and slavery are tolerated today.

Legionary Father Alfonso Aguilar teaches philosophy at Rome’s

Regina Apostolorum University.