The Family

The subjectivist turn in modern thought has had its effect on common thinking about many structures. This is noticeable in current reflections on marriage and the family. Within recent decades the biological character of both has been down-played in favor of an emphasis on subjective or personal goals. It used to be taken for granted that the primary end of marriage was procreation, that marriage was a contract entered into by responsible parties until the death of one. With the subjectivist turn in philosophy, procreation came to be regarded as a secondary aim, and permanence itself was questioned. It is not that anyone doubted that true marriage was possible even if procreation was impossible. It is rather that self-fulfillment or personal maturation came to be recognized as paramount. Viewed in this new light, the contractual or objective side of marriage became almost an embarrassment. True, vows were still exchanged and the marriage ceremony itself was not radically altered, but the emphasis was placed on conjugal union as a means for the expression of love, as a vehicle for self-growth and personal fulfillment. If children were desired and the possibility for a loving home existed, then they too were to be sought.

Ideally there should be no conflict between the procreative and the self-fulfillment aspects of marriage, but practically it does seem to make a difference in which order the two aspects are ranked. The havoc created by the self-fulfillment view of marriage is yet to be measured. Self-fulfillment is not normally associated with that self-denial which is a characteristic feature of every marriage. While the self-development aspect of marriage is not to be denied, an objective perspective would see it as a by-product of something more fundamental. Like happiness itself self-fulfillment cannot be directly intended. A normal life of parenting can bring self-growth about as reliably as any other aspect of life. This should not be surprising. Aristotle noticed that nature accompanies essential acts with attendant rewards. As biologically decreed by nature, family life is accompanied by under-acknowledged blessings.

True, the begetting of children can take place outside of marriage, but human reproduction requires certain conditions for the rearing and education of children. One of those conditions is a stable union between parents and, one could add, a stable union between generations. The multi-generation family is one of nature’s gifts, permitting multiple generations to speak to one another across the years. By contrast, one of the sad by-products of divorce is that it not only separates spouses and children from their mother and father, but children from their grandparents. Many a child has learned at the feet of a grandparent a respect for nature, a love for God, a habit of making distinctions and has acquired a host of stories, colorful and magnificent, that in due course he will repeat to his own grandchildren. An extended family also provides a buffer against undue dependence on the state or on commercial institutions. Auntie’s loan for college tuition or her help toward a down-payment on a house can make a difference. A cousin’s radial saw or his pick-up truck can make life a great deal easier. All the advantages of belonging to a tribe can be lost with a disintegrating family.

Characteristically, one of the most common reasons given for divorce is a failure in “the pursuit of happiness and self-fulfillment.” The contrary attitude is formulated in the folk saying, “Whatever is good for the kinder.” Surprisingly, what is good for the kinder is often good for the parent. Parents frequently grow as much as their children, in virtues such as understanding, tolerance, courage, thriftiness, inventiveness, and humility, indeed, in moral virtue generally, when, as parents, they try to set a good example. The home, too, is a nursery for things divine. The faith is learned there. So, too, are criticisms of the external world. In a secular milieu, the home can provide an island retreat where one can find spiritual nourishment.

This is not to ignore the hardships and hazards of family life. The press and television display them all too readily, just as the media have a tendency to exaggerate the rewards of personal freedom. Cana sanctified a natural institution; grace is assured to those who are open. No one gets home free, but the journey need not be tumultuous.

  • Jude Dougherty

    Jude Dougherty is Dean Emeritus of the School of Philosophy in the Catholic University of America and the editor of The Review of Metaphysics, and General Editor, Series Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy, Washington, D.C., The Catholic University of America Press.

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