Social justice and the 21st century family


Cover from the 2012 Catholic Social justice statement on the familyI came to the 2012 Catholic Social Justice Statement on the family [PDF] with some curiosity. Although the Catholic tradition deals extensively with both personal and social morality, there is often some tension among Catholics between those who focus on one or the other aspect.

The family is usually studied from a personal and interpersonal perspective, raising such issues as the uses of sexuality, marriage and the nurturing of life in its beginning and endings. So I was interested to see how a social justice statement, from which we would usually expect a focus on such issues as work, discrimination and solidarity, would treat the family. I found this document very helpful.

It begins by emphasising the social importance of families for the nurturing and formation of children, and then expatiates on the practical difficulties that families encounter in contemporary Australian society.

It stresses the difficulties created by a consumer society. The emphasis on the individual choice to buy and sell and the relatively unrestricted freedom to do so puts pressure on people to work long and unsociable hours. It restricts the opportunity for families to spend time together. Family members would like to live in an environment that nurtures their family relationships but feel themselves compelled to live largely separate lives by the need to pay off mortages and so on.

As one might expect from any reflection from within the Catholic tradition of social justice the statement pays much attention to the plight of poor families. It discusses in some detail the needs of Indigenous and asylum seeker families. It points to the potentially destructive effects on families of government policies when these are imposed without consultation. They weaken the sense of responsibility of families for their own lives.

The statement recommends all legislation be accompanied by detailed statements of its impact on families. It urges Catholics to develop the spiritual resources to be found in the scriptural understanding of the Sabbath, with its emphasis on rest and reflection in the face of the restlessness encouraged by a consumer society.

The tone of the document is encouraging and practical. It invites Catholics to reflect on how to enrich their family lives in the face of aspects of society hostile to them. It is not a jeremiad against the ills of the modern age and the philosophical theories seen to underlie them.

But this pastoral focus invites further reflection on the centrality within our economic order given to the individual's choice to consume. Prosperity depends on multiplying economic transactions, both those concerned with making money from money and those involved in the buying and replacement of discretionary goods. To repair the damage caused to family life would require building a better economic order.

The statement also encourages us to ask how we are to define the family in contemporary Australian society. Throughout the document the family is seen as the nuclear family with stable relationships between husband, wife and children. The scriptural model offered is Jesus' own family.

As an ideal this is fine. But in Australia families of this kind are the exception rather than the rule. Mixed families, serial fathers, single parent families are common. And as the statement recognises, these groupings are significantly represented in the poor families to which Catholics have a special responsibility.

Indeed, in Matthew's story, not even Mary and Joseph are a normal family. It took a special vision to Joseph to prevent Jesus from being raised by a single mother.

This suggests that reflection on the family needs to consider in detail the factors that create instability and suffering to children in a variety of relationships, and will need to reach out pastorally to people in these varied relationships. It will be important to encourage connection, love and stability in all family groupings, and not simply to decry their failure to meet the Christian ideal.

This may be especially important in the face of recurrent attempts to save money by penalising unmarried mothers in the name of family values.

And that takes us back to where we began — the perceived division between personal and social morality. The approach to the family taken in the statement complements and invites reflection on all the personal qualities and relationships involved in making and nurturing a family.

Equally, it invites reflection on the economic relationships upon which our society is built and the lack of connection that they foster. The discontents of families do not arise solely from the pathologies of sexuality, but from the pathologies of power and of wealth. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, 2012 Catholic Social Justice Statement, family, sexuality, marriage, abortion, euthanasia



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I too have read the statement and am encouraged that our Catholic Church can offer, as an example of its teachings accepted and applied, many, many examples of husbands and wives and children bound together in a commitment of love, faith and the preparedness to make sacrifices for their family life.
Not enough is done by our society or its economic and cultural structures to reward such families or indeed, to assist them to become even more 'standout' examples.
But therin lies the truth of what these families are doing in contrast to many others.
These families, following traditional norms (Catholic teachings) are doing it because it is the right thing to do and within that knowledge of knowing they are doing right, they find their fulfilment.
Sadly, sin in all its forms and degrees, from within families and without, is what keeps many adults from forming what is needed to make even the foundational covenant between a man and a woman in order to ensure a home and a heart for children. And no amount of social welfare compensation for that sin will ever right the situation. It really does require a change of heart and will.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 27 September 2012  

Stimulating focus on connections. Much here to contemplate. The manner in which such connections, within family, across economic barriers, between communities, with Indigenous cousins, refugees, even connection to country, so much depends of starting within our family walls.
Indeed the theme for so much of the challenge we face may well be that fundamental issue of re-connecting.
Many thanks Andrew for bringing this to our radar screens.

Jim Bowler | 27 September 2012  

Thanks for this Andy. Your article made me think of a TV program I watched earlier this week - ABC's Four Corners which told the story of some of our poorest urban children in Claymore, Sydney. The program spoke directly to the children and graphically showed the circumstances of their lives. Their sense of powerlessness was palpable. The issues of poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, multi-generational unemployment, hopelessness were all on display. There was a segment showing Peter Garrett speaking at a high school to the children about "becoming anything you want to be" but just how they do that without significantly more help than they are currently receiving is beyond me. These children are our most valuable resource.

Pam | 27 September 2012  

Nicely put :The discontents of families do not arise solely from the pathologies of sexuality, but from the pathologies of power and of wealth.

Chris Gration | 27 September 2012  

A well-known aphorism by the Finnish sociologist Edward Westermarck (1862 - 1939) first. "Marriage is rooted in the family rather than the family in marriage." This emphasises the fact that human procreation and the rearing of children (the most helpless of all creatures) led to the social institution of marriage. However marriage appears in a variety of forms - even in the Hebrew scriptures. And then there is the unique marriage of Joseph and Mary. Two saints and the God-Man are named The Holy Family. The church is setting the bar too high for us banished children of Eve (or any other form of words one wants to use to describe broken vulnerable human beings). I think the church needs to give more time to an honest opened-minded study of the pathology of marriage breakdown and divorce and of violence within marriage. Judging by statistics the Western dream of romantic idealism has only a 50/50 chance of being realised. This doesn't mean the church should neglect the generous work it does with those suffering the consequence of marriage (or relaltionship) breakdown. But it should make a fearless and moral inventory of how its strictures may have added to the problem.

Uncle Pat | 27 September 2012  

I was very interested to read Cardinal Martini's thoughts on how the Church treats families who have been througha divorce, published in The Tablet shortly after his death: 'The attitude that we take towards these extended families will determine the way in which the next generation responds to the Church. A woman is abandoned by her husband but finds a new partner wo takes care of her and her three children. This second love story is a successful one. If this family is discriminated against, then not only the mother but also her children will be excluded. If the parents feel outside the Church or don't feel its support, the Church will lose the next generation... The question of whether or not divorced people can receive communion should be turned on its head: how can the Church help to bring the strength of the sacraments to those who have complext family situations?'

Joseph Vine | 27 September 2012  

"Prosperity depends on multiplying economic transactions." I believe this myth stems from Keynes, who wrongly held that the Great Depression was caused by a collapse of consumption. It's certainly the view of the current Federal Treasurer, who, on his recent forays into analysis seems to occupy a position somewhere between Keynes and Marx. But the opposite is in fact the case. One can improve one's lot with no economic transactions. Thus, Robinson Crusoe alone on his island (pre Friday), can lift his standard of living by building better fishing traps, a sturdier hut, longer poles for reaching coconuts, and so on. Plenty of action. But no transaction. The key here is: he's raising his level of productivity. That's what drives his increasing prosperity. It's the same in our capitalist economy. Prosperity comes from increased productive capacity. And normally this is the result of hard work, mental and/or physical, and thrift - ie delayed gratification, which means reducing transactions. So I could lock myself into study for a few years, live on the bare necessities, and become a neurosurgeon or actuary, vastly increasing my prospects of prosperity. Or invent a better mousetrap, with the same result. It's shoddy leftist economics that grounds the meme that we all must spend, spend, spend to keep the capitalist economy growing. Right now, across the world, we are witnessing its disastrous consequences for individuals and families. Somehow, I doubt we'll learn from it.

HH | 27 September 2012  

"These families, following traditional norms (Catholic teachings) are doing it because it is the right thing to do and within that knowledge of knowing they are doing right, they find their fulfilment." If Catholic teachings were 'the right thing to do' then they'd be an across the world view and everyone would be doing them, which is not the case. And thank God for that too! Where would we be if Catholic married couples took any notice of the Papal ban on the pill, for instance? Or the anti-human stance on homosexuals being outside the grasp of loving relationships? By all means lambast the capitalist urges that make our economies thrive, preying as capitalism does on the need to consume ever more junk without question or halt, but I have yet to hear any priest or pope actually denouncing the process or putting up an alternative to it, particularly while Vatican coffers overflow with the booty from it. There is also a nasty smugness about all this talk about 'families', as if only Catholics come from a family, and no Catholic can be found outside this magic formula. Even priests who eschew the pleasures of sex and the more fully adult human relationships that flow from such a sinful act come from and belong to 'families', even though they do not reproduce (although history shows us they do in fact reproduce, albeit under cover of deceitful behaviour).

janice wallace | 27 September 2012  

It is a regrettable fact that in Australia, as in other countries especially the U.S.A., there is a growing gap between the hugely rich and the majority of families, including the extremely poor. This enormity (in the sense of morally wrong) is seldom if ever mentioned or criticised by religious leaders. After all, greed used to be abhorred as one of the seven deadly sins. But now we see a multi-billionaire unashamedly standing for the Presidency of the United States - with a real chance of winning - and Australia following the same pattern of seeming to accept that 'greed is good.'

Bob Corcoran | 27 September 2012  

Pam, I think we can all discount anything Peter Garrett has to say, on anything at all, while he serves as an empty vessel in Gillard's government. Garrett's (and Gillard's) idea of 'help' for struggling students is to fill the schools with fundamentalist Christians posing as 'chaplains' who run toast and vegemite breakfast clubs with Bible lessons at lunch time and cast out serpents and devils who bring suicidal thoughts to the 'unchurched' students. Surely, 'HH', you cannot be serious in your assertions that the neo-liberal economies of the Western world, whose main political proponents in recent times were Reagan, Thatcher, Hawke and Keating, have any connection at all to so-called 'leftwing' politics? What next? Ayn Rand was Karl Marx's love child?

Andy Fitzharry | 27 September 2012  

'Mixed families, serial fathers, single parent families are common.' And the meeting place for Christ and his church is where these people are. Evangelisation of most is away from structures and processes. It is Joseph Cardijn's way. The barriers between the insiders and the outsiders have to be negotiated.

Anne Norman | 27 September 2012  

Thank you Andrew. Thank you Uncle Pat. Fr Mick I read your undoubted wisdom and I weep. Not least because a great deal of my week has been spent weeping for a particular family very dear to my heart. Deeply committed to everything that Fr Mick (and I am sure Andrew and Uncle Pat) hold dear. To every dimension, public and private, of the life of the Church. One an RE teacher whose vision and insights changed my son's life and through that the life of our whole family. One an outstanding musician who brings joy and comfort to many in the community and whose commitment to service is an inspiration Both parents my friends, shining lights to me on my own pilgrim path. They meet every possible criterion for an ideal Christian family. Except the contentment that even you Andrew seem to imply would result from meeting the ideal. The 'instability' and suffering experienced by 21st century Australian families is not something the Church can cure.It is how we live with the instability and suffering that is all we can possibly aspire to offer to the world.

margaret | 27 September 2012  

I attended the release of the social justice statement. The Gift of Family in Difficult Times, at St Mary Star of the Sea church in Melbourne last Sunday. In light of the crisis family life faces today I was most disappointed to see the very low number of people in attendance on that occasion. The document itself is a reasonable overview of family life in Australia today yet it does not contain the most recent statements by The Pope concerning ways and means the local church may become involved. He has suggested that each dioceses and each parish within the dioceses form a committee to offer support and education to all families. There are possibly 270 parishes in the Melbourne diocese so should a family committee be established in each very soon the church would be influencing a very large number of men women and children. The parish committee's can be formed by men and women, some from stable relationships others by people with experience of family breakup. So big is the problem in Australia that it overwhelms social welfare bodies, the police and the courts. The proposals by the pope would ensure that hundreds of people of faith would become active in a great missionary cause.

Kevin Vaughan | 27 September 2012  

A theologically sound and insightful article, Andrew. Support for all families will reap long term benefits. Focussing on economics alone may actually destroy the prospect of a better life for many. We desperately need a more equitable and just society. Advocating peacefully for this might help save Australia as a worthwhile place to live in.

Edward F | 27 September 2012  

Bravo! Well said and compassionate. The last paragraph is so true.

Carol Robertson | 27 September 2012  

Uncle Pat, please don't repeat "by statistics the Western dream of romantic idealism has only a 50/50 chance of being realised." 50/50 is from the apples-and-oranges school of statistics. In Australia, expectation that a first marriage will break up is still under 30% (official stats). 5 in 7 chance of success, even if it depended on pure chance, is a pretty good 'risk'!

Paul Fyfe | 27 September 2012  

I'm not sure what your point is, Andy F: are you saying that Thatcher, Reagan, Keating, etc, would have addressed our ongoing GFC with the Keynesian spend, spend, spend policies of Bernanke, Krugman, Gordon Brown and Swan, etc? You may well be right, but more fool them: the solution inspired by Keyne, would be just as ineffectual, no matter what the stripe of the politician in the driver's seat. The bigger point is that, contra Keynes' dogma, it's improving productivity which drives economic growth, not increasing transactions, as was suggested in the post.

HH | 27 September 2012  

I've not read the document to which Andrew refers, but I agree wholeheartedly with the argument he puts; that, as real families come in all shapes and sizes, 'it will be important to encourage connection, love and stability in all family groupings, and not simply to decry their failure to meet the Christian ideal'. But the reality is that, so far as the institutional church is concerned, the families of 'unmarried mothers', 'divorcees', 'mixed marriages', and - dare I say it - 'same sex unions', have been strictly beyond the pale.

Ginger Meggs | 27 September 2012  

Thank you, Paul, for your request that I desist from such statistical generalisations as I the one I made in my comment. I extrapolated from divorce statistics in the USA as typical of a rich affluent Western society that still purveys romantic idealism. You are right. Australia may not yet have reached that dire state yet. But the trend is towards the American situation. I shall take your hint and desist from comparing oranges with apples.

Uncle Pat | 27 September 2012  

Why is there never a mention in ES of the biggest assault on family life ever hushed up and blackballed by global media--ever focused on rcc abuse. USA Carol Shakeshaft reported officially on the abuse of children in Public schools with 4.5 million children sexually abused over three decades and 10% of school officials being moletesrs [such are simply moved from school to school[or "moving the trash" as it is called]?

Father John Michael George | 15 October 2012  

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