If you’ve been with us for the first two parts here and here, you’ll recall the three waves of attack against the family—(1) the assertion that marriage enslaves, (2) that children are a burden, and (3) that sexual difference is a fiction. How to respond? I’d like to conclude our short history by reflecting not so much on a course of action but upon how we might renew our thinking.
First, what does the contemporary attack on the family presuppose? Frequently, at the root of these attacks on family lies a corruption of what John Paul II has called “the idea and the experience of freedom.” In the late pope’s analysis, underlying these ideas and the social and economic institutions supporting them is a notion of freedom conceived not as a capacity for realizing truth, “but as an autonomous power of self-affirmation” (Familiaris Consortio 6). In place of such a notion, and enacted through the disciplines and habits suitable for family, man and woman united in matrimony are called to embody the self-giving love of Christ. There can hardly be a more attractive witness of self-giving love than a family at prayer.
Next, Christians will have to re-evaluate the concept of equality, beginning with its unit of measurement. Obviously, neither a reduction in men’s height nor an increase in women’s weight is in view. Equality is measured usually by a vote, by a wage, by a raise—in other words, according to some political or economic criterion. Even accepting for the moment a strictly materialist conception of equality, it is a long time since we have passed from equality of opportunity over to the practical necessity of conformity. Moving beyond Marx, for Catholics, happiness is not measured chiefly by dollars and cents. Virtue is a far more stable currency. Is it really the case that most women are happier at the office rather than in the home? Given the toxic results of social engineering now evident, there is some prima facie evidence that the pursuit of abstract equality so defined works against the happiness of both sexes, and our children. It is notable that women consistently say that they do not derive their greatest satisfaction from work outside the home. This preference is all the more marked for women with children. In one recent Pew study, when mothers with children under 18 were asked about their most important source of fulfillment, 51 percent cited their relationship with their children, 29 percent cited their relationship with their husband or common law husband, while a mere 1 percent cited their job or career. Why has it become the expectation that women cannot be fulfilled in the home? Marriage and teen catechesis in this area should move to the offensive.
Through the 20th century there has been a renewal of thinking about the vocation of the family, including thinking about the role of women. John Paul II noted that, while the widening of access to public work is in some senses a genuine gain, it is not without loss. Throughout John Paul II’s writings, as in his Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem and his Letter to Families, he points out that men and women arrive at their true stature only through self-donating love. In women this gift of self is realized distinctively through the nurturing of a child. Thus, motherhood in women (which can also be expressed in the nurture of spiritual children) needs to be honored even above the valuable contributions that are made in the political and economic spheres (Mulieris Dignitatem 18). Sadly, today the maternal role has been so derided that many find it neither desirable nor possible to nurture the family at home. A society where government makes it easy to divorce and hard for moms to stay home is not progressive, but dying. To this end John Paul II argued that, “society must be structured in such a way that wives and mothers are not in practice compelled to work outside the home” (Familiaris Consortio 23).
This is not an unrealistic hope. Laws could stop penalizing women who stay at home. As a start: greater federal and local tax relief could be redirected toward families with dependent children; zoning laws could allow for the greater use of the home as a place of work; homeschooling families might be relieved from some portion of property taxes; and so forth. Most importantly, women and their husbands will have to rediscover the beauty of motherhood. Recently, a couple we know sought advice from their Anglican priest as to whether or not they should try to conceive a third child. The pastor encouraged them to do so; as he explained, while he had counseled many parents who regretted not having more children, he had never met a couple that thought they had raised too many. Fewer couples are willing to pursue this path, however, when both parents pursue a full-time career into their 30s. Children are a blessing; welcoming them does require that we adjust our spending habits. If we really do think that raising children is a nobler task than accumulating wealth, then it may be that young married couples will have to lower their economic expectations. In short, Catholics will need to relearn to make the case not only for traditional marriage but also for openness to many children. For, not only does human flourishing require a sound economy and stable polity; it also requires love. And there is no better way to learn how to love than in a family open to life.
Large families can foster holiness for a variety of reasons. For the parents, here are three: less sleep, higher costs, and more work. Three great reasons, some might say, for willfully avoiding children altogether. And many do. But not if your aim is heaven. Indeed, the fruits of conjugal love produce the conditions by nature that monks and nuns have to impose upon themselves by grace (i.e. by accepting the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience). Along these lines there is a famous story from St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s life at Carmel. Then as now within a monastery a bell is the common call to prayer. So prompt was Thérèse’s obedience that at its first ring she would throw down her pen, leaving behind a half formed word on the page. Well, in the domestic church, the cry of a child is like St. Thérèse’s bell; it often tolls.
No doubt, it does not always work for a young mother to stay at home. Nor are all couples open to life blessed with children. These absences are a cause of sorrow to such parents. Sadly, more and more couples see gain in what past times have recognized as a loss. In virtually every human culture large families have been a sign of blessing. According to the Catechism they still are: “Sacred Scripture and the Church’s traditional practice see in large families a sign of God’s blessing and the parents’ generosity” (CCC 2373). Children bless grandparents and cousins because they carry infectious joy; children bless brothers and sisters because they offer immediate friendship; children bless mom and dad, above all, because they turn parents into adults. Unlike any other gift, a new baby offers parents the opportunity to grow in love. The exchange of such gifts is only possible when a man and woman open themselves up to new life. The Church continues to esteem those who do so without reserve.
Since the birth of Marxism in the mid-nineteenth century until about 1980, it was almost universally assumed that social-scientific research was the friend of left-leaning social engineers. Early on the social sciences adopted Marx’s assumption that social relations not characterized by strict material equality are unjust. Statistical and empirical research were welcomed as means of uprooting the prejudice and irrationality upon which traditional institutions were founded. Above all—the argument went—the family, and with it the roles of men and women, would be exposed as having no hold in nature. All this has changed. Many sociologists remain wedded to radical politics. But their grip on the discipline has loosened. For many years now, social-scientific studies relating to the family have helped to illuminate, as one recent study has it, “the strengths, indeed the irreplaceability of the family.” In response to Engels, de Beauvoir, MTV, and company, catechesis will have to harness more confidently the abundant research available on the benefits of family. As reason and revelation attest, a communion of persons is founded not upon abstract equality but upon a willingness to serve Christ in one another. In the renewal of Catholic culture, the battle begins at home, on bended knee.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from Dr. Topping’s new book Rebuilding Catholic Culture: How the Catechism Can Shape our Common Life (Sophia Institute Press). This is the third and final installment of an excerpt that first appeared in Crisis magazine on Monday, January 28, 2013. The 1593 painting above of the Thomas More family by Rowland Lockey is based on a sketch by Hans Holbein the Younger.