Families and Fallacies

The late Rodney Dangerfield, whose signature statement was “I get no respect,” claimed that when he tried to explain to his wife that he, like wine, gets better with age, she locked him in the cellar.  There is usually an element of illogic in humor.  In this case, the sadly misunderstood Rodney Dangerfield was using an analogy, whereas his wife took his statement to be an expression of his identity.  Since we know the story is a joke, we can laugh without showing concern.  Dangerfield was not banished to the basement, nor was his analogous use of wine completely misinterpreted by his wife.  But there are instances in which an analogy is mistaken for an identity which do give us cause for concern.

An analogy compares two things with each other and shows that, although they are different, they are the same in some ways.  If one does improve as he gets older, he manifests something he has in common with wine.  But by no means is he to be fully identified with wine.  Confusing an analogy with an identity has become a problem in trying to understand the nature of a family.  These days, almost any aggregate of things is called a family:  a group of fans rooting for a certain team, members of a corporation, a colony of ants, a group of foods, and the non-metallic elements that comprise the Halogen family. One family-life educator achieved the absolute pinnacle of vagueness when he said, “A family is a cluster of at least one.”  In the words of one commentator, “Every one of us has our [sic] own definition of what constitutes a family.”  This total confusion as to what a family is in its most fundamental sense is the result of mistaking analogy for identity.

Fr. Paul Scalia is the son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.  Growing up in a family of five boys and four girls no doubt gave him a good inside look at the nature of a family.  He sees the family as “the fundamental source and support of a civilization of love because the family preserves the proper understanding of the human person” (23 Faith & Reason, pp. 256-7).  The fact that the family is the basic unit of society is made abundantly clear by the fact that sociologists find it impossible to talk about the many problems of society without talking about the problems of the family.  The various social pathologies of our time are routinely explained in reference to the breakdown in family life.  Simply stated, the decline of the family means the decline of society.

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The family that Father Scalia is referring to is the prototype of which the many other notions of the family are to be understood analogously.  It is “the basic cell of society,” he writes, and is modeled after the Trinity, “in God Himself, in the Trinitarian mystery of his life.  The divine we is the eternal pattern of the human we formed by the man and the woman in the divine image and likeness…. The communion of the spouses gives rise to the community of the family.”

The family is the critical bridge between God and society, the conduit of love established through intimate bonding and lifelong, committed care.  In this respect, the family is unique, indispensable, and irreplaceable.  The family, however, can deviate from its true identity if it emulates any one of its analogous extensions.  A group of friends may call themselves a family, but they lack the two-in-one-flesh intimacy of marriage and the close bond that parents have for their children.  The relationship between husband and wife and their consequent relationship with their children form a special unity that can be properly compared only with the Trinity:  the loving relationship between the Father and the Son that flows into the Holy Spirit.

Sigmund Freud contrived a model for the human person that was, in essence, a fractured trinity.  He posited the id, ego, and super-ego as naturally unrelated to each other.  He had no sense of the unified person, much less of a unified marriage.  The id was an insatiable impersonal force, while the super-ego was an external imposition that produced a compromised ego.  This fractured triad may be related to fractured marriages where sex (the id) is not a personal expression of love and, as a result, prevents husband and wife from being truly intimate with each other.  It is a model that promotes alienation.  And alienated partners are more likely to be alienated from their children.  There are other false models for marriage and the family, ones, for example, which give too much weight to personal ambition, material consumption, and secular success.  The modern world, by using false models of marriage, finds it incomprehensible that a true marriage demands a relationship between a man and a woman that is not only cohesive, but is also committed and indissoluble.

The need is urgent to recover the true meaning of a family and to identify properly the analogous forms that may be interesting as analogies, but remain inadequate as substitutes.  Life is to be lived in the light of truth and not in the shadow-land of fashionable fallacies.

  • Donald DeMarco

    Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus of Saint Jerome’s University and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He is a regular columnist for the Saint Austin Review and the author, most recently, of Reflections on the Covid-19 Pandemic: A Search for Understanding.

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