John Paul II on protecting the Family

The family is the cell of the good society and the locus of a civilization of love. The family is vulnerable to forces and trends of an “anti-civilization” at work in technological, liberal, consumerist societies. Christianity is needed to protect and nourish the family from the corrosion of modern liberalism. Here are some thoughts from Familiaris consortio:

But Christ — the vine from which the branches draw nourishment — is needed so that this cell will not be exposed to the threat of a kind of cultural uprooting which can come both from within and from without. Indeed, although there is on the one hand the civilization of love, there continues to exist on the other hand the possibility of a destructive “anti-civilization,” as so many present trends and situations confirm.  Who can deny that our age is one marked by a great crisis, which appears above all as a profound “crisis of truth”? A crisis of truth means, in the first place, a crisis of concepts. Do the words love, freedom, sincere gift, and even person and rights of the person, really convey their essential meaning? This is why the Encyclical on the “splendor of truth” (Veritatis Splendor ) has proved so meaningful and important for the Church and for the world — especially in the West. . . .

Why is the splendor of truth so important? First of all, by way of contrast: The development of contemporary civilization is ed to a scientific and technological progress which is often achieved in a one-sided way, and thus appears purely positivistic. Positivism, as we know, results in agnosticism in theory and utilitarianism in practice and in ethics. In our own day, history is in a way repeating itself. Utilitarianism is a civilization of production and of use, a civilization of things and not of persons, a civilization in which persons are used in the same way as things are used. In the context of a civilization of use, woman can become an object for man, children a hindrance to parents, the family an institution obstructing the freedom of its members. 

Positivism and utilitarianism — John Paul does not shy away from philosophical analysis of culture. For positivism I would suggest we introduce the word “reductionism.” In our fragmented view of the world, we allow the mystery of the person to be dissolved into economic units, psychological complexes, sociological variables, etc. C. S. Lewis in Abolition of Man has an excellent account of the reduction of nature to what is controllable, quantifiable and this leads to the Abolition of Man. Utilitarianism is pervasive in our moral reckoning, and this in turn eliminates the moral absolute and the very notion of intrinsic good or evil. So when  John Paul mentions specific examples of the attacks on the family, we can trace them to the reductionistic/utilitarian mind set that pervades the media, the university, and popular culture. For example certain sexual education programs treat the person as a pleasure machine and teach technical means for preventing pregnancy.  Respect for fertility, self-control and character — these do not fit with the reductionist and utilitarian model.  The idea of safe sex is not at all safe in the ecology of the person as a whole. He also mentions pro-abortion tendencies which “vainly try to hide behind the so-called right to choose (pro-choice) on the part of both spouses.” The right to choose can make such an impact because we have lost a sense of good and evil as intrinsic to certain types of acts.

The overall impact of these principles of the liberal “anti-civilization” is the subversion of the family — because the family must flourish in an atmosphere of respect for the whole person and a whole life over time, with an awareness of the profound mystery behind sexuality and love. The “law of free giving,” mentioned yesterday, emerges from a depth of the person beyond the reach of calculation of interests. The hostility to the family is such that one neither finds himself nor feels “secure, as spouse, parent, or child.” This does not bode well for the future of civilization. Without spouse, parent, child — the origins of life are evaporated. The future is gone; and the present becomes one of enslavement. In fact, as John Paul spoke in Redemptor hominis about the abuse of freedom leading to self-degradation, the enslavement of the new sexual agenda is a prime example touching many:

The contemporary family, like families in every age, is searching for fairest love. A love which is not fairest, but reduced only to the satisfaction of concupiscence (cf. 1 Jn. 2:16), or to a man’s and a woman’s mutual “use” of each other, makes persons slaves to their weaknesses. Do not certain modern “cultural agendas” lead to this enslavement? There are agendas which “play” on man’s weaknesses, and thus make him increasingly weak and defenseless.  

Pope John Paul II wavers between hope from the joy in the good of love and the sadness from seeing the human so deeply marred. The witness of the family is stirring and deep through its fair love and joy:

The civilization of love evokes joy: joy, among other things, for the fact that a man has come into the world (cf. Jn. 16:21), and consequently because spouses have become parents. The civilization of love means “rejoicing in the right” (cf. 1 Cor. 13:6). 

The present prospects are not favorable to the family; we must face this fact, just as John Paul had to hunker down with the Polish church against the communist oppression for decade after decade.

But a civilization inspired by a consumerist, anti-birth mentality is not and cannot ever be a civilization of love. If the family is so important for the civilization of love, it is because of the particular closeness and intensity of the bonds which come to be between persons and generations within the family. However, the family remains vulnerable and can easily fall prey to dangers which weaken it or actually destroy its unity and stability. As a result of these dangers families cease to be witnesses of the civilization of love and can even become a negation of it, a kind of countersign. A broken family can, for its part, consolidate a specific form of “anti-civilization,” destroying love in its various expressions, with inevitable consequences for the whole of life in society.

The Church  places its hope in Christ; to return to the first passage cited above: “Christ — the vine from which the branches draw nourishment — is needed so that this cell will not be exposed to the threat of a kind of cultural uprooting.” In our next blog we will explore the signs of hope for the family today..

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