What does it mean to be a family?

Charles E. Irvin, M.B.A., M.Div., J.D.
St. Mary's Catholic Church
Manchester, Michigan
Reproduced with Permission

What does it mean to be a family? To be responsible as persons in a family?

Bobbie and Kenny McCaughey out put that question in front of us when they produced the world's first set of healthy septuplets. Media commentators fond of forever giving us lectures on how we should conduct ourselves were somewhat cranky with them, giving mini-lectures on responsible parenting and telling their listeners that the McCaughey's should have destroyed a number of those fetuses in Bobbie's womb prior to giving them birth. As for militant feminists . . . well you can imagine what they had to say.

The U.S. Census Bureau is having a difficult time these days defining what is meant by the word "family". What groupings of people living together should be defined as family? We have gays who are parenting adopted children, lesbians also, people just living together, as well as members of various communes of cults.

Children are getting confused in dealing with multiple parents. They have to relate now to birth mothers as well as step mothers, along with all of the sets of grandparents that come with multiple parents. Birth fathers and step fathers bring similar sets of problems. In large urban areas we have fatherless children who desperately need adult males in order to figure out what it means to be a responsible, caring man.

Additionally we have social engineers who want to keep all discussion of morality out of our public schools. God, morality and religious values, they tell us, should be things the children learn about in their homes. That sounds nice, until you stop and recall that for countless thousands of children, there is no home in which to learn these things. Home, for them, is simply a place to eat and sleep. Their real home is in the streets.

Anyone with common sense can see that our problems of multiple divorce, drug addiction, alcoholism, kids murdering kids, random shootings, sexual promiscuity in children (it's now down into the middle schools of our country), teen suicide, and total lack of conscience in many teens who are hardened criminals can be traced back to the collapse of what we once knew as family. The horrific truth is that most of this country's children do not live in what we think of as the traditional family, namely ma, pa and the kids all living together in one home.

There was a time when a man and a woman married recognizing the truth that they would be seriously involved in a mystery that caused them to share responsibilities with our Creator in fostering the growth of human life. The Catholic Church recognizes that as a Sacrament -- the Sacrament of Matrimony. In preparing couples for marriage we put in front of them the Church's vision of what marriage is all about. We try to bring them to the recognition that in marrying they will be seriously involved in a mystery that causes them to share responsibilities with our Creator in fostering the growth of human life. Furthermore, that "fostering" involves their own growth and development as well as the growth and the development of their children.

But what has happened to us as a nation of people here in America? What has been the insidious force that has brought us to the disaster we face in the collapse of the traditional American family?

Well, there are multiple causes. But, for me, one cause in particular stands out above all the others. It's called The Pleasure Principle. It's the notion that when two people marry, they marry for pleasure. The corollary applies also -- they stay married only if it feels good. In other words, the purpose of marriage is solely to give pleasure. Any other notions, ideas such as responsibility, commitment and fostering human growth (ideas vigorously proposed by the Catholic Church) are deemed to be a denial of our personal freedom, an unconstitutional deprivation of our personal right to pleasure, to feel good, and to have fun free from any and all other considerations, all of which are viewed as constraints.

To me, the pleasure principle has done more to harm marriage, and sexual intimacy, than any other one thing that is presently attacking what we know to be the traditional marriage and the traditional family. The fundamental message our modern pop culture is delivering to young girls is that their identity and self-worth is to be measured by the pleasure they give to boys. Young girls are given the message that pleasing their boyfriends is their chief responsibility. If they don't please their boyfriends, they can expect to be dumped, cast off as useless, without value. If you think I am exaggerating then just give a listen to the lyrics of the music that's pumped into them every day.

Young girls are told that to be desirable they must be sexually desirable. That's what they should be about in their marriages. If they fail to discharge that responsibility, they can expect their marriages to fail. It's all a matter of taking care of their men. The message goes on into adult life. It tells women that "boys have to be taken care of" and girls are to be the care-givers. Men have only to provide, women have only to care.

Our culture, as has often been observed, parallels in many ways the ancient pagan Roman culture. Perhaps we should at this point recall that the early list of Roman martyrs included a score of young women who were martyred for remaining virgins. St. Agatha, St. Lucy, St., Cecilia, and numbers of others were a threat to the pagan Roman value system, a value system that insisted that the only reason for the existence of girls is to give men pleasure. The value of a woman was measured in terms of her usefulness to men in observing the pleasure principle. When these young Christian girls openly declared that their value was more than that, when they openly declared that they were valued in the eyes of God as more than sex objects for men, they were put to death. And their martyrdom was all quite public because they posed a tremendous threat to that pagan social order and to the prevailing pleasure principle.

Well, things have not degenerated to that point here in the U.S. Virginal girls, however, suffer a martyrdom of sorts. They are mocked, laughed at, scorned and treated as castoffs.

So on this Feast of the Holy Family, I would suggest that there are some things to talk about around the family table. There are some Christian values at stake in our lives as we live them out in this time, time that will soon take us into the next 1,000 years of civilization. What sort of a civilization will it be? What will be the principles upon which it operates? And what values are we transmitting to our children as they face this stupendous future in front of us? The idea of what it means to be a husband and a wife, what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman, and what it means to be a family are all tremendously important topics for families to discuss. They are not just quaint notions from an antique world -- they are principles which are very actively and presently at work shaping the sort of social world in which we struggle to live.

This, it seems to me, is all reason enough for us to spend this day each year considering just what it means for us to live as a holy family.