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Around the family

Taking part in the round table on the family held on 16 November in the offices of L’Osservatore Romano and coordinated by Lucetta Scaraffia were Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, General Secretary of the Synod of Bishops, Enzo Bianchi, Prior of Bose, Claudia Mancina, Associate Professor in philosophy at the University of La Sapienza; also present were Sr Catherine Aubin, Giulia Galeotti, Sr Rita Mboshu Kongo and Silvina Pérezdi of women church world, the theologian Don Maurizio Gronchi and, for the first part of the meeting, the editor-in-chief of L’Osservatore Romano.

Lucetta Scaraffia – Our debate on the Church and the family at the end of the 11 pages which we as women church world have dedicated to this subject, cannot of course neglect the confrontation that occurred at the Synod, which concluded a few weeks ago. For this very reason we address our first question to the General Secretary of the Synod of Bishops. If the family is in crisis almost everywhere, the reasons for this situation differ. What are the most recurrent causes that explain it?

Lorenzo Baldisseri – What urged the Pope to treat the subject of the family, involving the whole Church for two years, is clearly expressed by the term “challenge”, which is to be found in the first document of the synodal process. The answers to the questionnaire distributed in all the dioceses have highlighted the critical factors and the need for adequate pastoral care of the family. In this context the fact that the religious aspect is constantly dwindling in some countries betrays the effects of an exasperated individualism which, among other things, undermines the family, while in other regions the religious dimension can assume a profile of extremism or fanaticism, equally threatening to families. This anthropological change, together with positive factors such as, for example, renewed attention to the dignity of the person in all his or her parts, also entails considerable risks, such as that of an acute subjectivism which fosters conflictual and violent dynamics in the family. What is the Church’s response to the crisis of the family today? Pastoral care should take on the formation of young people, guide them towards the joyous and full response to the conjugal and family vocation, support young couples in the first years of their marriage, take special care of those who are living through the sorrowful experience of failure and help them to consider the parish as their home and a place of mission. Public institutions should take greater care of families. This implies developing policies of support, aimed at surmounting the financially precarious plight of many families, encouraging the access of families to education and to an active cultural and social life. In an economic system that tends to reject rather than to include, those who suffer most from this are young people who fail to find work and children who are innocent victims, rendered real social orphans and sorrowfully scarred for the whole of their lives.

Claudia Mancina – I do not agree with the idea that the family is moribund, besieged by a world that no longer has values, by a selfishness that denies every bond, or overwhelmed by policies addressed solely to individual rights or by divorce, abortion or sexual freedom. If we look around us, the social scene in which we dwell does not seem to confirm this catastrophic diagnosis. Families are ceaselessly formed, break up and are formed anew. Whatever people may say, the vast majority of children grow up in a family, in a relationship with not only a single or both parents but also with grandparents, uncles and aunts and cousins. Of course, families today are very different in comparison with those of a couple of generations ago. The parent is single more frequently than before because of separation or a choice of lifestyle (but we must not underestimate the effect, in the past, of phenomena such as death in war and emigration). Yet this does not suffice to declare the demise of the family. If one looks at the vicissitudes of the family, which is one of the most ancient and enduring institutions in human history, it is in fact immediately evident that this history is marked by profound transformations that have involved not only its functions and structure but also the personal relationships between its members, hence also the overall image of the family that we all carry within us. There is no doubt: the traditional family is ever more residual because it has suffered the effect of social phenomena of great significance, such as the emancipation of women and their full entry into public life and work, and the birth of an autonomous world of youth with its cultural codes and group ties; and more recently the development of the new technologies of communication, a most powerful means for horizontal relationships between individuals. We must therefore start our reflection from the knowledge that the family’s extraordinary capacity for survival is one with its ability to transform itself. The family of our time is thus the result of an evolution closely connected with that of social relations and individual rights; hence it can still change, as indeed is happening. Furthermore the law necessarily intervenes to regulate this change. Today a vast transformation is taking place that is linked to the change in the role of women, moreover this change is not under way in Western countries. Another great change is the extension of the human lifespan for which reason the family no longer lasts for the whole of a person’s life. Then I am against using the concept of individualism in a purely negative sense. Individualism is not in opposition to the family, it does not relegate the family to the background. The really serious problem is narcissism. Individualism guarantees dignity and rights to every person and has made the family a network of affective relationships rather than relationships of power. It seems to me that one may speak of crisis from the financial viewpoint, because of the lack of welfare which forces families to make immense efforts to compensate for the lack of public assistance.

Enzo Bianchi – I am critical with regard to the emphasis with which the subject of the family is often considered and reinterpreted in the Catholic arena, starting with the terms used. There is an ethical problem of language: Mancina has given us a convincing interpretation of the transformations that are under way in the family. However, I would not use the word “individualism”, but rather “subjectivism”, since “individualism” is a pejorative term that designates a pathology of the isolated individual who recognizes only him- or herself. From my experience, which is based on listening to the great number of people who come to Bose and ask us for discernment and consolation in their family dramas, two aspects of the crisis of the family are present above all. The first concerns the life of the family in which serious difficulties have arisen in continuing the relationship in fidelity and reciprocal love; the second concerns instead those who must embark on a love story. In this case, but partly in the latter too, what appears to be an obstacle today is the crisis of faith and trust in the possibility of a sound relationship in fidelity, in the authenticity of feelings and in the nuptial covenant. Marriage is a “love story” that demands faith and trust. This is why at the beginning the two partners are called “engaged”, that is, they are people who put faith and trust in the other with a view to the covenant, and the sign of the nuptial bond, the ring, is called “fede” (faith) [in Italian]. Today the matrimonial process is threatened by a lack of this faith and trust in love, in life and in the future. It is not by chance that Julia Kristeva asks believers and non-believers alike for a common commitment in the name of “the incredible need to believe”, if they are to be able to live an authentic personal and social humanization.

Scaraffia – What can the Church do to face these crises?

Bianchi – Today, more than ever, one simple but crucial thing is asked of the Church: that she teach people how to think and to ask themselves questions. Pre-marriage courses are not enough because the problem is an educational one. What the new generations lack is a human grammar. Those who teach, therefore, can do much, they have an ample terrain in which they can operate.

Mancina – I agree on this need for an inner life, and the family too must contribute to its construction. Today attention to the educational role is lacking, it is often abandoned even before it has begun.

Baldisseri – We are living in a moment of great change and it is necessary that a critical awareness develop and not only in the young. In the seasons of life different kinds of crisis succeed one another, which we might also call temptations or opportunities for discernment. A first crisis is between the man and woman when they are expecting a baby; then comes the “seven-year crisis”, in which routine and the dwindling of sexual interest come to the fore; this is followed by the crisis of 25 years of marriage, when the children leave home; thus 40 is the age of the new springtime of life; at the age of 50, the partner no longer has anything to offer: new experiences. At 60, the time of retirement, the two spouses are grandparents but at the same time begin to travel, they become great tourists if their health permits it. Meetings outside the family environment increase, new loves are born. At the age of 70 they feel weary, often they cannot put up with one another, they cannot bear each other: the wife offends the husband and the husband becomes a little boy in the hands of a woman who becomes his mother instead of his wife. This view, although obviously realistic, is far from corroding the beautiful experience of numerous married couples who find complete fulfilment in their marriage. What should we do in the face of this movement, this alternation of crises and prospects? Men and women of the Church, who, like those with family roles, also share in these experiences, must put themselves in these people’s shoes in order to proclaim to them Jesus, man and God. In this encounter, which accompanies the various experiences, the Church finds herself or even dirties herself – as Pope Francis says – but inserts herself into people’s lives, lives their hopes and their sufferings, identifies herself with their concrete existence. These experiences mature at the heart of parish life and are integrated into the parish, because it is there that people find themselves and develop.

Scaraffia – What is the relationship between the so-called “natural family” and Christian marriage?

Mancina – The concept of the natural family is very widespread, and plays a weighty normative role: all that does not identify with this model becomes disorder. We expect of the Church steps ahead in this direction, overcoming what we might call an excess of caution, as in the past, when the Church was able to grasp the signs of the times.

Bianchi — I return to the subject of language. Great caution is required before associating the word “natural” with the real situation of families and marriage, with its connotation of monogamy and openness to procreation. Historical and anthropological research, in fact, shows the existence of various forms of family on the path to humanization in the different cultural areas. It is the Christian revelation which has proclaimed marriage as a monogamous and indissoluble covenant. It should not be forgotten that in the Old Testament the patriarchs themselves lived different forms of marriage and of family. We should not fear the uniqueness of the Christian revelation!

Scaraffia – Great insistence is placed on the emergence of the model of an individual who sets his or her needs for freedom against those of the common good of the institution of the family. However, people ignore the fact that within this general model the real problem is that of the emancipation of women: it was the woman who gave up a life of her own for the sake of the family and who today refuses to do so. The Church has said nothing on this point, as usual, women’s problems are not interesting, and are not even seen. Why?

Mancina – A negative meaning is given to the term “individualism”, people use it as a point of argument in order to blame women who have become independent and are therefore suspected of putting their own interests before those of their family. And people forget that women do not abandon their families but rather seek to reconcile the different needs, taking the burden of this effort upon their own shoulders. And they also forget that women often work, out of need, to support the family.

Baldisseri – In today’s world, women are particularly involved in the crisis of the family. Their talents and qualities are evaluated and highlighted by the new situations which have come into being in today’s world: a sort of revolution in the post-modern environment, which is unprecedented and has produced some extremely positive effects. At the same time it has impoverished other traditional aspects, such as the role of the mother as the centre and heart of the family, since she has naturally been obliged to make room as well for her social role, in some cases with the additional risk of losing her identity. And with the thought that the man himself, called on to share in the family role, finds himself to be a partner who sometimes helps and sometimes is dependent. This phenomenon of course varies according to circumstances, it occurs differently in the various regions of the world but is progressive, and it happens in an exponential manner partly thanks to today’s media. Women today are more exposed and far more is asked of them than in the past. Even in regions in which women have preserved their traditional role, horizons are unfolding in which they constitute an important element in the family and in society. At the same time, it is women who are overburdened. The Church must implement a suitable pastoral care to support individual women and at the same time the family which, for these reasons, is de facto experiencing both their absence and a greater fragility. It should also be said that today women experience difficulties that can even become forms of discrimination. Motherhood is at times considered an obstacle to their fulfilment instead of a gift; in other aspects infertility is a cause of suffering and even a condition that leads to social marginalization. Violence against women and their exploitation are symptoms of a sick society which is impoverished and devalued, reducing women to mere objects. The struggle that women have undertaken to claim their rights has not always borne the hoped-for fruits. In some cases women still remain on the margins of society and suffer unjust forms of discrimination.

Bianchi – The subject of women in the family has not been sufficiently examined by the Church. There is still a great misunderstanding of women, sometimes even a fear of them, or a romantic vision of them is cultivated. There is no adequate language to define women and give them the same dignity and subjectivity that every human being is due. I confess that I hardly expect any significant change in the short term but merely a repetition of abstract and idealized hopes. However, we should remember that women urgently await answers from the entire Church.




St. Peter’s Square

Dec. 16, 2019