The Patheos Catholic Channel is hosting a Symposium on the Family in light of the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family in October and the recent release of the working document for the Synod.
In the last decade, especially, in a well-intentioned effort to be inclusive, educators and broadcasters have been redefining what it means to be a family. The simplest and most concise example might be this music video from the popular children’s television program, Sesame Street, which states, “Any group of people / Living together / and loving each other / is doing the Family Thing!”
I would argue that this definition of family life has become the prevailing and conventional definition of what it means to be a family. I also think most people would suggest that it would take a special kind of killjoy–a real grouch, in fact–to argue with that definition. “What’s that? Did someone say, <<cough>>’The Church?’ <<cough>> Exactly.”
Why You Gotta Be So Mean?
Catholics define family as the one man and one woman, united in marriage, together with the children they produce (CCC#2201-2206). Catholics recognize that there are other, important, family-like groups, and we recognize that all of these groups are doing their best to care and provide for each other. Further, we applaud these efforts as noble and admirable. That said, these other groups can only be effective in their efforts to the degree that they can approximate what a family actually is, “a marriage of one man and one woman together with the children they produce.”
I was discussing the definition of family on Kresta in the Afternoon recently. Al Kresta noted that the word, “family” was being stretched to its breaking point. Besides the issue of so-called gay marriage, Al noted that even corporations have co-opted the term “family” to refer to their employees, i.e., “The McDonalds’ Family” “The GM Family.” Likewise, I pointed to the Sesame Street song above, noting that, in point of fact, it is not true to say that “Any group of people living together and loving each other is doing the family thing.” I asserted that family is a unique social institution made up of one man and one woman united in marriage together with the children they produce.
In response, a caller to the program thoughtfully raised the objection, “Why do you have to be so strict in your definition of family life? For instance, what about adopted kids? How do they fit into your definition?”
Why The Strict Definition of Family is Also the Most Inclusive
This is a terrific question and it’s especially meaningful to me as a man who both has an adopted sister and is also the father of an adopted child. I explained that it is the strict definition of family that clarifies what every child needs in order to function at his or her best. There are decades and reams of social science data to back up the claim that children are healthiest when raised in an intact household by their own married mother and father. This statement is as close to a fact as one can get in the social sciences.
That said, it is exactly because we have a strict definition of family that we have adoption at all! Children in the adoption system have, for many different reasons, been deprived of a mother and father. Because we have traditionally had a strict definition of family that recognizes that kids need moms and dads to function at their best, we work hard as a society to hook these children up with moms and dads through adoption.
Are There No Prisons? Are There No Workhouses?
But if its really true that, “any group of people living together and loving each other is doing the family thing,” why not just leave kids in the orphanage? For instance, I have photographs of my daughter in her orphanage in China. In the photos, she is playing with her little friends. She and her friends have toys. They are smiling. They seem to love each other. Various caregivers are holding the kids and smiling. For all the world, it looks like this is a group of people living together and loving each other. Ergo, they are a family, right? By Sesame Street’s definition of family we could argue that the kids are alright. In fact, we could even argue that, since they already are a family by Oscar the Grouch’s definition, it would be doing a violence to them to break up their little institutional communist family and place them in homes with moms and dads, right?
And the Lightbulb Clicks On
The caller got my point, “So you’re saying that defining the family in that strict way helps us do a better job of providing for all kids because it lets us know what every child needs to do best in life?”
If a family is “any group of people living together and loving each other,” then family means nothing at all. If that’s really all that family is, kids should do just as well in virtually any environment as they would in a home with a married mother and father. We know that isn’t true. Science all but proves it. So we also know that dumbing down the definition of family by changing it from one married man and woman living together with their children and turning it into “any group of people living together and loving each other” is a lie. Furthermore, it is a lie that hurts children.
I, for one, think children deserve better than to be forced to live a lie that hurts them. Don’t you?
(Who’s the grouch now?)
And that’s why Catholics–while still recognizing and applauding the sincere efforts of other quasi-family groups–support the “strict” definition of family as a married man and woman living together with the children they produce. Because it really is what’s best for all kids.