The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.
-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia
Nowadays, the general debate about family apparently revolves around a crucial question: Is the family founded on a marriage between one man and one woman still a resource for the individual and for society, or is it a bond from the past that hinders individual emancipation and the onset of a freer, happier, and more egalitarian society? Those who affirm the inevitable decline of the family and question its social impact emphasize its constraining, discriminating, and merely private role: Family could actually hinder the human development of the individual, cause injustice and social discrimination between the sexes and generations, and “constrain” people in particularistic and binding relations which do not encourage social solidarity and prosocial behavior. Therefore, family would not produce virtues, be they private or public, but only raise social issues and generate public vices.
The Pontifical Council for the Family has launched an international research project with the aim of ascertaining if family is indeed to be blamed for the loss of social virtues, or if “modernization processes, which have deviated from the traditional meaning and social functions of the family” are to be blamed instead. The core hypothesis of this research project, which was launched in 2011, is that family—considered, in the light of a Relational approach, as a relationship of full and stable reciprocity between the sexes and generations—is still one of the greatest resources for society.
The survey was carried out in eight countries in Europe and America: Italy, Spain, Poland, the U.S.A., Mexico, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina. The outcomes were presented during the World Meeting of Families in Milan (2012) and Philadelphia (2015), as well as in several papers and books. There have been three main publications: Famiglia risorsa per la società, published in Italy in 2013, and featuring the outcome of the research which was carried out locally; The Conjugal Family: An Irreplaceable Resource for Society, published in 2015 by Libreria Editrice Vaticana in the Famiglia&Vita series, and featuring the outcome of the surveys that were carried out in the U.S., Chile, and Argentina; and La Familia, recurso de la sociedad, published in 2013 by the Instituto de Ciencias para la Familia of the University of Navarra, and featuring the outcome of the survey that was carried out in Spain.
The Aim of the Research
The Relational approach suggests that the family represents a unique relationship, separate from other primary groups for two main reasons: gender difference, which involves sexuality; and obligations between generations, which involve kinship. According to this approach, family ties are a specific, emerging, self-produced relationship, not entirely linked to either individual (i.e. each individual) or collective factors (the relevant social scenarios). Family is thus a specific relational reality, not a mere sum of individual members.
The Relational approach, therefore, postulates the existence of a genome of the family, i.e. a latent structural pattern, which has been present since the origins of history and human civilization, and which can be regarded as universal and cultural. This structural pattern consists of a dual relationship with unique characteristics, which generates vertical connections between generations and interlaces genealogical ancestries by creating a connection between the male and female genders.
Permeated by a culture of individualization, contemporary man feels free to experiment with new and atypical ways of applying the family genome, which he has inherited from previous generations. This freedom has led to the experimentation with numerous forms of cohabitation, thus living arrangements have multiplied. However, thinking that such experimentations could have produced a morphogenesis of the original structural pattern and that, consequently, family forms could be diverse—and all equally comprised in the idea of family—would be misleading. The truth is rather that different lifestyles have emerged, and they are more or less similar to the familiar pattern, which remains unaltered.
The proposed notion of a genome of the family helps define the constructive substratum of the family, its DNA, its form (from the Greek morphé), which has lasted so far, although in a variety of interpretations in the morphogenetic processes of the family.
Consistently with the original pattern, family can therefore be defined as a social relationship of full reciprocity between the sexes and generations, which cannot be replaced by or mistaken for anything else: