Neil writes: “It amazes me how so many people in the modern world seem to be so anti-family. When I was young it was simply taken for granted that there was no better place for children to grow up than in a happy family. What has happened? Bernard McGuckian SJ replies.
Doing away with the family makes as much sense as doing away with the wheel. In a higher world, to paraphrase Cardinal Newman, it may be different, but here below, human activity is virtually unimaginable without that humble circular object. If somebody hadn’t invented it, we would still be stuck in our caves rather than in the advanced planning stages of a shuttle service to Mars. It requires neither reinventing nor replacing. The same goes for the family.
The family has always been with us. The human story began in a garden with a small family and it will end in a city with a big happy family forever. Christ Himself, the Light of the World, spent practically the whole of his life, except for three years towards the end, living with a father and mother in a close-knit family in the small town of Nazareth.
While on a visit there in 1964, in the early days of his pontificate, Pope Paul VI spoke movingly about the message it held for our own family lives. ‘May Nazareth teach us what family life is, its communion of love, its austere and simple beauty, and its sacred and inviolable character. Let us learn from Nazareth that the formation received at home is gentle and irreplaceable. Let us learn the prime importance of the role of the family in the social order.’
On 7 December 1965, the Document on the Church in the Modern World of Vatican II asserted that `the well-being of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family life’.
It went on to say that ‘the family is, in a sense, a school for human enrichment. But if it is to achieve the full flowering of its life and mission, the married couple must practise an affectionate sharing of thought and common deliberation as well eager cooperation as parents in the children’s upbringing.
The active presence of the father is very important for their training. The mother too, has a central role in the home, for the children, especially the younger children, depend on her considerably; this role must be safeguarded without, however, underrating woman’s legitimate social advancement. This Church teaching is in keeping with the ordinary decent instincts and intuitions of the whole human race.
Fruit of love
In his encyclical letter, Humanae Vitae, written a few years later in 1968, Pope Paul taught that a child should always be born into a family, the fruit of the coming together of a man and woman in an act of love. Aspects of this letter caused a furore at the time but even many who accepted his message were puzzled by this particular expression.
Catholics and people in general were agreed that the family was the proper place for the procreation and rearing of children. But the insistence on how precisely this was to take place seemed superfluous. How could a child come into existence other than through the coming together of a man and woman? How else could it happen? The possibility of producing a child in any other way was only to be found in the rarified realms of science fiction novels like that of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).
Few of us, except the very prescient or those au fait with the arcane activities at the cutting edges of research realized that the Brave New World of a politico-scientifically conditioned society envisaged by Aldous Huxley as far back as 1932 was about to become a reality.
Writing with trepidation about the future as recently as 1981, John Powell SJ listed areas of scientific possibility that are today part of the daily routine for the medical profession, government policy makers and, not surprisingly, many lawyers: sperm banks, in vitro fertilization, gene-splicing, surrogate and artificial wombs, cloning, commercial patented life forms, embryo transplants, embryo fusion and other procedures, etc. with potential consequences beyond human comprehension.
In the light of what is now accepted as an established part of life in the scientifically developed countries, the words of Pope Paul have a prophetic ring about them. His teachings, endorsed by his successors, remind us of the simple but extremely important moral distinction between what is possible and what it is right. There are many things that can be done without much difficulty but this is not in itself a sufficiently good reason for doing them.
In a world where it is now possible to produce children through procedures undreamt of in the time of Jesus, his strange words over two thousand years ago have a remarkably contemporary relevance: ‘No one who prefers son or daughter to me is worthy of me’ (Mt. 10:37).
His first hearers little envisaged the day of the ‘designer’ baby, now with us, when sons and daughters are now on offer for a few thousand euro, albeit with the requirement of an element of do-it-yourself, coming with the guarantee of the genetic make-up of either a fashion model or a mathematical physicist, depending on your preference. Even more startling is the new possibility for a group of women to survive on their own indefinitely, requiring no other dealings with the rest of the world than guaranteed access to a sperm bank.
“The family is the place,” according to the Document on the Church in the Modern World, “where different generations come together and help one another to grow wiser and harmonize the rights of individuals with other demands of social life; as such it constitutes the basis of society. Everyone, therefore, who exercises an influence in the community and in social groups should devote himself effectively to the welfare of marriage and the family.”
Where there are difficulties in family life they lie more in ourselves, the family members, than in the God-given institution. The members of the Holy Family at Nazareth are only too ready to help. As we are already on first name terms with each of them, all we have to do is ask.
This article first appeared in The Messenger (October 2007), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.