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Families only a means to an end

  • 01 October 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