Pioneer magazine

Jan 04: The fall and rise of the Christian family

Fr. Micheál Mac Gréil, SJ

It is not unusual today to read commentaries on modern society by otherwise very intelligent writers which fail to grasp the central role of the human family in the maintenance and quality of life of the people.

Ever since the end of the 18th century in our so-called Western World, the family has come under very severe pressure in the rise of the 'industrial' and later in the 'post industrial' society. The importance of kinship has made way for a more anonymous individual-centred network of social relations. In fact, the structures of neighbourhood and community have also suffered. The outcome, if current trends continue to their logical conclusions, could lead to the demise of society itself as a social fact without various territorial populations becoming aggregates of human 'isolates' living within a set of contractual relations. Their most significant roles being as producers and consumers of goods and services. This would lead inevitably to the 'decline and fall of western civilisation’.

There are certain signs or symptoms of the growing social malaise in western society, due to a large extent (in my opinion) to the decline of the viable family. These include the acute rise in such tragic events as homicide, suicide, domestic break-down, proportion of the population in prison, growing imbalance in the distribution of material and cultural goods and services, and so forth. The tragic aspect about Irish society is that the above indicators of social dysfunction have increased since the 1960’s, and are continuing to grow. This points to the urgent need to strengthen our basic family structure as the most important way of correcting the decline in the quality of life of so many of our people. Hence, the importance of a serious look at the family, in Irish society today.

The Christian concept of the family consists of the married couple, their children and others closely related by kinship or marriage. There are different degrees of extended family. Marriage is the initiating ritual of the couple intending to form a family and is solemnly blessed by the Church as a sacrament administered to those getting married. The Christian model of family is based on love and fidelity between the couple and the children. Children are reared in the family, and through it they become adult members of the neighbourhood and the local community.  This primary socialisation is intended to hand on the values and norms of community living. Children learn about the broader world and pick up the skills and knowledge which equip them to pursue occupations that are socially useful and (hopefully) personally satisfying when they take responsibility in adult life. In due course the young adults will meet and marry partners and repeat the pattern of their parents. The duty to look after the parents and other members of the family in their old age has always been part of the responsibility of the children in the Christian community. Grandparents have always contributed an invaluable support to the young, especially in the transmission of the religion of the family.

The challenges to the Christian family in modern industrial and post-industrial societies are very serious indeed. The whole socio-economic environment is not family-friendly. The socio-political ideologies (on the right and on the left) are not domestic-centred and seem to be dominated by the economic institutions. In modern society we no longer 'eat to live' but, rather, 'live to eat'. Despite all our advances in science and technology, we have not advanced beyond the priorities of  'cave~man and woman' who were totally preoccupied with the provision of food and safety. Property has replaced people as the priority of our laws and criminal justice systems. The collective rights are more or less surrendering to the privileges of the individual. This was exemplified by the regressive change (from the family or collective point of view) by the recent individualisation of tax allowance by the Government. It is now more important to respond to the economic demands of industry than to support the family! The pressure on both parents to leave the home and their young children in order to be able to provide a shelter for their family is crazy. The recent growth in house prices clearly points to the failures of the modern socio-political system to respond to the needs of the people. It seems our civilisation has reverted even further than the cave man and has gone back to 'the survival of the fittest' system of the pre-human primates.

In my opinion, the revival of the family, and the return of it to the priority position in society is the key to the restoration of quality of life for all of our people. Irish society has certain advantages in that the decline of the family has been more recent than in the case of other 'developed societies'. Also, we are now being blessed by the immigration of migrant workers from Eastern Europe and from Africa and the Middle East with strong family traditions able to resist the lure of decadent trends in wealthier populations where such priorities do not exist. The still-vibrant local Church structures are also in a position to support the family as part of the local parish and neighbourhood communities. We must also move away from the stifling romantic individualism being continuously propagated by popular novels, soaps on TV, 'agony aunts and uncles' in the newspapers and elsewhere. It is time to become realistic and learn from the wisdom of human civilization.

Of course, the viable family must constantly adapt and respond to changes in society. Among the most important changes are the arrival of equality in the family and the avoidance to patriarchy, matriarchy or filiarchy, i.e., the dominance of fathers, of mothers or of adolescents. Each family status has its particular authority commensurate with its responsibility to the common good of the community and to the developmental needs of the members. The capacity and age of the person determine such needs.

Most commentators would see the importance of the provision of informal relaxation as a function of the home. The ideal home should be a place where people should be able to 'let their hair down without losing status'. Modern society is very destructive of many essential aspects of home life. The commercialisation of leisure is seriously reducing the viability of our homes to support the informal social interaction of members of the family. A large proportion of meals are now being provided in restaurants and lounges away from the home. Conversation at home is constantly interrupted by intrusive television and video~ playing. Around-the-clock radio and television is at worst conditioning the people to an encyclopaedic barrage of 'useless information' and, at best, controlling our agenda for thought. The idea of family prayer, which has been such an important part of the Irish Catholic family, is practically impossible by the intrusion of television, in my opinion. Apart from the subtle ideologies being promoted, it intrudes on inter-generational dialogue and communications within the family.

I hope the above ideas and reflections will stimulate readers to re-examine the important role of the family in the personal, social and cultural life of the people of all ages. Hopefully, this will lead to a revival of our families as the basic unit of the community.

Is fiú dian-mhacnamh agus tréan-iarracht a dhéanamh ar son an teaghlaigh, chun leas na ndaoine agus Glóir Dé a athbhunú in ár measc.