nucleus, but the point at which the “family” ended and the “village” or wider community began was virtually non-existent. The fact that the institution of the family in the West collapsed very shortly after “nuclear families” replaced the traditional model makes it difficult to take seriously the assertion that the 1950s nuclear model is essential to a healthy Christian polity. The collapse of the family is intimately related to—indeed is a result of—its reduction to the nuclear model, which has placed a weight on the nucleus that it was never designed to bear. Tying the defense of Christian marriage to the defense of the nuclear model is like tying a healthy living body to a corpse – eventually the putrefaction spreads.
Earlier generations of lesbian and gay activists were not clamoring to be allowed to participate in the nuclear family model, either. Radical lesbian feminist Julie Bindel describes gay life in England during the 1980s thus:
As Bindel—who opposes gay marriage for queer reasons—laments, gays “are now more likely to be living in replicas of the nuclear family and hanging out with other couples rather than at gay bars.” As the imitation of the 1950s nuclear model has become more and more the norm for same-sex couples, the queer communities that once existed have—like the villages of early modern Christendom—been eviscerated as those couples retreat behind their picket fences.
Queer critiques of gay marriage argue that the repetition of the nuclear family model by gay couples perpetuates and reinforces the system of hetero-patriarchy which was responsible for the oppression of queer people in the first place. The fact that large swathes of the queer community have internalized the desire to participate in the nuclear model constitutes, for queer critics, a kind of Stockholm Syndrome en masse.
These kinds of critiques may, at first glance, be shocking to the sensibilities of certain Catholics. Yet they need not be, when we consider that the 1950s nuclear family is, as I have already suggested, quite different from the historic Christian model. When one reads the Scriptures, one doesn’t find much about the family as a utopia unto itself or as “a haven in a heartless world,” as Christopher Lasch famously put it.
Instead, we see Jesus telling people that they must value their status as his disciples above their inborn family status (Luke 14:26) and that the most important “family” relationships in our life—evenwithin our own biological family—are constituted by our shared relatedness to God established through membership of the Christian community (Matt 12:46-50). We read that all of the members of that community, “the believers”—both individuals and families—owned everything in common (Acts 2:44). Early Christian families did not retreat behind picket fences but functioned as integral parts of a communal whole whose dynamism was such that within only a few centuries it had engulfed and evangelized the entire Roman Empire. They sound much more like Bindel’s communes—“nurturing each other and living cooperatively”—than they do like a disconnected neighborhood full of modern nuclear households. Albeit not entirely for the same reasons, both radical queer activists and Christian ethics properly constituted reject the idea that the nuclear family is the primary locus of social belonging, in favor of a thicker, more robust notion of community.