The family: Not for production or consumption, but joy
In his comments on industrial accidents on March 9th, Pope Francis mentioned that “the clear separation of family and work environments has had negative consequences not only on the family, but also on the work culture.” The Holy Father made the point that the sharp separation between the two has reinforced the idea that the family is the place of consumption and the enterprise the place of production.
This observation is right on target. In a rural economy of small farmers, for example, the family flourished in an atmosphere of shared responsibilities and benefits which encompassed the whole of life—a life more often than not rooted in prayer for what God alone could control (such as the weather) and lived out through hard work and shared leisure in a deeply familial setting. If we compare this pattern with that of an industrial society, we find intense pressures in precisely the opposite direction.
In the society of factories and offices, for example, it is necessary to separate parents and children for the bulk of most days, as well as separating spouses from each other. This was mitigated during a period of single income families, but only through the familial marginalization of fathers. Still, it was the rise of industrialization that led to the regimentation of widespread public education, taking the children out of the home from an early age, and eventually separating the father (in most cases) as primary producer from the mother and children as, in effect, consumers. While it is difficult to respond effectively to widespread socio-economic trends, it is clear enough that over the past two hundred and fifty years not only was the family essentially restructured owing to economic shifts but also the human sense of satisfaction, pride and power came to be increasingly linked to what we might call the world of business.
The family became increasingly subordinated to an engine of material progress which operated not only independently of the home, but in a very real sense in an unequal competition with the home. Worse still, as businesses became larger and larger (even to spanning the globe), job transfers proliferated. Once again the family was subordinated to commercial interests, human “roots” ceased to have significant meaning in the history of families and close-knit communities, modern men, women and children increasingly became atomized individuals who bounced from place to place and situation to situation throughout their lives. Given the context, which was usually portrayed as offering “superior opportunities”, it is no wonder that the sins of an uprooted individualism—including divorce, psychologically damaged children, and the drive to find one distorted private satisfaction after another—became a way of life.
Of course, the problems, temptations and sins characteristic of the human person are present in every era and under every circumstance. Nonetheless, it is clear that societies and their economic engines can be organized more or less beneficially for the life of the family. When this develops in less beneficial ways, we end up with widespread personal instability and distress, the normalization of many individualized forms of immorality, the decline of the family and close-knit societies, and the consequent loss of natural communities of support. Another result is that a great many people regard family life as the cause of most of their problems, and so they continue their flight from it.
But what has really been the cause, in the vast majority of cases, is the more or less deliberate evisceration of family life.
One of the benefits of the COVID epidemic was to demonstrate that the prevailing model of work outside the home was anything but economically necessary for huge numbers of people. Granted that massive factories are still considered economically necessary, there is still an ever-increasing likelihood that even many of those who depend ultimately on machinery can find ways to fulfill their “modern utility quotient” at home—and that children can learn at home, or at least in smaller, more parent-centric schools that are not mere ideological hives of the State—and that parents and children alike can find the resulting increased interaction among all family members to be a delightful change. Interdependence and mutual support increase as relationships deepen. Love grows, and with it the most fundamental personal and social stability known to humankind.
The family can become once again the primary community of human persons, essential and deeply beneficial to each member, out of which blossoms an intentionally more personal and supportive social order. Of course, our current larger social order—dominated as it is by the spiritually and psychologically injured—will continue to exert a corrupting imperial influence over everything. It is more than likely that, as genuine happiness continues to elude the leaders of the dominant culture, these leaders will seek through ever more draconian methods to eliminate the witnesses against their values, whom they will blame instinctively for interfering with happiness.
But they will remain unhappy, and the startling truth is that those they most abhor will remain joyful even in the midst of any imposed suffering. These, in the long run, are fruitful circumstances for evangelization. But we must all look around, if we have not done so already, to see how the new economic normal can be used once again to serve family life, until the family becomes (to use a shameful vocabulary) the center of “production”. I mean the formation of persons.
We ought to know by now that human happiness runs through and arises from families, both naturally and supernaturally in Christ. Not all of us have equal opportunities. Even some of us who work at home may be known to hole up at our desks without sufficiently participating in the family dynamic. Life is full of balance problems, which we all must constantly address. Nor will the most common possibilities for a renewed family life apply to everyone equally. It is far easier to be family-centric in some lines of work than in others; it is even far easier to strip back to a single income in some lines of work than in others. But to the best of our ability, we must make life family-centric again. And we must architect a society which frees not so much the individual as the family to make good on its Divinely constituted purpose and genius.
The Holy Father is right about this. The family is not an unfortunate locus of consumption in a world dominated by the demands of productivity. Still less is the family a mere convenience to be continually restructured according to selfish demands. The family is the locus of life. The family is where human persons flourish. The healthy family has been created to spread peace and stability and happiness through a river of love. Anyone—from the most obscure contemplative to the mightiest politician, from the policeman on the street to the actor on the screen, from the factory worker to the knowledge worker, from the planted field to the polished board room—anyone who is not striving directly or indirectly to serve the good of the family is simply not striving to serve at all.
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