In an interview with John Allen published in the National Catholic Reporter on March 27, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Council of the Family, spoke at length about the importance of the family for society. Below are selections with emphasis added; click here to read the entire interview.
Question: You run the Vatican’s Council for the Family. What message regarding the family do you expect from Pope Francis?
Answer: I believe this Pope will propose a comprehensive message about the family. We’ve already heard him talk, when he was Cardinal of Buenos Aires, about the family in his speeches for this dicastery, and he’s touched on all aspects of the subject: from the themes on morality and bioethics, to the matters about education, work, the importance of respect for the elderly, and a spirit of welcome for the newborn. He realizes that the family is the most robust resource for our society. He’ll put it at the center not only of the life of the Church, but also political, economic and cultural life.
Question: People often see the church’s message on the family largely in negative terms – opposition to divorce, artificial reproduction, gay marriage, and so on. Can it be reintroduced in a positive key?
Answer: There’s no doubt that up to now, the church has stayed too much in the sacristy. We have to get out into the squares and into the streets. In those places, you can see that the family – mother, father, and children –is right there, and it’s the most important resource for our society. In this time of financial crisis, if it weren’t for our families we would already have been submersed by a sort of unimaginable tsunami. If the church, which, as Paul VI said, is an expert in humanity, is animated by a compassionate gospel spirit, it will see this reality and be able to talk credibly about it in a positive way. We’ll be able to see that the sick would be abandoned without their families, the elderly would be lost, small children wouldn’t know how to grow up, the young wouldn’t know where to go. In a time when it’s hard to find work, and in which young people often have to stay at home longer, what would happen to them without their families?
I believe that this is one of the first responsibilities I have as president of this pontifical council – to make these realities clearer, and to help us talk about them in a convincing way. The family is the foundation of every human society, whether they’re Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, or whatever. There’s a need for a new start, a new cultural approach. The first point ought to be that the family doesn’t belong to the Catholic Church. This isn’t a confessional subject, but one that’s imminently human and social. If I can put it this way, Jesus, knowing how central the family in human life, elevated matimony to a sacrament in order to introduce the couple in a new dimension of grace.
I’m a Roman, so let me quote Cicero, who wasn’t a Catholic and not even a Christian. He defined the family this way: Familia est principium urbis et quasi seminarium rei publicae, meaning, “The family is the fundament of the city and like a school of citizenship.” Without strong families, we would have disfigured cities and unsustainable societies. Centuries ago, the great jurist Justinian said that marriage is the union between a man and a woman, and he didn’t say it as a believer but as a citizen of the world. We have to rediscover this basic reality and help people see that the importance of the family is not something the church is imposing, but it’s a fact of life.
Recent sociological studies, for example, show that the family composed of a mother, a father, and two or three children, has significant advantages with respect to all the other modes of living together. People in traditional families live longer, they produce more, they have fewer psychological disturbances, and they create a much stronger social fabric. A study in the United States, for instance, recently found that 85 percent of inmates in correctional facilities for youth come from families without a father. Here’s another confirmation. The tendency to limit families to one child, whether it’s imposed by the state or the result of personal choice, leads to the aging of societies. I also find myself asking, after twenty years, what will these millions of one-child citizens understand about the terms ‘brother’ or ‘sister’? Will they be cancelled from our vocabulary? Unfortunately, we’ll probably come to understand the gravity of some of these choices only when it’s too late.
Question: Why is the traditional family a tough sell?
Answer: That’s a good question. We have to ask ourselves why, if the desire for a family is actually written into the human heart, fewer people are getting married and so many are getting separated and divorced. In my view, the problem is that what I would call the ‘culture of the individual’ is ever more prevalent. It’s the exaltation of the ‘I’ as the custodian of every right, holding the right to have all possible rights. By the way, English is the only language in which ‘I’ is capitalized!
This cult of the ‘I’ finds its prime obstacle in the family. Today, the ‘I’ is destroying the ‘we.’
Sociologists talk more and more about the ‘individualization’ of society, and you see its consequences everywhere. For instance, you see it in a political trend of states or regions to close in on themselves. In Italy, someone from North asks, ‘Why should I give money to the South?’ People in Europe ask, ‘Why should I be concerned about Africa?’ In reality, this growing individualization of society, and its corresponding tendencies toward withdrawal and isolation signifies an epochal confrontation against the very nature of the person, who is essential relational. We have to return to the first book of Genesis, and on this point Pope Benedict has been prophetically forward-looking. The first chapter of Genesis says, ‘It’s not good for man to be alone.’ Today’s culture says, ‘It is good to be alone,’ but that’s not true.
Question: You’re saying that in this epochal confrontation, the family is the most important ‘weapon’ to combat hyper-individualism?
Answer: Exactly. It’s the role of this dicastery to promote an evangelical alternative, so to speak, within the ecclesial family, though doing so in positive terms – to help the Church make a positive proposal about the family. For example, we have to help engaged couples to understand what marriage is all about. We have to support young families, because they can’t do it all by themselves. They need a community, a network of friendship. We have to make sure that Sunday allows for a meeting of families within the larger family of faith. This is an enormous task.
We also have to undertake a long journey in the cultural arena to persuade people anew that not only is the family possible, it’s beautiful. It’s simply not true that young people today don’t want it. Quite often, they’re not helped to realize the dream of having a family by the culture, by the economy, even by the ecclesial community sometimes.