Family. Photo by Eric Ward via Wikimedia Commons

The Family in Crisis

An interview with Professor Robert Royal, President of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, DC, about the social benefits of the family and its breakdown today, and the central role of education.
Maurizio Maniscalco

Family seems to be at once the declared cornerstone of our society and the most troubled institution....
The troubles over the family show how deep the cultural crisis that we face in the West is. The various social and intellectual currents that have undermined personal identity, confidence in the existence of truth, and belief that individuals and societies can know and do know the truth really show their ultimate effects when you look at the family. I have been consulted by several Catholic politicians about what to do. They are puzzled and worried. You don’t go into politics because you have a talent for metaphysics. Attempts to protect and define family today are like a philosophical proof that the sky is blue. Everyone took it for granted until asked to explain why the obvious must be true.

What’s happened? What has so weakened the family in the course of the years?
In the front ranks, I would put several assumptions. A profound belief in the radical autonomy of the person appears here. It’s very curious: our intellectual elites deplore a lack of deep connection with one another, and then license one of the attitudes that most quickly breaks up connection at its most natural and logical point. But even all this might not have been so bad if the courts–another segment of elite opinion–had not decided to go along with this socially destructive view. That is why they have become the preferred avenue for social revolution. Then, for a century or more, we in the West have witnessed the wide dissemination of the view that sex is meaningless, “like shaking hands,” as Dustin Hoffman said famously in the movie “The Graduate.”

What happened historically to the family in the US?
Well, that’s a long story. America–the land of the open frontier and the immigrant–has, since its beginnings, had many centrifugal forces that might have destroyed families. And they did, in a minor degree, for the first 150 years of the nation’s existence. Then came contraception in the 1930s. This was so shocking at the time that it was not only Catholics who saw it as a social threat. On March 22, 1931, the Washington Post commented in an editorial, “It is impossible to reconcile the doctrine of the divine institution of marriage with any modernistic plan for the mechanical regulation of human birth.” Abortion, of course, came to America in 1973 with Roe v. Wade. The effect of these two social changes was to separate sex and reproduction entirely. Easy divorce, cohabitation, open promiscuity, and much more were–given human nature–bound to follow. These matters pinched a little, especially when people noticed that radical sexual liberation hit children particularly hard. But no one seemed to think that this intergenerational factor, one of the prime material foundations of marriage, should carry much weight. By the same logic, homosexual marriage is just one more form of the liberation of sex from its deep biological and social meaning.

Still, is there a role, a task, a responsibility, a “something” that only family can offer? Is there a “unicum” that family–and not State or any other institution–brings into the life of the individual and/or society?
The long answer is “yes.” But let me elaborate. Traditional families will continue amidst the chaos. And we see from social science research that married couples are happier, healthier, wealthier, less subject to mental disorders, and many other positive things. Again, this only seems natural from the traditional point of view, but for some time the elite culture contained almost nothing else but stories about the pathologies of traditional marriage. Those elites still want the benefits without paying the price for them. But even the social benefits are not the full story. Where else, except in the family, do we get unconditional love from people who know us well, that is, people who know our flaws as well as our strengths? I believe it was the American poet Robert Frost who said that the family was the place where, if you came to the door, they had to take you in. You could waste many words in a social science analysis and arrive at no better account of the uniqueness of real family.

What role does education–or lack of it–play in the current collapse of family?
All the things mentioned above that led to the family’s decline have been transmitted through state education systems for years. They were politically correct before the term had been invented. There is a struggle going on in America just now. Some people say America would have had another Great Awakening of religion, as it had two or three times in the past, if the elites had not suppressed much of it. That may be true. And maybe the schools will benefit from the renewed energy of American religious groups. But it only points all the more to the necessity for alternative forms of education, be they religious, in the home, or in private institutions. The parents who think they will be able to counteract the effects of their children spending most of their hours in a school that urges them to go directly against parental values are kidding themselves. Drastic measures are needed and a real will to find another way to form children to be well-educated and productive members of the society, but possessing a set of values least found at the commanding heights of secular education.

Many think that divorce, even though we got used to it, really represented an earthquake. Socially, politically, in terms of self awareness...
Politically, the breakup of the family presents many problems.
If you look at welfare programs, for example, most of what they do is to substitute for family functions when there has been a breakdown. Studies have shown that if you graduate from high school, get married and stay married, and take a job–any job–and continue to work at it, you and your family’s chances of being poor are very small. Then, intact families give rise to less crime, drug abuse, illegitimacy, and other social pathologies. As a Christian, I think all people are capable of sin, and some of the sins of the rich , particularly hardness of heart, may be much more grave than those of the poor. But society suffers immediately and spectacularly from the results of family breakdown. And there are not many good solutions once the process begins. In America today, though many social indicators are improving, we still have two-thirds of blacks born out of wedlock and one-fourth of whites. Changing social dynamics have helped all these people, but how can you realistically hope to help that many people who grow up in difficult circumstances? Psychologists used to study what your father and mother did to you to make you neurotic. And that’s a problem. But have we given sufficient weight, even today, to what it does to you to be without a father (usually) or a mother? That has vast social consequences.