America the Ambiguous: Evangelizing the Culture about the Family

Helen Alvare
© 2009 Culture of Life Foundation
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

"First, the family must be remade as an expression of communion."
Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I., The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture (2009), 23.

The Archbishop of Chicago, Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I., has written a wonderful book containing (among many other good things) some highly useful ideas for speaking about the family in America. Marriage and the family are not featured topics in the book; communion with God and among all human beings is its theme. Cardinal George explores this theme widely throughout the book as it applies, for example, to members of the Catholic Church, to interfaith dialogue, to all members of the human family. Yet he notes in Chapter One how our work to transform culture -- in order to "remake ourselves" in the "paradigm of the heavenly communio" -- needs to begin with our remaking the "family … as an expression of communio." (23) In Chapters Two and Three, he offers ways of approaching and evangelizing American culture in particular, which I would like to consider from the point of view of this family project. I should note here that Cardinal George's work is theologically rich, and important for anyone who wishes to join him in pursuing John Paul II's project to "evangelize culture." I can only hope in this essay to draw out a few of its implications for the culture of the family.

Cardinal George reminds us that the Catholic Church is not without hope for our culture. Human nature is wounded, but "not hopelessly corrupt," he writes. (27) This recalls Pope Benedict XVI's frequent admonitions over the past several years not to succumb to "anthropological pessimism." Rather, every culture is both fertile and rocky ground in relation to the Word of God. Cardinal George calls this our culture's "evangelically ambiguous" situation. (43)

On the positive side, Americans cherish the equality of all human beings, freedom, justice, an openness to diversity alongside a will to unity, participatory decision making, and effective communication. On the negative side, we are attached to our subjective points of view (and thus suspicious of Divine Revelation, which by definition comes to us from God); we value transient emotional states; and we champion freedom to the point of license, without reference to the truth. We also tend to champion freedom without considering the needs of those persons we do not "choose": persons who are nevertheless our nearest neighbors, who have been placed in our path having both needs and gifts to give. There is also a growing attachment in America to what might be called "scientism," the notion that nothing can be true or even of interest unless it can be verified by the senses or the hard sciences. This renders faith propositions out of bounds, even though they do not contradict, but rather illuminate reason.

Cardinal George is correct that in order to evangelize such a culture, work to rebuild the family should come first. Family is the first community, the place where we learn what we use later to build culture; this includes at the very least our hierarchy of values and the means to express them. It would seem that the first task here is to recover America's ideological strengths, as Cardinal George names them, to serve the family instead of undermining it. Currently, in other words, lawmakers and other opinion leaders are twisting our love affairs with freedom, equality and diversity to serve short-term goals which ultimately weaken the family. First and foremost, our love of freedom has been transmuted into a demand for legalizing any sort of sexual intimacy one might choose. It has also been used to support a "right" to choose whether to value or to destroy nascent human life. Our respect for diversity has been misconceived as the necessity of tolerating choices about family life which are harmful both for the adults and the children involved. Our insistence upon equality has been misused to deny the obvious differences between same-sex and opposite-sex pairs.

How can these interpretations be turned around, and our weaknesses overcome? Cardinal George suggests several ways. First, we must reestablish the link between truth and freedom. This is a huge task on its face. In the family context, we are aided today by the enormous amount of empirical research which measures outcomes of various family choices. It is opening eyes for the first time in half a century to the fact that neither men nor women are experiencing authentic freedom when they choose to ignore the truth about intimate human relationships, e.g. these relationships' orientation to permanence, to exclusivity and to procreation. Children suffer terribly when adults deny foundational truths about love, marriage and parenting.

Second, we must also reestablish the connection between freedom and communion. A great deal of legal and sociological scholarship published in the U.S. today suggests that the human person is naturally a "chooser." It suggests that sometimes  and for relatively brief periods  adults choose to be in a partnership. Sometimes they choose to have one or two children, a task which takes only a fraction of their adult life. Often, they will choose not to marry, or they will choose divorce or abortion  the severing of relationships. In short, the adult human is above all else, an isolated individual who chooses, and whose choices are directed primarily toward self-gratification. Catholic teaching and sound philosophy as well as common sense beg to disagree. Beginning with God's utterance in the garden that "It is not good for the man to be alone," and proceeding through the rest of the scriptures, our texts state that the human person, like God, is meant for communion. Man, after all, as Aristotle and others through the centuries have held, is by nature a "social" animal. Loneliness and individualism are the exceptions, the problems, not the rule or the goal. Psychological research tends to confirm this. (See, e.g. John T. Capioccio & William Patrick, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (2009)). Family patterns confirm this too: the vast majority of Americans want to and do marry; the vast majority want to have children and do, and will even go to outrageous and expensive lengths to acquire them; divorced Americans remarry at record rates (see Andrew Cherlin: The Marry Go-Round) or cohabit following their divorce, but regularly find that the grass is not greener on the other side of their first marriage. Happiness studies indicate in fact that permanently partnered adults are happiest and that separated and divorced adults are the least happy. Relationships mean friction at some point; of this there is no doubt. But they are the very stuff of most of our lives, the source of growth, the thing without which we are not able to feel happy or even to love ourselves. Americans know this; it's what they tell pollsters and friends and radio d.j's. In short, the message of human communion may not always be easily sold, but America is naturally receptive to it nonetheless.

Cardinal George further advises that we reflect on the "pattern of holiness evident in those who, formed within [our] culture, became saints of God." (54). In other words, if we analyze how a particular American saint manifested holiness from within our own culture, perhaps we can inspire others with her example. He considers in particular Katherine Drexel, a wealthy Philadelphian who inherited from her parents the notion that all her family's riches were "on loan" for sharing with the less fortunate. She understood all her life as a gift too, and eventually took religious vows and spent her entire fortune on religious schools for poor and minority Americans. Her freedom of action, her greatness, arose from her submission to the will of God, and her ability to see her life and her possessions as gifts in trust for others. There is also Mother Teresa, who is not one of "our own," but might as well be given how passionately she is venerated in America. Deep within our American hearts, we wish, we hope that we might be capable of their way of self-emptying generosity and disinterest regarding material things. We hope that we, like them, can see another's humanity and dignity and equality perfectly clearly, and then respond in kind.

Our families are the first people with the right to call upon us for this type of behavior. Of course we hope to treat all those we encounter with this kind of love and respect, but it is generally foolish to assume that we could do for strangers what we will not do for our first given neighbors.

In "The Difference God Makes" Cardinal George makes the case for hope, even while he faces realistically the challenges to converting Americans toward real freedom and toward understanding life as loving communion.