“The Family as the Foundation of Society”
- The prospect of a married couple establishing a happy, loving and stable family home in Ireland today has never been greater. Our challenge is to help women and men rediscover the joy of marriage, the life-long fulfilment it can offer, especially those who are reluctant to make a long-term commitment.
- The priority of the family over society and over the State has to be reaffirmed. The family does not exist for society or the State, but society and the State exist for the family.
Thank you Fr Harry.
This morning I would like to explore some of the contours of that change. In particular I would like to set out the basis for the Church’s conviction that marriage, the family and the general good of society are so interdependent that one cannot flourish without the other. I will examine some of the recent trends associated with marriage and the family. I will argue that legislation and policies that promote commitment in marriage are, in fact, more socially progressive and beneficial to society than those which endorse, simply because they have become more widespread, attitudes and trends which undermine that commitment. I will also comment on the question of a proposed equivalence between cohabitation and marriage as well as same-sex unions and marriage. This as you know has been the subject of considerable public debate in light of the Government’s intention to introduce new legislation in this area.
‘Today we have so much money that people have no time for anything, most of all God. There is no word about sin or the Ten Commandments. There is nothing wrong today. What good is money and big houses? Do they bring happiness? All those things only last for a while. This is the only thing that lasts, God.”
“Please tell the people about what matters most, their souls, not their bodies. Bring back family life, family prayer and read the Bible”.
Marriage and the Word of God
The Word of God stands at the origins of marriage (Gen 2:24). Jesus himself inserted marriage among the institutions of his Reign (Mt 19:4-8), giving it a sacramental status. In the sacramental celebration, man and woman pronounce a prophetic word of reciprocal donation of self, they become “one flesh,” a sign of the mystery of the union of Christ and the Church. (Eph 5:32) Through the fidelity and the unity of the life as a family, the spouses are the first announcers of the Word of God to their children. It’s necessary to sustain them and to help them develop within the family, modes of domestic celebration of the Word such as reading the Bible, and other forms of prayer. Spouses should recall that the Word of God is a precious source of support amid difficulties in conjugal life and in the family.
And this brings me to my first point; the family based on marriage as the foundation of society is a truth revealed by God in the Scriptures: it also one of the most precious human values. We should not be surprised then that when people become less concerned with what God has to say generally, or when the popularity of an idea replaces objective human values as the basis of morality, commitment to marriage as the basis of the family also diminishes. As the letter I have just read suggests, what we are involved with here is a wider ‘revolution’ about how we approach morality and values generally.
So how should we respond to this revolution? How might we invite people to rediscover the importance of the family based on marriage as the basis of society?
Changes in Attitudes to Marriage
Part of that response, I would suggest, is to acknowledge that some aspects of this so-called ‘revolution’ have been good for marriage and the family. While the letter I read reflects a concern that we have lost something valuable from the past, I am sure no-one would want to say that everything about marriage and the family in the past was good. We should be glad for example that there is more equality between men and women in marriage and in society generally. There is a greater awareness that both parents have a mutual responsibility in bringing up children and in sharing domestic tasks. We have learnt so much about the importance of responding to the emotional and practical needs of children, about how to support the development of children in constructive ways. As I will mention again later, we are also learning just how important a stable family home is to the happiness and long-term well-being of children.
All of this is good. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the prospect of a married couple establishing a happy, loving and stable family home in Ireland today has never been greater. Our challenge is to help women and men rediscover the joy of marriage, the life-long fulfilment it can offer, especially those who are reluctant to make a long-term commitment.
And this brings me to my second point. While some aspects of the ‘revolution’ in our approach to marriage and the family have been good, is it possible that something good from the past has been lost? I think this is what my friend from Clare was saying in her letter. I note it was a theme considered in the first Céifin Conference entitled, ‘Are we forgetting something?’ My letter from the woman in Clare suggests that part of what is needed is to help people rediscover the good that comes from faith and prayer. She mentioned the Bible in particular.
This coincides with a key proposal of the recent Synod. In making people more familiar with the Word of God, in an informed and formative way, we can act in support of marriage, the family and the good of society itself.
This is because, as it explains in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, ‘the importance and centrality of the family with regard to the person and society is repeatedly underlined by Sacred Scripture’ (n.209). The family is presented from the very opening pages of the Word of God as ‘the primary place of humanisation for the person and society and the cradle of life and love’ (n.209)
Church Teaching on the Family based on Marriage as the Fundamental Unity of Society
The family is also the natural community in which human social nature is experienced. It makes a unique and irreplaceable contribution to the good of society. The family unit is born from the stable and committed communion of persons which marriage provides. ‘Communion’ has to do with the personal relationship between the ‘I’ and the ‘thou’. ‘Community’ on the other hand transcends the ‘I’ and ‘thou’ and moves towards a ‘society’, a ‘we’. The family, therefore, as a community of persons, is the first human ‘society’. It is at the very heart of the common good.
The common good “is the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 26)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains it in this way: ‘The family is the original cell of social life. It is the natural society in which husband and wife are called to give themselves in love and in the gift of life. Authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society. The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honour God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society.’ (n.2207)
The Catechism goes on to say: ‘A man and a woman united in marriage, together with their children, form a family. This institution is prior to any recognition by public authority, which has an obligation to recognize it. It should be considered the normal reference point by which the different forms of family relationship are to be evaluated’ (n. 2202).
Marriage and the family therefore are of public interest. They are fundamental to the public good and entitled to special consideration and care from the State. Other relationships whether they are sexual or not, are the result of private interest. They do not have the same fundamental relationship to the good of society and to the bringing up of children as the family based on marriage.
At the heart of this understanding of marriage is a truth taught by Scripture and confirmed by human reason. It is the truth that the ‘Physical… difference and complementarity’ of a woman and man are oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life’ (CCC n.2333). Being a man or woman is not accidental to who we are or to God’s plan for the family and society. It is essential to it.
This is why the Church holds that the good of persons and the proper functioning of society are closely connected with the healthy state of marriage and family life. In the words of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, ‘without families that are strong in their communion and stable in their commitment’ societies grow weak. This is also why ‘relegating the family to a subordinate or secondary role, excluding it from its rightful position in society, would be to inflict great harm on the authentic growth of society as a whole.’
The Positive State of Marriage in Irish Life
Some will argue that this presents an idealised view of marriage and family life. They will point out that the concept of a nuclear family of father and mother, united by marriage and bringing up children in a stable and loving environment does not capture the reality or the ideal of an increasing number of people. They will point to the existence of an increasingly diverse range of family units in Irish society, to an increase in long term cohabitation, to increasing breakdown in marriage and to the prospect of radically new forms of legally recognised relationship as evidence that the model of family revealed by the Scriptures is increasingly irrelevant.
Yet it is worth asking whether these popular assumptions about the state of marriage as the basis of the family life in Ireland are actually true? The fact is that life-long marriage remains the preferred choice of the vast majority of men and women in Ireland. Recent research by the Catholic Marriage Care Service, Accord, for example, confirmed that the marriage rate in Ireland has ‘actually increased in the past 10 years – suggesting something of a “revival” in marriage relative to the mid and late 1990’s when the rate fell to historically low levels.’ The survey also found that ‘Marriage is a sufficiently rewarding experience such that 9 out of 10 would recommend it to others’. In contrast to the view that the traditional family unit revealed in the Word of God is no longer relevant, the report concluded that ‘the traditional family arrangement of children being raised by both their natural parents is the one preferred by almost all married couples in our survey.’
This is a far cry from any sense of crisis in the family based on marriage sometimes portrayed in public debate. While some 12% of couples in Ireland chose long term cohabitation instead of marriage, the family based on marriage is still the fundamental unit of our society by a substantial margin. It continues to play an essential part in the well-being and stability of Irish life. In the words of the Accord report: in Ireland ‘healthy, happy marriages [still] make for strong family life; and strong families contribute to the economy and demand little in return from the taxpayer. In other words, “family capital” is at the core of “social capital”, upon which we build the future for our country.’
It is not accurate to suggest that this is merely a remnant of Catholic influence on the formulation of the Constitution and therefore to be rejected as anachronistic or sectarian. Similar recognition and terminology can be found in the Constitutions of many other countries around the world which have them. The Greek Constitution for example describes the family as ‘the foundation of the conservation and progress of the nation.’ Such values are also consistent with Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights when it states: ‘The family is the natural and fundamental unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.’ Article 16 of the Social Charter of Europe (1961), Article 23 of the International Treaty on Civil Rights, Article 10 of the International Charter on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as well as many other national and international instruments affirm and develop this basic insight that the family is the nucleus of society, and for that reason, deserving of special status, development and care.
Proposed Changes to Legislation and Policy
It is on this basis too that Article 41.3.1 of Bunreacht na hÉireann places an obligation on the Government to guard the institution of marriage with special care. This brings me to the sensitive and complex issue of the Government’s stated intention to legislate for a variety of relationships other than marriage, notably for cohabiting and same-sex couples.
In its submission to the Oireachtas All-Party Committee on the Constitution on this issue, the Committee on the Family of the Irish Bishops’ Conference in February 2005 acknowledged, and I quote, that ‘a diversity of family forms support the fundamental human activities of care, intimacy and belongingness to varying degrees, yet it is appropriate that the Constitution should guard with special care the institution of marriage. [However] such a commitment to special care of the family based on marriage ought not, nor does it, prevent the State from seeking to offer appropriate support to individuals in other forms of family units.’ (p.6)
The intention is not to penalise those who have chosen or find themselves in different family forms or relationships. It is rather to uphold the principle that the family based on marriage between a man and woman is so intimately connected to the good of society that it is deserving of special care and protection. The value of the Constitutional guarantees given in this area cannot be limited to the wording of the Constitution about marriage and the family remaining unchanged. The relevant Articles of the Constitution are more than a statement of aspiration. They imply that the State will maintain a qualitative difference between the level of support and entitlements provided by the State to the family based on marriage and that afforded to other forms of dependent relationship.
More Support for Marriage: A Benefit to Society
If we have the good of children and of society at heart then it is also clear that we need to try and maximise the number of children being raised by a married mother and father. We can do this through providing positive incentives and the formation of positive social attitudes to marriage. We also need to provide greater support for married couples themselves as they live out their life long commitment to each other and their children. This includes providing more adequate preparation for marriage. Accord is involved in outstanding work in this regard for which they deserve to be applauded. Two of the greatest obstacles Accord encounters however, is the difficulty in acquiring a sufficient number of volunteer counsellors and a general resistance on the part of couples to attending a marriage preparation course. In other countries, for example in Italy, the pre-marriage courses consist of a least 9 weekend sessions. Here it is much less. In spite of this priests often comment to me on how couples will spend any amount of time with the florist, the photographer, the hotel manager in preparation for their wedding. These arrangements are important but the time given to them can be in strong contrast to the willingness of engaged couples to take time out together to reflect on the importance and meaning of what they are about to do.
 Married Life: The first seven years; a survey of married life and couples in the first seven years of marriage in Ireland, Accord Catholic Marriage Care Service, Maynooth, 2007, p.6
 ibid., p. 38
 B v R  1 ILRM 491 per Costello J; it should be noted that the above statement was made prior to the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution, hence the inclusion of the words “for life”.
 Pontifical Council for the Family, Family, Marriage and De Facto Unions, Holy See, 2000, n.10
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