Next to religion, the most important element of any cultural renewal in the West is going to be the restoration of marriage and family, and by extension a renewal of family identity. Most Americans today suffer from the absence of a positive identity as members of an extended family with a familial sense of mission and place in the world. On an individual basis, this condition is simply one among many possible handicaps that can be compensated for in a variety of ways. As a societal problem, however, it creates a situation in which dangerous substitutes threaten to extinguish what's left of familial health and happiness in the nation.
I'd like to address the following to young married couples just starting out. You should make it your mission to create a strong family identity. Here are what I perceive to be the essentials:
The Faith. The family should be united in its Christian faith. Denominationally mixed marriages should be strongly discouraged. Children should be instructed in the faith of their parents from the cradle onward, taken to church, and taught to memorize the prayers and songs of their tradition. The idea that children should be allowed to "choose" their own beliefs during their formative years, as though their Christian parents had nothing to teach them, is not only a recipe for lifelong confusion and unhappiness but an inexcusable dereliction of duty on the part of parents. Paradoxically, we know from the teaching of Our Lord that keeping the faith might even break up the family: "And as a man's enemies shall be they of his own household." - Matt 10:36. There is no unity or identity worth having at the expense of God's truth. But when you place faith before family, more often than not, God preserves your family too.
Build on what you have. Insofar as possible, without compromising your children's faith and character (or your own sanity), maintain relationships with existing relatives and friends, carry on family traditions, and preserve historical memories. Visit the graves of departed ancestors. Learn, teach, and transmit your family's story. This may not be realistic for everyone, but if a healthy degree of family continuity can be maintained, it will be a great source of emotional comfort and stability for your children.
Tradition. Chances are, if you are a Gen-Xer or younger, few traditions have been handed down to you. In the popular literature of family life, it is often suggested that families "invent" their own "traditions", but this advice contains the seed of its own demise. Traditions are not invented, they are received. A certain action or ritual only becomes a tradition after surviving at least a few generations. The idea of inventing a tradition usually involves a conscious decision to reject a tradition that might otherwise be received with humility.
And yet, few if any traditions have been given to you. What is to be done? First, it is laudable and not at all inauthentic to pass over a generation or two for the purpose of reviving the worthy traditions of your ancestors. These traditions may not have been handed down to you, but they belong to you anyway as a rightful inheritance. When in conflict, the ancestral traditions of one or the other parent should prevail, and preference should be given to those traditions most congenial to the heritage of one's community. Second, if at all possible, you should associate with a community of families who do possess family traditions, so that by long association you will adopt these traditions as your own - or more accurately, the traditions will adopt you. Finally, the wisdom of the Catholic Church is such that every Catholic has access to beautiful traditions that are specific to his own nation, region and culture: these should be adopted and passed on to one's children with the greatest reverence and love.
"What you have as heritage, take now as task, and thus you will make it your own." - Goethe
Character and charism. Every family has its own unique destiny and raison d'tere. Some families produce an abundance of hard-working, reliable, blue-collar households; others lean toward scholarly pursuits; others are heavily entrepreneurial; others have a strong military tradition; and still others tend toward public service. There is, of course, variety within these identities, and the family charism is not meant to suppress individual gifts that depart from it. But in general a family's charism should be nurtured, cultivated, encouraged and loved, and in most cases the individual will flourish in this context.
Rebuilding the extended family. In a previous entry, it was noted that contraception deprives individuals of the benefits of extended families. So the first step in rebuilding the extended family is to have lots of children. Young couples should also note that the modern idea of every individual family member "following his dream", going off somewhere and starting over, has been disastrous as a social trend. Let it be granted that relocating away from relatives can be necessary and right in certain cases, but what has to change is this idea that children be raised to go out "make it on their own" in the world in some radically independent way, without regard for the advantages of close proximity to extended family.
The occasion for this post is my reading of a speech given by the late Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira on family heredity and tradition, part of which I have reproduced below the fold:
Rather than list all the factors that demonstrate how the family is adequately suited to fostering the development of a child’s unique personality, we will instead focus on two social factors that have historically augmented the strength and cohesion of the family, greatly increasing its ability to carry out this task, but which nonetheless have been greatly maligned, misunderstood, and even sometimes abused. These two factors are heredity and tradition.
Pope Pius XII masterfully synthesised the importance of both factors:
"The nature of this great and mysterious thing that is heredity — the passing on through a bloodline, perpetuated from generation to generation, of a rich ensemble of material and spiritual assets, the continuity of a single physical and moral type from father to son, the tradition that unites members of one same family across the centuries — the true nature of this heredity can undoubtedly be distorted by materialistic theories. But one can, and must also, consider this reality enormously important in the fullness of its human and supernatural truth."
One certainly cannot deny the existence of a material substratum in the transmission of hereditary characteristics; to be surprised at this one would have to forget the intimate union of our soul with our body, and in what great measure our most spiritual activities are themselves dependent upon our physical temperament. For this reason Christian morality never forgets to remind parents of the great responsibilities resting on their shoulders in this regard.
More specifically, the same pontiff also reiterates the role of tradition:
"Yet of greater import still is spiritual heredity, which is transmitted not so much through these mysterious bonds of material generation as by the permanent action of that privileged environment that is the family, with the slow and profound formation of souls in the atmosphere of a hearth rich in high intellectual, moral, and especially Christian traditions, with the mutual influence of those dwelling under one same roof, an influence whose beneficial effects endure well beyond the years of childhood and youth, all the way to the end of a long life, in those elect souls who are able to meld within themselves the treasures of a precious heredity with the addition of their own merits and experiences. Such is the most prized patrimony of all, which, illuminated by a solid faith and enlivened by a strong and loyal practice of Christian life in all its demands, will raise, refine, and enrich the souls of your children."
A home in the fullest sense of the word is where a family that cultivates these reciprocal factors of heredity and tradition dwells. A family that has a hereditary character, in which biological factors act upon psychological traits that in turn are shaped by faith values and culture, constitutes a world unto its own. Each new member is born into the common substratum that exists among the family members, which is marvellously suited to the personality that deeply embedded the uniqueness of every child. While favouring the uninhibited development of family traits, the family also stimulates the development of individual characteristics that are also linked to the family. Thus strengthened by heredity, the family constitutes that primary ambience that is comprehensive, homogeneous, and un-inhibiting, that encourages the child to blossom, expand, and develop his personality.
Then there is tradition. Each family passes its way of being onto the next generation and thus, with each successive generation, the family traits grow stronger, accentuated by the unique contributions of individuals that enrich the common heritage. Hence, through this symbiotic relationship between heredity and tradition, the family creates the appropriate atmosphere for the blossoming of individuals.
Providing children with the best means to resist peer pressure — three concentric circles
Families thus constituted have an incalculable impact upon society at large. Such families would normally be extended — not nuclear — families, with regular interaction between cousins, even second and third cousins. A child raised in such a family is surrounded by three concentric circles: the first is his immediate family, where everything is very similar to him; the second covers from thence until the house of his most distant relative, wherein he finds similarities but also diversity; and the third covers from the street to the rest of the world, where all similarities and diversities casually mingle.
If a child is supported in the first two circles, he can take on the world. If a child knows that his family — including his extended family — is on his side, he can stand for himself anywhere he goes, he can weather both popularity and unpopularity, because he has a framework of support whereby he can express his uniqueness, his personality, even amidst adversity.
How different are the circumstances usually surrounding a child raised in a standard nuclear family. By its very nature, the modern nuclear family offers little variety by way of people, making family life rather monotonous. Consequently, family members tend to prefer the street over the home, when they are not bringing the street into the home via television, sometimes with different channels playing simultaneously on various sets scattered throughout the house.
When this child goes out on the street, he is alone. When such a boy goes to school, when such a girl is out on the town, they are on their own: having no support framework at home, they have no resistance to peer pressure and to the dictates of fashion and the mass media. The message the child perceives is very clear: either you behave like everyone else, or else you will be ridiculed, bullied, and/or ignored by the rest. Either the individual has a very strong personality or he will suffer from uncertainty, insecurity, self-doubt, isolation, and finally capitulation. After ten or twenty years of this treatment, he will eventually become so dependent upon the opinion of others that he will even need to read the newspaper or watch the television in order to know how to react to events to which he was an eyewitness. At this stage, his unique personality will have been utterly destroyed.
Children who can stand up to the world will change it
The impact of media-induced public opinion is jarred when families are strengthened by the double-helix of heredity and tradition. In a society where such families exist, public opinion ceases to be the mere product of newspapers, television, and radio. Mass media will continue to have influence, but individuals will be more influenced by the family, since it is the habitual dwelling place where their opinions are formed. Consequently, public opinion would become a contexture of family opinions, in which the microscopic individual would no longer cower under the omnipotent media, but rather the omnipotent media would be filtrated by the family in the broader sense.
This would create a double current in public opinion: on one hand, there would continue to be a “downwards” flow in which families would filter the moulding influence of the mass media over public opinion. However, as the numbers of such families grow, there will also be an “upwards” flow: since the mass media need popularity in order to survive, they will adapt their information to find favour among family opinions and the broader opinions of families. In this fashion, public opinion would be transformed from the precarious, unstable, fallible, and capricious entity it has become everywhere in the world today, into a constant, structured, normal, and healthy medium for divulging thought on a broad scale, and consequently even a defence against the frequently tyrannical solicitations of demagoguery.