Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The American Family on Rocky Ground

The American family is in crisis and everyone is looking for solutions. Are answers being sought in the wrong places?

by John Horvat


Like all of His parables, Our Lord’s story of the wheat sown in different places is striking. Seeds sown on good soil flourish while those on rocky ground do not.

One lesson this conveys is that even the best things, like the Word of God, need proper conditions to flourish. The parable has its applications to the American family. The modern family seems to lack the conditions to thrive in industrial society.

In light of the Columbine massacre, it is trendy to point fingers to find causes. The entertainment industry is blamed for promoting violent movies. The schools are charged with poor education. The gun lobby is cited for promoting the use of weapons that end up in the hands of children.

However, few fingers point inward. Everyone is willing to descry the very real pests that attack the struggling family “plants.” Few care to look into the soil to ferret out the most profound reasons behind youth violence.

On rocky ground

The signs of an internal problem are all too apparent.

Half of all marriages contracted today will end in divorce. However, it is not the government or another outside agent that is tearing these families apart. It is the very spouses who tear asunder with amazing no-fault ease that which God has joined together.

It is within the family home, not the sex-education classrooms, that young children are first exposed to hours of immoral television programming. They will listen almost unopposed to music with lewd lyrics, often in their own bedrooms.

Today’s families are veritable war zones, and it is the home rather than the street that is frequently the scene of murder, suicide, assault, and violence. It is not in college dormitories but while still living within their family homes that youth will experiment with alcohol, drugs, and promiscuity. Many will even lose their faith, if they have any.

While abortion, homosexuality, pornography, and sex education all threaten the family from the outside, family defense mechanisms that once safeguarded the morals of members are being destroyed.

The lost notion of family

One reason why this has happened is that Americans have lost a true notion of family.

Indeed, there is not one but several prevalent notions today of what constitutes a family. Politicians of every political hue can promote themselves as pro-family and call for family values. “Family” is the supreme adjective wherewith anything can be sanitized.

Questionable programming can be labeled family entertainment and become acceptable. Single-parent families, homosexual unions, and family “diversity” advocates catapult into respectability using the family tag. Even pro-abortion groups market themselves as pro-family. The word “family” can mean just about anything.

On the right end of the spectrum, the conservative perception of family avoids definition. Sentimental and superficial notions abound, making the family a mere source of emotional gratification. Family models popularized by television and Hollywood over the decades portray families devoid of all supernatural content.

Enter the Industrial Revolution

Central to the problem is the concept of the nuclear family. For several generations, the nuclear family—two adults and a few children living as a separate unit—has been universally accepted as the model of the American family. Even today, many call this the traditional family.

The nuclear family, however, was never an ideal model. Rather, it was the first step toward today’s disjointed and unstable families.

Historically, the nuclear family was the product of the Industrial Revolution. Families moved away from their roots to jobs in the big cities. In doing so, they were brutally severed from the security of their communities, lost their history, and dissolved into the anonymous masses.

Today, the nuclear family survives at best as a stripped-down, fragmented model of the real family. The close support structures of extended family and community have all but vanished. Scattered across suburbia and un-rooted in a community, the isolated nuclear family is ill-suited to face on its own the onslaught of technology and constant change.

Clashing with the family

Everything about industrial society seems to clash with the traditional family.

Whereas traditional societies were oriented toward the family, industrial society is geared toward the consuming individual. Consumer society, feeding on constant change, speed, and pleasure, clashes with the family, which honors tradition, history, and the past.

Technology tends to reduce everything to rigid, objective, and abstract norms proper to machines in contrast to the warm human relationships proper to family life.

In former times, the broad extended family gave context and meaning to the individual. It supplied all the warmth, security, and familiarity necessary for facing life’s trials together with others.

It is no surprise that in today’s fast-paced world, one or two parents isolated in a suburban home are not enough to supply all the necessary affection for their children and themselves. It is inevitable that children start to look outside the family for affection, excitement, and thrills.

The modern family has progressively become a group of individuals without the common bonds necessary to give adequate formation to the needs of the human soul and psychology.

Even when living in the family house and environment, the individuals often find themselves “unfamilied,” feeling the trauma of these basic psychological and emotional necessities of affection and affinity left unfulfilled.

Not without reason did Charles Reich in his counterculture classic The Greening of America harshly characterized modern America as “one vast, terrifying anti-community.” While proffering false solutions, he did correctly observe that “Modern living has obliterated place, locality and neighborhood and given us the anonymous separateness of our existence.”1

A reason to be

The crisis within the family structure intensifies even more with the absorption of its functions by modern society. God gave the family certain functions that enable it to survive and prosper.

Foremost of these is the religious function of giving glory to God and working for the salvation of souls. The second is procreation and the propagation of the human race. Others include educative, social, and economic functions.

Ironically, in a nation that prides itself on cherishing all that is “family,” modern society tends to strip the family of most of these functions and reduce it to a mere consumer unit.

Gone are the days when families lived, ate, and worked together. Rarer are the sublime moments today when they pray together. Traditional families often produced their own food, baked their own bread, and sewed their own clothes.

The social act of eating together, for example, played an important role in teaching culture. The grace before the meal, table manners, and the rules of conversation imbibed at the dinner table taught the child the essentials for dealing with society. Today, only half of American families have meals together, and many of these are “shared” with the television.

“A disease of our time”

In a consumer society, family functions are increasingly absorbed or expropriated. Not only does the modern family not do things together, it tragically no longer needs to do things together.

Food, clothing, and shelter are now sought and purchased outside. Recreation, education, and even religion are commercialized and outsourced to third parties, experts, and manuals.

In the frantic pace of life of the nanosecond nineties, even consumption is fragmented. Family members, for example, no longer watch television together. The networks have responded by proffering shows portraying lone singles rather than the family sitcoms that dominated programming for four decades.

“The idea and delight we once took in celebrating family and community seem to be vaporizing before us,” says producer Norman Lear. “You now have all these shows about lone people coming together. It seems to me this is part of something profound. It’s a disease of our time. There’s a television in every room and the family has become splintered.”2

The modern family is not discharging its functions badly but rather the functions themselves are stripped away. The two-career family, for example, has little time to care for its children and must relegate this function to others. Thus, modern society takes away all the conditions suited toward carrying out functions, makes them irrelevant, and then provides cultural or commercial replacements.

Taking away a thing’s functions also takes away its reason for being. If the American family is vanishing today it is because modern society is slowly but surely taking away its reason for being. All that will be left is a sentimental attachment to an empty shell.

The family without roots

In times of crisis, the family has always relied on its traditions. Tradition is, by definition, a custom, value, or culture transmitted from generation to generation. It is an invaluable tool for dealing with reality.

Tradition governs the way significant things are done and marks lives with a narrative history and meaning. Yet the American family is deprived of even this precious element in dealing with the modern world.

One way tradition is lost is by denying meaning to places. When America entered headlong into the Industrial Revolution, it turned real property into a commodity to be bought and sold like an automobile.

Henry James in his 1907 book The American Scene described America of that time as a country obsessed with the constant need to move. He complained that Americans tore down buildings before they could acquire meaning and tradition.3

The nomadic American could never settle in a place where family tradition might develop. Few family homesteads remain in the family, and most nuclear families break with the past by starting all over again with a short cycle of ownership in suburbia.

Living for the moment

Consumer society also introduced an obsession for immediacy and self-indulgence that seriously hampered the formation of family tradition and history.

The consumer lives in the immediate and eternal present where pleasure becomes the governing principle of life. To him, family customs, traditions, contracts, and rituals represent imprisoning chains of the past that temper present behavior. He refuses to link the past to the present to form a meaningful whole.

Sociologist Christopher Lasch characterized this living for instant self-aggrandizement as “a culture of narcissism” where the consumer concerns himself with neither past obligations nor future commitments.4

Tragically, modern man has greater respect for the lure of the credit card than for his role as the hyphen between the past and future. The latter obligation would require moderating his pleasures or making an effort to benefit those who are to come.

A sterile pleasure

The Industrial Revolution projected the myth of a promised land of total consumption and happiness. Instead, it created an atmosphere where time becomes barren—a repetitious space for consumption and production. It is a sterile pleasure that leaves people unhappy.

“Consumption,” writes Richard Strivers in his book The Culture of Cynicism, “cannot offset the loss of tradition, the loss of function at work, and more competitive and violent human relationships.”

Technology, he continues “makes human relationships abstract and impersonal and destroys the efficacy of symbolically mediated experiences. This leads to an unhappiness that cannot in actuality be compensated for by consumption and visual spectacles. And yet, because technological utopianism promises us happiness, for us to admit we are not happy is tantamount to saying there is something wrong with us. Unless one challenges the myth, then the problem is with humans and their practices. We expect and are expected to be happy.”5

The family in perspective

Modern society, with its overwhelming consumerism and materialism, takes away the social conditions for the family to grow and flourish. If the family is to survive, it must leave this rocky ground and redefine itself in accordance with the teachings of the Church.

The family cannot be seen as a haphazard grouping of individuals. Rather it is the most fundamental of all institutions created by God, engraved on the souls of men and essential for the well being of society.

“The family is the organic cell of the social body,” wrote French theologian and author Msgr. Henri Delassus. “In it, you find the hearth of the moral and social virtues and from it we see them radiate and vigorously penetrate all social organisms and the State itself.”6

The family must also seek to regain its lost functions and generate the deep and strong roots of tradition to serve as the soul of the family, transmitting the ideas and sentiments of past generations and their corresponding customs.

The enduring family

Finally, seeds must be planted for the future. Even in its most elementary state, the nuclear family is still an obstacle to the liberal revolutionary agenda. Despite the internal and external assaults it constantly suffers, something of the family still endures, much to the chagrin and dismay of feminists and others.

If regenerated by the Faith, this small remnant of the once-powerful Catholic family ideal can still represent a major force. It can become a spark that may yet rekindle.

This, however, presupposes a major reconditioning of the soil. It calls for an internal change in the family that will turn toward God and His Holy Mother. It calls for amendment of life and a shift of priorities not just of individuals but of whole families.

Thus, when the promises of Our Lady at Fatima are fulfilled, Catholic families will gloriously spring from the good soil of a truly Christian society.


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