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In Defense of Familyism

Amanda Tipton Photography

John Zmirak - published on 06/04/14 - updated on 06/07/17

Did an archbishop really suggest that we ought not to look out for our family?

Last week I got an email from a brilliant priest, a beloved author and an old friend of mine. In it, he lamented the clotted rhetoric used by Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, in speaking to the United Nations. And the paragraph he quoted was truly alarming — and not so much for the ugliness of the language.

I’ve studied Italian, and I know how gnarled a literal translation from it can be (Giuseppe Cardinal Siri’s brilliant book Gethesmane is translated into a kind of baroque “Itanglish” that made it very challenging to read — though it’s well worth the effort). No, what frightened me were some of the implications I thought I saw in the bishop’s statement, especially when read in isolation:

On the other hand, we cannot overlook the risk of “familyism,” that is, the inability to think of a larger group and the tendency to favor, even in matters not affecting the family, the members of the family nucleus. This tendency has been the cause of numerous “amoral” abuses, where the good of the smaller family group prevails over that of the larger community. Maintaining intra familial warmth and affection without compromising the public good and the “universalism” necessary in an advanced society has been and still today is, at least in certain areas, a difficult challenge. Proof of this is found in the oscillation between persistent forms of regressive “familyism” on the one hand and the affirmation of a radical individualism on the other that, by destroying the family reverses the progress of humanization, heedless of the long-term consequences of so doing.

Reading this from an important Italian bishop set off all sorts of alarm bells in my head. Was the head of the Church’s Council for the Family really suggesting that we ought not to look out first for the best interests of our spouses, parents, siblings, and children? Are Christians obliged, like good Kantians or followers of Rousseau, to strive for an inhuman objectivity that sets aside bonds of blood? Must we strive to view the fruits of our own loins as little “citizens,” whose well-being really ought not to be more important to us than that of strangers’ kids — even those in foreign countries?

Well, no. When I read the rest of Abp. Paglia’s speech, I saw that this statement was heavily counterbalanced by solid and nuanced (if awkwardly translated) assertions of the primacy of the family and its rights, and the reality that the family — not the individual — is the basic unit of society. The whole speech is worth a read.

The main reason I feared the worst is that attacks on the family are coming so thick and fast from our best and brightest — from our courts and universities, our legislatures and experts. Why should it surprise me that one more clergyman had succumbed to the thuggish pressure of polite opinion? I am relieved that Abp. Paglia, in fact, did not — though I fear that his concessions to critics of “familyism” will be quoted out of context by the enemies of the family. Really, it’s hard to see how excessive concern for spouses and children, at the expense of the commonweal, is a burgeoning danger today. Quite the contrary.

The view I thought I sniffed out in the archbishop’s statement is not so crackpot and outrageous as you might think. Leftists who oppose the church’s teachings on nearly every issue use the word “familyism” as an all-purpose perjorative, and promote real-world initiatives that do in fact undermine the rights and unity of families. The worst and most recent that comes to mind is the nationwide drive to conscript America’s children into preschool. Typically, such plans are presented as a chance to jump-start a child’s education and raise his reading scores.  

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