What’s Wrong with the World

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Creating a family identity

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.

Comments (7)

Prof. Oliveira's comments about children who stand up to the world are outstanding.

On the issue of tradition, I have to admit to being ambivalent, but I also admit that this is more a psychological than an argumentative ambivalence. Argumentatively, what you say makes sense, especially for the culture at large. Psychologically, having lived all my life without any sense of many-generational family tradition and never having really felt the lack, I find it difficult actually to believe that it's important.

On the other hand yet again, I have a deep-seated hatred for phoney, made-up traditions and the refusal to use real ones. Case in point: Years ago a church around here (Christian Reformed) was trying to re-introduce the notion of Advent. They had all these made-up Advent "traditions" that were totally phoney. The colors of the Sundays bore no relation to any real tradition that had been around for more than a couple of nanoseconds. I can't remember if they made up new collects, but if so they were so poor and forgettable that I have forgotten them. And the Book of Common Prayer has _real_ collects that have been around for five hundred years, but nobody even thought of using those! Even Hallmark (for goodness' sake) has the right colors in its Advent candle sets. Maybe they could have tried to find out why those colors are what they are, as a sheer matter of historical interest.

So, while the notion of specifically a family tradition handed down from one's own personal ancestors is rather foreign to me for reasons of personal experience, the notion of literary, liturgical, and historical tradition is important because of my strong instinct (mentioned occasionally in other comments threads) that "things should be what they are." Made-up traditions aren't anything. They have an unreality about them that is immediately evident. They are cheesy and fake. Real traditions have grown in the soil of real human history. They bear that signature on them, and it is part of humane education (if nothing else) to teach our children (if we at all can) to recognize and appreciate that signature.

The extended family which has "regular interaction between cousins, even second and third cousins" is a rarity in most Western communities now. Once children have started out on their own adult journey, the atomization of society quite often works against regular contact even between members of a nuclear family.

A social pattern has become established - at least in metropolitan areas - in which isolated individuals inhabit an unattached milieu. The number of people (especially women) who will live alone, unremembered and forsaken during their final years, is expected to keep rising. The decline of marriage and the frequency of divorce will accelerate this trend. Rootlessness is becoming a social norm.

It's a bleak future.

Thank you for this excellent post, Jeff. We see ourselves as in a "rebuilding our extended family" phase. I'm hoping that six kids (and a number of fertile years left) will produce what you're describing in the long run.

I agree with you on children moving away when they grow up. For our family this seems to have happened primarily in my Grandparents' youth. The kids moved either to California or Florida.

Alex, you are most definitely right that a new social pattern has become the typical, with a very severe atomization into discrete units of persons.

In addition to this being a rather accidental outcome from the multiply-complex manner in which we find jobs that "suit" us, (in spite of the fact that so many of us don't actually work at jobs that would be on our top 5 list if it weren't for the need to eat and pay rent), I suspect that it is a rather intended result from those who wish to sever the human person from every community that lies between him and the state: the naked man bereft of layers of protection.

But we don't have to assume that this pattern is fixed in stone. It is, after all, the result of a collection of social forces only 70 to 80 years old. (Rampant college education requiring specialized jobs, interstate highways and cheap air travel, are 3 of the forces.) That pattern may be reversible. The need to move away for highly specialized jobs is gradually reducing now, thanks to telecommuting: my own office has hired people in Seattle, Houston, and LA, who did not have to move to take the jobs. If we could come up with a way in which a family could expand or extend its ability to grow new households close by for its children - households that were physically independent but still close enough to be interdependent socially, (a lot like a farmer with extra land could divide his property between his kids - something my own uncle did for his daughters), we could reverse some of the atomization pressure. I don't have a mechanism in mind, I am not saying it is easy.

Lydia, I think that the family's connection to liturgy can be, in fact, one of the most powerful promoters of family tradition. If you (just as an example) have a family tradition of always doing X after (or before) the vigil service for Christmas, or always starting the 4th of July celebration by going to Church to thank God for our nation, that's very valuable. But it need not be a formal (generations-old) tradition to become a highly entrenched family practice that the kids rely on, expect, and come to eventually love. I think that at least a significant portion of the psychological benefit of tradition can be felt with even a family practice that is a "mere" 20 years old - as old as the oldest kid, for example. If all of the siblings (hopefully, more than one other person) know that they were all raised with the same practice, they all know that practice is going to happen next year (or month) in the same way it has for the last 20 years, the sense of rootedness that this gives is significant even if it isn't as strong as it would be if the practice were 200 years old. But I share your disgust at "new" traditions that are invented as a rejection of old traditions. Doesn't this describe Kwanzaa?

My own situation was aided a lot by our having moved my parents in with us for a decade before they died: my kids lived with daily stories from my parents' days, including remembered events of their own about family traditions. I cannot recommend this too highly: if your Dad is retired or close to it, and if you are in any way able to build or remodel with a full in-law suite enabling them to be virtually independent when they want to be, it can be a phenomenal benefit to you (built-in, free baby-sitting, anyone?) as well as to them for end-of-life needs. I must say, though, that it may be only practicable and beneficial in the same way if you share the same religion (another aspect of handing on the family in unity).

If we could come up with a way in which a family could expand or extend its ability to grow new households close by for its children - households that were physically independent but still close enough to be interdependent socially, (a lot like a farmer with extra land could divide his property between his kids - something my own uncle did for his daughters), we could reverse some of the atomization pressure. I don't have a mechanism in mind, I am not saying it is easy.

Tony, if you come up with such a realistic mechanism, be sure to let us all know. I'm sure most of us have a daydream at the back of our minds in which our children grow up and marry local young people (wonderful spouses all, of course) and are able to settle down right nearby and live long-term and raise their families. Unfortunately, this seems rarely to be possible, where "possible" has a fairly brutal meaning having to do with jobs.

I think that the family's connection to liturgy can be, in fact, one of the most powerful promoters of family tradition.

Well, that's the idea. We light the (real color) Advent candles and read the (real) Advent collects each Sunday in December! And having real traditions rather than faux ones makes, I think, a difference. Perhaps this is to some extent an expression of faith in truly great language and liturgy, but I can't help thinking things stick in young people's minds more when they've originated in liturgical genius (such as that of Cranmer or Cosin) and have been polished to a bright gleam by hundreds of years of human use.

There's a romance to it: I often think (and have tried to pass this thought on to the children) of London during the blitz and churches holding Evening Prayer in the blackout and praying, "Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord, and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night..."


This was a most excellent post and this type of exhortation is not pronounced nearly enough to our young adults IN THE CHURCH. Nevermind that the culture at large is already separated from Christianity by two or even three generations, the children of Christians are still in the church, but separated from this biblical model of family by at least one generation. Maybe more. I blame that on the reliance on public education and the overuse of media.

I will be sending this link, via Facebook to my children, married and single, as I often do, as homework. Yes, I still require them to read important commentary. I have a good mind to print this up and begin including it in wedding and baby shower gifts.

The subsequent comments were also excellent.

When John and I married and followed his job to New York and then Texas, I did that following under protest because I believed family should stay close. My mother's cousins were mostly within blocks or a couple of miles away, in "the old Italian neighborhood" as we like to say. My daughters were born in Houston, but my constant prayer was that the Lord would send us home to Chicago so that they would know their grandparents like I had known mine by spending weekends with them. My husband was skeptical that we would ever find ourselves back in Chicago, but we did, thanks to answered prayer.

Despite the circumstances in the job market, my own kids have refused to take jobs far away from the Chicago area because they too want their children, present and future, to know and spend time with their grandparents. I am very grateful for this because I believe with all my heart that extended family is vital to the rootedness it provides.

When my oldest daughter was just out of college, she took an internship with a newspaper in North Carolina. After her 6 week stint they wanted her to stay on full-time. Her pay would have been low and when she asked my advice I told her that for that amount of money it was not worth being separated from us and ultimately separated for good by marrying a local man. She dutifully came home and is now raising her family two hours away where she did manage to secure a newspaper position before she met and married a man from Rockford. Even in this two hour separation, the Lord had plans because it is where my husband's family is centered. My daughter has been able to be a blessing to her grandmother on a regular basis and those grandchildren will have memories (though faint) of their great-grandmother.

As for church traditions as in liturgy and feast days, that is where I have certain regrets. The Evangelical churches we attended were known for strong biblical teaching, but as you know their liturgical/ holy day traditions are non-existent. This bothered me and I supplemented. Our own family traditions from my mother were strong and those have been handed down, but I did miss Christmas Eve, Good Friday, Thanksgiving, etc. services and grumbled about this. Apparently others were grumbling too and it wasn't long before these services were added to our church calendar and have been executed well. Still I supplement with special services at a very traditional Catholic church.

Anyway, your post articulates my convictions.

A very thought-provoking, important post...

we live 800 miles away from nearest extended family- but at least we will see them soon...in today's day and age, one must force the issue with letters, phone calls, skype, etc- but it is not the same

A common faith is so important- I live 30 minutes from 2 of my first cousins (out of only 4)- and I haven't seen them in over a year and am expressly NOT invited to a wedding- because I am Catholic and they are secular materialists. I am hoping for better results wiith my children's cousins- all of my siblings are married to Catholics and are open to life so there are plenty of Catholic cousins and hopefully more in the future

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