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The Family at the Heart of Development
In recognition of the United Nations’ International Day of Families on May 15, the president of the Pontifical Council for the Family addressed delegates at the UN headquarters in New York about the role of the family in the world.
Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia began his address by acknowledging his agreement with the goal for the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the International Year of the Family – “Families Matter for the Achievement of Development Goals” – and yet he said he wished to go further. “[M]y message today is that the family not only ‘matters,’ it is rather at the very heart of human development, indispensable and irreplaceable, and at the same time beautiful and welcoming.”
In seeking to recover the family as the center of society and human development, Archbishop Paglia reflected on five points.
First, the family uniquely unites two radical differences – male and female and parent and child. While society promotes individualism, autonomy and independence, Archbishop Paglia said the family promotes “elemental and formational interdependence” and “asymmetrical reciprocity.” In other words, the difference between male and female, parent and child, is irreducible (the difference will always exist), but it is a dynamic difference, one of reciprocal giving between persons.
To illustrate this, Archbishop Paglia said that in today’s world, difference can be seen as a cause of instability – “Change channel, friends, political party? No problem! When we look only for someone who is like us, we avoid any confrontation with ‘otherness,’ and life becomes one big hall of mirrors, one big echo chamber. In the family, however, the ‘other’ cannot be ignored. The family – male/female and parent/child – is a unique social structure, a very special school of education in ‘otherness.’”
For example, look at the relationship between a mother and father and their child. The parents do not “select” their children, and a child does not “select” his parents. Each are different from each other, and their union does not swallow up these differences. “Parenthood itself, understood as openness to the transcendence of the child, in fact implies ‘otherness’ and non-preferential love,” said Archbishop Paglia.
Secondly, the family is at the heart of development. When the male/female, parent/child relationships have not been integrated in various cultures, development has struggled. Archbishop Paglia said, “The family, by making possible a delicate but stable community of life among different persons, has been able to foster and protect the sensitive relations between individuals and diverse social realities, thus allowing for the harmonious development of society as a whole.”
Archbishop Paglia’s third point was the human development of families over time. Although the family has organized itself in different ways, the two formational dimensions have always been male/female and parent/child. Over time, the family has “purified” itself, learning how to treat its members with greater respect.
Certain principles must remain, even within the real human development experienced within the family. Human life is sacred from conception to natural death, and the protection of the family “is an essential element of any sustainable economic or social development, particularly as regards societal opposition to an ‘economy of exclusion,’ a ‘throw-away culture’ and a ‘culture of death,” said the Archbishop.
A balance is needed between the good of the family at the heart of development and a certain “familyism,” in which the family nucleus seeks their own good to the exclusion of the good of the larger community.
Archbishop Paglia’s fourth point was that the family regenerates society. Although he noted the current crisis in marriage and family evidenced by divorce, out-of-wedlock births and decreased marriages, a crisis marked by hyper-individualism and hyper-technological culture, there is still hope.
“[T]he crisis that the family is going through now could also be an opportunity for growth, said Archbishop Paglia. “It all depends on us, and we should be decidedly more attentive to the deepest desires of today’s men and women. In fact, in spite of today’s hostile cultural environment, a clear majority of persons want a family at the center of their life, and it would be mistake to think the family can be done away with. If anything, we should foster a renewal of family models, a family more understanding of itself, more respectful of the ties that bind it to its surroundings, more attentive to the quality of its internal relationships, more concerned for, and more able to live in harmony with, other families. We could even say that if on the one hand there are fewer families, on the other hand there is more ‘family’ in a qualitative sense, and for that matter there is no better place than the family for the complete humanization of those born into this world.”
Archbishop Paglia said it is necessary to be more attentive to the weakening of the family. “Its vocation is to be the special place where the individual is protected in his individuality and society is protected against fragmentation,” he said.
Finally, the president of the Pontifical Council for the Family reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s understanding of the family. The Church, he said, has always supported the family. Pope Francis has called a Synod on the Family “to put the family at the center of the Church and of all human reflection.” It will be an opportunity to reflect on the “reality of the family today and of its mission in contemporary society,” said Archbishop Paglia.
The Archbishop closed his remarks at the United Nations by acknowledging the link between “the family” and the “family of peoples” – learning a way of peaceful life within the family, which extends to “the city, the nation, and the whole family of nations.”