Pope John Paul ended his major 1981 statement on the family by declaring, "The future of humanity passes by way of the family" (The Community of the Family, 86).
For many "enlightened" observers in the 20th century, this is a scary thought and something which must be changed. Parents are too parochial, emotional and ignorant to be entrusted with something as important as raising children. Uneducated in the ways of proper child-rearing, parents are prone to abuse and to raising their children in ways inappropriate for a post-modern, post-industrial civilization. It would be far better if children were raised by professionals, knowledgeable in the latest findings of the human sciences.
However, given that this solution is politically unpalatable, we will have to settle for the next best thing. Both parents have to be encouraged, even forced economically, to work outside the home and the children raised in day-cares until they are old enough to be turned over to the public school system. The schools must provide not only academic training, but also overcome the deficiencies of the home by giving children proper self-esteem.
How radically different is the Church's understanding of the family! The child is not seen as a thing, planned and manufactured from before conception through childhood and finally into a productive member of society. Rather, marriage is based on two people making a sincere and permanent gift of themselves to each other. Out of their partnership with each other and with God, children are given, not as objects to be enjoyed, but as persons valued for and in themselves.
Parents are not only the biological "begetters" of children, but their first and primary educators. They educate not only about the practical ways of the world, but also and most importantly about morality. They love their child and help him or her slowly find his or her place in society. Parents may call upon the help of societal institutions, such as schools, but those institutions carry out their responsibilities "with (the parents') consent and, to a certain degree, their authorization" (Pope John Paul, Letter to Families, 16).
The first part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church's discussion of the fourth commandment defends the family as the basic institution of society, one whose prerogatives and freedom are to be protected from incursion by larger communities. These larger communities should strive to protect and strengthen marriage and the family rather than seeing them as an obstacle to proper human development.
In fact, the family in today's Western world is under attack from several directions. The first attack was economic. The rise of factories and mechanization led to the decline of the family farm and other home-based businesses, forcing fathers to work outside the home. The removal of the father from the home for large parts of the day and the erosion of his ability to pass on meaningful skills to his children made mothers increasingly dominant in the family and fathers increasingly useless. Moms felt overwhelmed at home, dads felt left out.
The advent of universal public education -- another seemingly beneficial development -- also eroded the role of parents. More recently, TV and advertising have invaded the home, further usurping the parents' role as the primary educators. Children have been slowly, inexorably segregated from the world of adults, except those adults given a role by the state or the media in their formation.
In this evolving situation, it is perhaps not surprising that marriage and family are no longer seen as the basis of society. Parents can hardly fail to notice that their role in moral formation is far from dominant and older children can hardly be blamed for seeing their parents as an almost unnecessary constraint on their experiencing the most tantalizing aspects of life. It's not hard to understand why divorce was once seen as an abomination and today is seen as one viable option.
Indeed, the nuclear family itself is now viewed as just that -- one option among many. One might ask: If a lesbian couple or homosexual couple are competent at child-rearing while many married couples are dolts, why should they not have the opportunity to raise children?
But that question again assumes the child is a thing. Our governments and courts, however, are buying that understanding, treating common-law relationships as equivalent to marriage, subject to all the benefits society has traditionally bestowed only on marriage. And those institutions are moving towards applying that understanding to homosexual relationships.
Still, the experience of recent decades has shown that society was right to accord a privileged position to marital relationships. A 1998 Statistics Canada survey found that 63 per cent of 10-year-olds born in common-law relationships had seen their parents separate compared with only 14 per cent of those born within wedlock.
Twenty per cent of cohabitating relationships are common law, but they account for 60 per cent of domestic violence. Children born in common-law relationships are far more likely to do poorly in school, get involved in crime, become pregnant as teenagers or get divorced when they marry, thus passing on the ill effects to another generation.
The pope was right. The family does determine the future of humanity. Strong families are the cradle of love which strengthen the values of society. A broken family is a sign that love can be destroyed, a sign to children and others that the world is a dangerous and unstable place where people are things to be used. A society where the family structure is being eroded is a civilization in decline.
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