We recently celebrated the Feast of the Holy Family, an ideal time to reflect on some of the issues that the Christian idea of family is facing in our ever more secularized (and, I would add, dying) culture. I am aware that this post is being published well after the feast, but then again, any time is a good time to talk about the family. If you are looking for a good source of meditation on this topic, allow me to recommend Pope Benedict’s recent address to the Roman Curia. In it, the Holy Father does what so few others ever do: he goes straight to the root of the problem, instead of arguing about trivialities.
But what is the root of the problem? Why is it that the modern view of the family is so antithetical of the Catholic view? What is the cause of such a dramatic divergence? Pope Benedict states it very clearly: “So it became clear that the question of the family is not just about a particular social construct, but about man himself – about what he is and what it takes to be authentically human.” Ultimately, the error about the family stems from an erroneous understanding of man. And, needless to say, the modern view of man is not exactly in accord with the Catholic understanding of man. This false understanding of the nature of man is the result of the philosophic principles many people in the West have espoused since the Enlightenment reaching their final, destructive conclusions. The idea that the individual and his freedom –and a misunderstood freedom at that– are the central and highest values has finally been taken to its ultimate consequences.
Pope Benedict cites the work of the Chief Rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, who argues that the new sexual philosophy of “gender” represents the last link in this chain of mistakes; it is the final culmination of all this nonsense. What this ideology maintains is that our sex is not and should not be something “given” to us, either by nature or by society, but that, instead, we ought to choose it. That is, you should decide whether to be a man, a woman, or anything in between. In a few words, those who uphold this view consider the individual to be the absolute and final arbiter of his own nature and our freedom to be such that we can define not only who but also what we are. It is clear that our freedom does have the power to define much of who we are (as, for example, Pope John Paul II argues in The Acting Person) and that we have the power to change much of what we find in nature, but it is also evident that this is not an unlimited power. So, for example, our alterations of what we find in nature are bound to its laws. We always run into pesky reality that puts us back in our place. The Pope points out the essential fault in this position: “From now on he is merely spirit and will. The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned. From now on there is only the abstract human being, who chooses for himself what his nature is to be.” But the reality is that human beings are not abstract! We are concrete and tangible creatures! Even more so, we are bodily creatures. We cannot, on a whim, disregard the objective reality of our bodies. If we do so, we are left with an incomplete view of the human person and with all the errors that arise from it.
How exactly does this view of man affect our view of the family? If men and women can define whatever it is they are, then the family can also be defined, or re-defined, as whatever we want it to be. This, of course, is equal to defining the family away. If it can be anything, then it is nothing. But here, once more, we run into stubborn reality. One of the fundamental purposes of the family is the preservation of the species, that is, reproduction. Human reproduction requires — even when done in a test tube — a man and a woman, sexual complementarity. If we arbitrarily and without any foundation in reality eliminate the differences between the sexes – which are very real, and not only of a physical but also of a psychological kind – then we are undermining the very basis of the family.
Up to this point this discussion has been fairly abstract, presenting gender ideology as a sort of negation of the Catholic view. Now I wish to propose a positive presentation of the Catholic perspective. Where can we find a concrete, down to earth example of the Catholic view of man and the family? I think we find a good example of it in a central, but often overlooked, figure in the Holy Family. I am referring, of course, to St. Joseph. St. Joseph represents, in two very specific ways, an answer to the erroneous philosophy of gender and an affirmation of the Catholic understanding of man.
First of all, St. Joseph stands in contrast with the modern notion that a man defines himself, the concept that a man decides, all by himself, who and what he is. This, of course, comes from an individualistic tradition that sees man as a self-sufficient and autonomous being. St. Joseph, on the other hand, is always referred to in relation to others. He is of the line of David, the husband of Mary, the father of Jesus. He is “defined” in and through his relationships with other persons and, in particular, in relation to his family. Not that he has no say in who he is, but he is “completed” by others. Pope Benedict states this very clearly: “Yet only in self-giving does man find himself, and only by opening himself to the other, to others, to children, to the family, only by letting himself be changed through suffering, does he discover the breadth of his humanity.” Even when our freedom plays a significant role in shaping who we are, it is undeniable that our family plays a very important role in that as well, for good or for ill. Whether we embrace our family or reject it, its effect on who we are will remain with us always.
Secondly, St. Joseph also stands for a different attitude toward reality. We see this reflected in what is considered his most notorious attribute: silence (there are no words of his recorded in Sacred Scripture). It is not a silence caused by shyness or weakness. It is a silence that arises from a sense of awe before a reality that might seem overwhelming: the mystery of God become man. St. Joseph not only reacts to the mystery of the Incarnation with wonder, but also, most importantly, with acceptance. St. Joseph’s silence is precisely that: an active acceptance of the reality that God has revealed to him, even when it goes beyond his understanding. We also finds ourselves before a reality that at times seems more like a mystery, namely, our existence as both bodily and spiritual beings, as incarnate subjects. The human person is both objective and subjective. This is the reality we are called to recognize and accept. Our bodies are not simply organic mass stimulated by chemicals, they are integral parts of who we are. And it is our bodies, central as they are to our personality, that provide the objective grounding for our sex and, in consequence, give a solid foundation to the institution of the family.
A restoration of the Christian idea of the family must, therefore, begin by providing a more complete understanding of the human person. Like I said of St. Joseph, it has to be placed within the context of the family and of relations with other persons. Other people — especially our relatives — “complete” us in a very real way. Finally, we must provide this view with a solid ground, and what better ground than the concrete, objective reality of our bodies? St. Joseph stood in awe of the fact that God united Himself to human nature, not only a human soul but also a human body, flesh, bones and all that comes with it. So should we admire, wonder at, and accept the reality of our human nature: soul, mind and body. If Christ did not despise the human body, why should we? Once these truths have permeated our culture, we will have begun claiming the family once more.Tags » Family, sexuality
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