Marriage and family are of particular importance for the new evangelization, as was mentioned in the article on The New Evangelization and the Human Person. This is so for a number of reasons. Let us look at two, the family’s service to society and the family’s service to the Church. First, marriage and the family form the basic elements, the building blocks of society. Healthy, flourishing societies are dependent upon healthy and flourishing persons, marriages and families. Secondly, the family, being the domestic church as the Second Vatican Council calls it (see Lumen gentium, 10), provides an analogous service for the Church. We turn first to the variety of ways in which society is dependent upon healthy marriages and families.
The importance of the place of the family in the formation of the human person cannot be overstated. The empirical evidence from the social sciences is quite clear; in the aggregate, children flourish when raised in a loving family in which both the biological mother and father are present. Any other form of upbringing leads to an array of problems for the children, and the further away the family situation veers from this standard, the worse these problems become. The theological reason for this is that the natural family is the human expression of the Trinitarian “family”; the family (parents and children) increasingly flourishes the more it conforms to its Trinitarian archetype. It is meant to be a communion of self-giving love between the husband and wife, the fruit of which are children who themselves are manifestations of the bond of love between the parents in a way that is analogous with the Holy Spirit’s identity as the fruitful bond of love between the Father and Son. A healthy, loving relationship between the parents is the first and most important ingredient for a flourishing family. This marital bond is a very real entity from which the children are nourished (for more on this see David H. Delaney, “The Nuptial Mystery, the Sacrament of Marriage and John Paul II’s Man and Woman He Created Them,” Antiphon Vol. 18, No. 1 (2014): 92-98). Through the children’s experience of this marital bond, they learn self-mastery, they learn self-less love, they learn to trust, they learn to accept vulnerability and deal healthily with hurt, they learn to forgive and they learn lifelong commitment regardless of the ups and downs of life. When they do not experience these things, the likelihood they will flourish as individuals, spouses or parents is greatly diminished if not completely undermined.
In addition to this marital relationship, children also need to experience authentic same-sex and opposite-sex, psycho-emotional nurturing from each of their parents. Daughters learn from their mothers, among other things, what it means to be a woman, how to interact healthily with others in the family, how a wife interacts with her husband, how children are to be loved and cared for, how to care for others, etc. Daughters learn from their fathers how they are to be valued by men; that is, they are to be treated as persons for their own sake. This is especially important for girls as they enter their teenage years when the attention they receive from boys will be, by and large, limited to their sexual value. Before this happens, they must have had modeled by their fathers, the manner in which they should expect to be treated by men. When their biological father is not living in the house, girls suffer a variety of negative outcomes. Teenage girls who live in the house with a man who is not their biological father tend to enter puberty much earlier, increasing on them the stresses of puberty at a time when they have even less emotional maturity to deal with these pressures. They are also at a greatly increased risk of physical and sexual abuse. Teenage girls without the father present tend to have sexual relations much earlier, and they have a marked increase in the likelihood of having children out of wedlock. These girls tend to have lower levels of self-esteem because their experiences with opposite sex males has led them to view their entire value as persons reduced to their sexual value. In sum, girls living in homes where the biological father is not present (including who live with their mothers alone) experience greater likelihood of ending up as single mothers themselves. Single-mother families tend to experience high levels of poverty, increased incidences of domestic violence because of the transient nature of men in the household and decreased outcomes among the children raised in the fatherless household. Children from these families tend to repeat the downward cycle; disorder producing further disorder.
Boys, on the other hand, learn from their fathers how to direct their masculine gifts in service of their wives and family. They learn how to treat women properly. Boys who do not have the father present tend to exhibit anger, are much more violent and tend to engage in criminal activity in greater proportion. In fact, sociologists have noted that an indicator of the levels of crime in any given neighborhood is the percentage of fatherless households in that neighborhood. Boys also need to learn healthy opposite-sex relationships in their relationships with their mothers. Boys without mothers present in their formative years also tend toward more difficulties in relationships with women, including difficulties with commitments in their relationships with women later in life. The family is an incubator of trust and love, a place of learning how to love and how to be loved, how to be accepted for oneself and how to relate healthily to the opposite sex. We are seeing that as the percentage of children growing up without such an environment increases, society-wide disorder is becoming more and more prevalent.
Divorce is also a major contributor to the undermining of families. Children of divorce have a much greater chance of divorcing than do the children whose biological parents remain together, for many of the reasons mentioned above. Again, disorder begets disorder. It is interesting to note, that as the progesterone pill became available in the early 1960s and no-fault divorce spread throughout the US in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that the nuclear family concurrently entered what one sociologist described as “free-fall.”
The importance of the role of the family in developing the character of children, those who form the fabric of society, is supported by the theological anthropology and by the empirical evidence. The breakdown of families presaged the breakdown we are now seeing quite clearly manifesting itself in society. Society is, by and large, a reflection of the general state of marriage and family in that society. The trends we are seeing in society are not promising: the misunderstanding of marriage and the ongoing project of its redefinition will continue to increase the strain on marriage and family life, undermining attempts to counter the undesired affects on society (crime, violence, poverty and high levels of emotional and psychological disorder).
The family, the domestic church, is also the first place in which children learn the faith. It is the first place of encountering Christ, of encounter with models of holiness, of learning the faith, of being taught to take seriously the discernment of one’s vocation to the priesthood, religious life or marriage and of learning how to promote the faith. We can say with confidence that since the 1950s the prevalence of parents who understand and take seriously these responsibilities as the first formers of their children’s faith has reached grim levels. Not only is the lack of parental engagement a problem, the freedom and autonomy for doing so are being steadily eroded by the state and by the public education system, which are increasingly invested in promoting a new, secular orthodoxy among our children (see The New Evangelization and the Human Person), often against parental wishes. We are beginning to see public policy in which the state is acknowledging less and less the rights of parents having primacy in the education and raising of their children. Parental freedom and family autonomy are increasingly threatened.
The new evangelization requires renewal in marriage and family life, beginning among Catholic families. Healthy and flourishing marriage and family life are essential to society and to the new evangelization, but the new evangelization also must take into account the current difficulties and make a restoration of authentic marriage and family one of its highest priorities. Therefore, the new evangelization has to focus much of its efforts on marriage and family formation. Controversial news stories aside, the crisis of marriage and family and their importance for the new evangelization are the primary reasons that Pope Francis has called an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for October 2014 and has dedicated the Ordinary General Assembly for 2015 to the same topic, the crisis of marriage and family. The bishops are increasingly aware of and concerned about the state of marriage and family in the Church. Much more needs to be done at the level of the diocese and parish. Marriage and family ministry must not be limited to the level of the diocese; each parish must also have fulltime, qualified professionals who can support marriage and family through the family life-cycle (from preparation for marriage through to the later years of). What we are currently doing is woefully inadequate. Currently the model is to focus on meager marriage preparation programs and then wait until after they have failed. We then deal with annulments and permit divorce support groups to use parish resources. What is needed is integration of marriage preparation from the earliest ages of catechesis, and this must continue to be integrated throughout all aspects of parish encounters with children. We need to focus also on recovery of the understanding of virtue and character, qualities necessary for healthy marriages. Marriage preparation must also be incorporated into adult education so that parents can take the lead in marriage and vocation preparation of their children from early on. Parishes also need to develop marriage nurturing programs aimed at critical stages of marriage and family life (e.g. newly weds, first children, children in teen years, midlife, etc.) in order to help avoid crisis. Yet each parish must also have marriage crisis support programs available as well. Because of the foundational place of the family in society and the Church, the Institute takes a special interest in studying and promoting marriage and family in support of the new evangelization.