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Families only a means to an end

Michael Mullins |  30 September 2012

This year's Australian Catholic Bishops Social Justice Statement focuses on the family. It is put into useful perspective by the publication the Bishops' Pastoral Research Office September E-News Bulletin headlining the 2011 Census statistic that only 50 per cent of Catholics aged 15 and over are married.

The often talked about nexus between marriage, the family, and the Catholic Church makes this seem an extraordinary figure. If marriage and the family are so important in Catholic teaching, are we talking about a 50 per cent failure rate?

No. Family life is often thought to be the norm, but that is not correct. It holds no value in itself but it is an often fruitful means to a morally good life. Many mature age 'devout' Catholics who find themselves single and without families have been conditioned by their upbringing to write themselves off as failures. But their marital status, or how many children they have, is not the measure of success or failure. 

The standard by which individuals should instead judge themselves is the norm of a life of self-giving. The Social Justice Statement stresses this, and quotes Pope John Paul II: 'Self-giving ... is the model and the norm'. The family, of course, is a good situation in which to live such a good and virtuous life. John Paul II calls it 'the first and fundamental school of social living'. 

But it remains a school, and it is only one means to the end referred to. There are other 'schools' for those who do not marry or have families. Examples include voluntary work, single-minded dedication to a profession, or caring for ageing parents. Perhaps the family could be considered the 'default' unit in our society, but it is not the norm in the sense that those living outside a family are considered abnormal.

If family is simply one means among many of living a good life, why do the Bishops, and indeed governments, go to so much trouble to support the family?

The answer is that it has traditionally been the single most powerful vehicle for social inclusion and, for the Church, faith formation and fostering a life of self-giving. Those who do not live in functional families are much more likely to end up on the margins of society.

At a time of rapid social change, the family is under threat but there is no replacement model on the horizon. 

The Social Justice Statement is subtitled 'The social and economic challenges facing families today', and much of its content is devoted to spelling out perceived threats to the family such as the trend towards casual rather than permanent employment. There are many others. Similarly, governments have given preferential treatment to families in its distribution of tax cuts and carbon tax compensation. 

The problem is that governments can go too far and usurp the role of families with paternalistic policies, such as those involving welfare for Indigenous Australians. Such policies break families as Indigenous families were broken by government policy in the era of the Stolen Generations.

For all the good it does, the Church can also unintentionally break families when it demands conformity to teachings that run counter to generally accepted norms of society. 

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.




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Submitted comments

Family of origin can go a long way towards explaining how a person is the type of person he or she is in adult life. I have the greatest admiration for the extended family system by which early post-1945 migrants to Australia from continental Europe adapted themselves to the socio-economic situation in which they found themselves. I take a Greek family in Melbourne in 1960s that I got to know as an example of what I mean. The children (6) did not leave home when they got married. They stayed in the family home ( rented). They saved as much as they could with the aim of buying a house. When children arrived, the whole family (paternal grandparents, parents and children) moved to a bigger house (rented)and stayed together until they could afford to put a desposit on a house for the oldest married son and his wife). The extended family provided services (eg childcare, kindergarten, recreation) that cost so much for young married couples today. The extended family inculcated unselfishness and patience. Some might mock the mansions the grandchildren live in today. But I know how they got there and so do they. Their grandparents are always welcome guests.

Uncle Pat 01 October 2012

Thanks, Michael. Critical examination of key concepts and established positions can help us better understand the underlying issues. So it is with families. Within a family we can love and be loved; we can be supported in times of need; and we can grow and develop in all dimensions of humanity. There are many options for adults outside the nuclear family, but the dimension of family – of linkages to people who love us unconditionally - is always important. For children who do not have the support of a loving family, much of our effort as a community is on rebuilding family linkages, or seeking to substitute for the support and relationships that families would provide. Some areas of vulnerability and marginalisation stem from within a family environment - family violence, for example – and a safer set of relationships needs to be established. The key elements of a family, and the importance of the role of the family, are thus acknowledged, even in cases where family is not present or not working. This does not detract from the validity or the value of the lives and choices of people who are single or otherwise outside a nuclear family setting.

Denis Fitzgerald 01 October 2012

Aligning Church teachings, understandings with "generally accepted norms of society" would be disastrous. Look at the disasters of slavery, apartheid, the feudal system, European colonialism and exploitation of indigenous people and in Australia, the Stolen Generations. All done with the "approval" of feigned resistance of not only the Catholic Church but other Christian Churches as well. In reading this article Michael, I think you have already aligned your understanding of Catholicism with "generally accepted norms in society" in that when you state, "family life is often thought to be the norm, but that is not correct. It holds no value in itself but it is an often fruitful means to a morally good life' you have forgotten about the Sacrament and sacramentality of marriage. Husbands, wives, children in a Sacramental marriage bear the grace of God and Christ's saving death and resurrection for the world. That we Catholics may have forgotten this in the West shows the paucity of catechesis.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew 01 October 2012

Very instructive article Michael. I have always wondered about some of these questions and you have provided explanations along with some very important observations on social inclusion. As an aside, I find it troublesome that the Catholic Church does not often provide the family-friendly conditions it advocates to wider society in employment or even liturgy times. Employment in Church organisations is frequently some of the least family-friendly conditions I know. Liturgies do not often consider the practicalities of attending Mass with younger family members or family members with particular needs. I wish the leaders in the Church would be a little more self-reflective on this front.

Anon 01 October 2012

The family unit seems pretty archetypal, Michael. It has been the norm for the majority of people through human history. Singleness is probably becoming more the norm in Australian society. Whether those who are single remain so by choice or not I do not know. Perhaps some of them are put off marriage by economic factors. I notice, in communities newer to this country, marriage still seems very much the norm. This will obviously have longterm effects on the demographic of the Catholic Church. The signs of this might be there already. There certainly seems a move away from the traditional family among some of the inner city elite with the availabilty of IVF for single women and same sex couples as well as the push for same sex marriage. I am unsure that same sex families or single parents will ever be as much the norm as the traditional family was. My own gut feeling is that, with the high incidence of marriage breakdown and divorce and the proven ill effects this has on the children involved, we as a society need to do as much as we can to build and support functional traditional families. Perhaps, as the single, celibate status was once encouraged to attract candidates to the priesthood and religious life, the traditional married state, battered and bruised as it is in contemporary society, needs to be similarly encouraged today? Certainly Judaism and Islam, fellow Abrahamic faiths, have no problem doing this. Catholics would avoid doing it to their considerable loss I fear and I am not thinking about demographics alone. I think the vision of the Catholic family, based as it is on the Holy Family, as a unit of love, nurture and growth in God is not something that can be easily put aside. I would regret its de-emphasis.

Edward F 01 October 2012

One has to define "Family". We are used to thinking of the "nuclear Family" which was essentially a product of the Industrial Revolution with just two generations in one household with links to grandparents. With a possessive attitude to parenthood this model is under great strain with marriage breakdown a frequent occurence. We have to reastore some form of an extended family. Local christian communities in the future will play an important role in sharing burdens and giving support. In the modern world congregations have to get away from individual "Piety" which was often self-centred to a corporate spirituality based on good liturgy and a personal response in spiritual growth

john ozanne 01 October 2012

Thank you Fr Mick for reminding us of the Sacrament. Marriages and families don't always work out as we would like them to. It takes a great deal of effort on the part of all members for that to happen and the strains today's society imposes make that even more difficult. Families need every grace and blessing possible just to survive. There are things I would like to see different in the church's approach to marriage, family,and to women, but the ideal for the care of children is worth upholding so long as we acknowledge differences may also work and that those who have not managed to reach the ideal need and are entitled to our strong support.

Margaret McDonald 01 October 2012

Yes, and it brings to mind those who, at entering junior seminary as a thirteen year old and with all good intent, to relinquish a family of their own to find in later life the lingering need for intimacy overwhelms them.
All legitimate avenues stymied to preserve the priesthood, the alternative to live a double life taken up by many.
"The expectations of the laity in relation to celibacy are not the expectations of the hierarchy", Helen last, as Pastoral Advocate to the Melbourne Archdiocese stated, among other things.
Christian Order: The Catholic Response to Clerical Corruption June/July 1996.
She was sacked of course, no place for whistleblowers in our church.

L Newington 01 October 2012

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