Families and the Cities We Want
by David Gibson
What are the urban areas that so many of us inhabit meant to be? Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England, gave a speech April 11 in London as part of a series in which various commentators asked, “What kind of city do we want?”
I am sure the take-away message for most people who heard Archbishop Nichols speak was that businesses and other social institutions need to nurture goodness and virtue on the part of their leaders, employees and members if cities are to become places of “human flourishing.”
The message I took away from the speech, however, was mainly about families.
“The city – any city – is first and foremost where people live and work, in all kinds of families and industries,” the archbishop observed. He said, “People make the city,” and taking that into consideration changes the “hue” of the basic question his speech posed.
The ancient Greeks believed the city’s purpose “was to build a good society – a community where citizens thrived as members of a virtuous community,” Archbishop Nichols told his audience. But “if the city is a community, then we must pursue all that cultivates community,” he said.
That will require recognizing that “as human beings we are not just individuals.” Instead, he said, we “find our deepest fulfillment as persons in relationships to others and, I would add, to God.”
This is where the value of the family and its essential contributions to society entered the picture for me. Archbishop Nichols located the building blocks of community in the “commitments and relationships that good people form” and in key lessons first learned in the family.
He said: “The desire for the good lies deep within us. It reflects our deepest nature as sharing a common humanity and as called into a life of relationships with others.”
To sum up, Archbishop Nichols presented goodness, virtue and a desire for community with others as building blocks of the kind of cities we need.
Start With the Family
“The formation of good people starts, of course, in the family,” the archbishop insisted. For, the family “is the first school of citizenship, and loving, stable families are the vital building block of every city, as they are of any human society.”
When I read that comment on the family, my mind raced back to the homily Pope Benedict XVI gave in May 2009 when he visited Nazareth, the Holy Family’s hometown.
It was as if the archbishop took the pope’s words and applied them directly to a critical need of contemporary times, the need to transform urban environments into suitable places for human flourishing.
“In the family, each person, whether the smallest child or the oldest relative, is valued for himself or herself, and not seen simply as a means to some other end. Here we begin to glimpse something of the essential role of the family as the first building block of a well-ordered and welcoming society,” Pope Benedict said in Nazareth.
It is in families, therefore, that people learn from the youngest age that not only they, but others, possess intrinsic worth. Goodness and the virtues first are witnessed in the home.
Pope Benedict said the world urgently needs the family to provide the kind of “milieu in which children learn to love and to cherish others, to be honest and respectful to all, to practice the virtues of mercy and forgiveness.” The values of “fidelity to one’s word, integrity and hard work” also are learned at home, the pope noted.
What is more, in families children first see “how authority placed at the service of love is infinitely more fruitful than the power which seeks to dominate,” Pope Benedict stated.
His hope in Nazareth was to “encourage [families] in their irreplaceable mission to society.”
Temptation to Be Good
To be sure, if the cities we desire are going to exist, families must be joined by others – leaders, businesses and institutions of all kinds – who fulfill roles in constructing the foundations for authentic community life. Archbishop Nichols made clear that this encompasses how employees are treated and what behaviors are demanded of them.
He said, “We can and should also look to the institutions of commerce to nurture and strengthen character.”
However, I could not help thinking again of the family as the model for how people are bound together in society when the archbishop said:
“Whatever the activity of the city might be, we are all in it together, like climbers tied together by invisible ropes where the well-being and fulfillment of each is in some ways dependent on others.”
Archbishop Nichols’ vision for the city runs directly contrary to the belief that we all are free to pursue our own good in our own way and to act out of “narrow self-interest.” Such a belief system, he said, actually undermines the family and other social institutions.
On the other hand, families and others may derive hope from another of the archbishop’s observations. “The truth is, we are all secretly tempted to be good,” he said.
The archbishop believes “humanity has the most extraordinary capacity for good.” But to have the kind of cities we want, it is necessary to acknowledge “our need” of each other and recognize “our shared destiny,” he said.
The starting point in all this, according both to Pope Benedict and the archbishop, is the family.
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.