Synods and Ends: Family

I haven’t been following the current synod. Frankly, something is not quite right when a meeting of the Church’s bishops becomes a media event, where talking heads who know about as much about the Church as your average garden gnome, but are berserker-level frothy about the medieval INJUSTICE of it all, are leading the opinion-parade, with Vegas offering odds on what radical innovation the bishops will enact.* As a lay Catholic, I really don’t care to stay on top of whatever happens, especially if I have to rely on the press to relay that information. I don’t expect anything very fundamental to change. If, somehow, it does, well, we’ll cross that bridge in due time.

In the meantime, the difficulties of families are not something that you need a learned council to point out.

Don’t recall who was pointing out that the concept of the nuclear family is fairly recent, that family historically consisted of what are today called ‘extended families’. If a nuclear family is seen today as strictly optional, an extended family is seen as almost a fantasy. The ideas that a grandfather or maiden aunt or a second cousin would have any concern about, let alone any say whatsoever in, your life beyond what any random friend might have is patently absurd.

Then there’s this, wherein Alma Boykin, a regular contributor to Sarah Hoyt’s blog comes across something funny:

The first time I came across something different was in the book Holding the Stirrup by Elizabeth von und zu Gutenberg, the daughter of a Bavarian nobleman. After her father died, the men of his extended family gathered to redistribute his property, giving his castle and country house to other relatives that needed the space more than Elizabeth’s mother did (Elizabeth had just married). The real goods of the family belonged to the family as a whole, not to Elizabeth’s father. The clan provided her mother with an apartment in Munich and an income, so she wasn’t homeless or destitute by any means, but the needs of the clan overrode whatever her father’s wishes and mother’s desires might have been. That was how it had always been in the great families of Bavaria and Austro-Hungary. The practice made survival sense in many ways, and Elizabeth von und zu Gutenberg didn’t question the division.

The crux, the point upon which all such issues of personal property, responsibility and independence pivot, is Who am I essentially? Any reader of fantasy, or history more ancient than the last few centuries, knows that the hero and villain and the prince and princess all are introduced as So-and-So, son/daughter of So-and-So. Achilles, son of Peleus. Charles the Hammer, son of Pipin. Thor, son of Odin. Kublai Khan, son of Tolui, son of Genghis. Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand. Kristin Lavransdatter. Moses Mendelssohn. Jesus, son of David, Son of God.

To the typical individual in most places in the world throughout most of history, an important part, often the most important part, of who someone was was what family they came from and what their role in that family was. An eldest son had a different set of responsibilities than a fourth son; over time, daughters became mothers who united families in their children. These roles, in almost all cases within the normal workings of society, were simply much more important than individual characteristics and achievements. And – here’s the tricky part for the modern mind – much more personally fulfilling.

To the extent my family determines who I am and what my role is, then to lose one’s family is to lose one’s self. To reject one’s family, or, more common by the minute here in America, to simply not have one, is to never fully know who you are and what your purpose is.

Thus, in the modern world, a man who is part of a family – a father and husband – will live a longer and happier life than one who is not. He will have a better life if he puts the well-being and happiness of his family first, and seeks personal fulfillment second (or third or fourth). It’s that ‘whoever loses his life will find it’ thing. It used to be that families raised their children to be parts of families, and recognized the truly broken nature of broken families. When we read Jane Austin, for example, the drama is largely around what kind of family relationships will be brought into existence. The happiness of the people involved is at stake. This needed no explanation in Austin’s time – like Hamlet, I don’t know how a modern reader would hope to understand it.

A number of other things that baffle or infuriate the clueless modern fall out from this family-first attitude. For example, family comes logically and practically before society and government – from the family’s point of view, society and government are something families create. Thus, in Jane Austin again, we see families creating society in their parties and dances – these social activities are more than just occasions for personal interaction, but are profoundly ordered to the purposes of the family. Larger society, insofar as it is a good thing, is built up from the pieces – the relationships – the individual families have built.

At the next level, we have government. Historically, governments were created to resolve conflicts between families writ large. Take England (or any European country, really) for example: we see clans forming – all based on families – that then war against each other, form alliances, form alliances of alliances (family pledges to some other family get subsumed under larger agreements) until a king arises, who has the power to enforce agreements across all clans and families.**

When we say society is built upon families, this is what we mean: that all civil and productive practices that tend toward the happiness and fulfillment of individuals spring from the relationships within and between families, and that government exists to foster and protect those relationships.***

Today, it is considered outrageous in some circles that women were ‘denied’ the vote in the past. This feeling is the result of an error in thinking, of placing the individual’s function within a government as somehow higher than their function within a family. For families, the idea that the male head of the household would represent the family in the political arena seemed completely obvious – why would you risk causing turmoil within the family over something secondary and relatively unimportant like who get to run the government?  Why even go there?

If you look to our own country’s founding, you see many great families and the source of conflict. Most were farmers of one sort or another – Washington, Jefferson. Some were city slickers, such as Adams. Only one that comes to mind offhand – Hamilton – was an orphan, or at least came from no family. It is interesting that he is ‘credited’ with creating the first political party in the US, which one supposes was meant to be one big happy family.

Out of time. Conclusion: it doesn’t do much good to promote ‘the family’ if all mean by it is the modern nuclear family. Such configurations are too small and weak to stand up to the pressure of society and especially government, yet, insofar as they might try to, they are the enemy of modern government.  If what we want it holiness and happiness, we need to think bigger – we need to think extended family.

* I just made that whole Vegas laying odds thing up. I think.

** not asserting this is in any sense linear or unidirectional – just that, where it has occurred, it looks a lot like this.

*** In the past – not too distant past either – an orphan was seen as a tragedy. The solution was for a family to make such an orphan a member of a family. If, somehow, a man became disassociated with any family as an adult, he became immediately suspect – the lone man is often portrayed as a villain in old stories.


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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