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
Let us imagine for a moment that someone very important—perhaps a prominent politician, a brilliant academic, or a wealthy businessman—yearning for humanity, has come to you asking for a favor: “I need you to help me to develop a program to make the world a better place.” Then he would probably have added something like this: “I already know that I’m asking for a complex, long-term task. At the beginning, nobody will listen to us, and we will face many difficulties. It is important that we work first in putting down solid foundations. It will be a multidisciplinary task, and we will have to rely on various experts from different backgrounds. And of course, we will need to listen to the citizens, to the people, to all of them—no matter the creed, ethnicity, or professional status.”
This scenario may seem like pure fiction. The reality is that there are already many people who share that same concern. This World Congress of Families in Verona is proof of this. It is true: Our Western society is very sick. Sick of rampant individualism, materialism, hedonism. But these problems are not necessarily the result of the faults of a particular political regime or economic system. They are not, as we are now so often told, the consequence of erroneous assumptions, of hostile determination, or even of the Machiavellian interests of a few. No, what’s happening today is the lack of a true understanding of reality—of family, culture, and society.
Making the World a Better Place
The modern economist’s mind is habituated to beginning its analysis with the personal preferences of individuals. These preferences are considered to be completely autonomous, independent of our personal learning or the environment in which we move, because nobody has the right to judge; we are free agents who should be able to choose our own purpose, no matter what. But problems cannot be treated in a partial way because, as pointed out by the Spanish Philosopher Leonardo Polo, applying purely technical solutions to human problems produces segmentation (due to a lack of overall vision), perverse effects (due to the absence of unconditional principles that guide action in a coherent manner), anomie (the state of discouragement of those who do not have action guidelines), and social entropy (how institutions lose their function).
Curiously enough, in today’s Western society, it is common to regard everything that comes from religion as something that is subjective, personal, not scientific, not rational, and not susceptible to being treated in public. The usual response to religious appeals is: “Do not indoctrinate me.” But what this phrase seems to ignore is the fact that human beings are rational beings, and we cannot stop being rational. One can be an atheist or agnostic, and recognize that human beings do not exist in this world by mere chance, but receive their persona from others, learn from others, relate to others, develop with others, etc.
We cannot truly say “I do not owe anything to anyone,” as we often read on social media. And by accepting our relational condition (as Pierpaolo Donati states), we can develop a conception of the human being, of society, of business and politics, which will take us away from the rampant individualist and emotivist anthropocentrism that we’ve mentioned before. The list of moral “duties” or “principles” on which both the religious and secular vision of reality can elaborate could be very similar. They would both agree on fundamentals: avoiding enforced imposition coming from the “outside,” and naming at least some requirements for human perfection, because they would both respond to the same concept of what “happiness” means to humans that live in the same society. But this is true only for a list of abstract duties. When referring to the possibility of actually doing these duties, a secular judgment in particular will be different, because the believer (especially a Christian) holds a conception of the human person that is different from the non-believer: the idea of an inherited guilt and the redemption of Christ.
When a believer and a non-believer sit down to think about this project for the regeneration of society that we’ve been discussing from the beginning, they can also agree on all relevant human aspects: on what is good or bad for people and societies, on the consequences of politics, on the strengths and weaknesses of institutions, structures, and organizations, because they will both be using their reasoning abilities and understanding of the phenomena. But when they propose solutions, would those coming from the believer be more advanced? For example, in the case of an unwanted pregnancy or a failed marriage, the non-believer may conclude that the moral demands of respect for life or the indissolubility of the marriage bond are too demanding and that the ethics of what is possible should be more negligent, because that is what can be done in those circumstances.
The problem lies not so much in the identification of what is good for men and women on this front, but in the practical judgment as to whether that good is attainable or not. And here the difference between a believer and a non-believer could be decisive. Why? Because a believer’s view of society (such as through the lens of Catholic Social Doctrine) is not just a variant of social humanism, nor an alternative way to overcome capitalism or socialism. It is not even one more voice in the chorus of denunciations of the failures of our society. Rather, it is the true hope for a better world, which can be offered, but never imposed.
Making A Stand for the Home
It is impossible to describe a global solution for a better world. I could not personally give straight answers to that very important person to whom I’ve been referring since the beginning of this paper. But one thing I would hope to bring to his attention is: Whatever you do, please make a stand for the home.
It is clear that Western society today undervalues the role of the home and of the family, probably because of the emphasis placed on the autonomy and freedom of the individual, more or less separated from his or her immediate surroundings. The home is, from this point of view, a concrete way to solve a problem regarding the coordination of actions in order to achieve certain goals, according to individual preferences. In this view, the home should adapt to these preferences in terms of its composition, needs, and timing.
It is true that we are witnesses of the consequences of the abandonment of the natural family, and also now to the urge to return to a structure that stands in accordance with the nature of the person and of society. The home is a Communio Personarum (as Saint John Paul II stated), one that links the wills of parents and children when they begin their life together. The home leaves both with little margin for freedom in the first years, but always with the purpose of training them in the use of that freedom, of fully developing their lives and teaching them to replicate that same institution in another place, with different people, but always keeping in mind their true purpose.
In some ways, the home is a multipurpose organization, which seeks reproduction, nutrition, the education and socialization of children, the production of goods and services, care of the sick and the elderly, the provision of physical, psychological, and ontological security. The home seeks to become a place where one can act with freedom and carelessness. It is a path to the acquisition of a social identity, which is at the same time a restaurant, a hotel, a school, a hospital, and a place of recreation. It is a space where virtues are learned, a door to enter society, our daily starting point, but the place to which we should return as well and to which we all hope to return in the final stages of our lives.
The home is a place to live and to develop knowledge, skills, attitudes, values, and virtues—all of them, true social functions. Nowadays, we think about the home as a mere physical space that demands that one or two family members make economic contributions for the means of subsistence; there is also a third or a fourth who prepares meals for everyone, and a fifth who comes from outside to clean up the house. In reality, every member of the home should be—every day, every minute—contributing in some way to the common purpose.
The work of the home, rightly understood, is as a formidable school of knowledge, skills, and virtues, with everyone contributing: the work of the elderly, the disability of the grandfather, the crying of the baby, the inappropriate remarks of the youngster (then corrected), or the rebelliousness of the teenager. Because at home everyone has to be willing, every day, every hour, to iron a shirt or fry an egg.
I have extended these considerations about the home because they suggest what remains to be done if you are the one who gets the call of that important person who asks you to help him develop a project to regenerate society. As in the home, we should all be willing to do everything, even if it seems we do not have the knowledge, skills, or virtues to make the world better. I mentioned before the crying of the baby, which is a very important contribution to the purpose of the home, because it is the one motivation for every member of the family to act, every hour, every minute, as they should. The crying of the baby demands the hand that rocks the cradle, the hand that will tame the world.
Taming the World
Learning to work and to love within the boundaries of the home requires technical skills (Gary Becker’s “Human Capital”). But those skills are not innate: We must learn them from experts. Certainly, parents’ true contribution to society’s well-being can be described as bringing up “healthy” children in the physical, psychological, and spiritual realms. But still, it wouldn’t be reasonable to say that mothers and fathers are self-sufficient or completely independent in performing this professional work. They need help and support from other members of their community, and from society at large, to fulfill this task in the best possible way. They need other professions—doctors, engineers, lawyers, caretakers, educators, teachers, professors, etc. They also need siblings, extended family, friends, neighbors, schools, universities, and churches that collaborate with them in the education of their children.
For children are indeed the first and most important business of parents. The upbringing of children (mainly accomplished in the home) can be called man’s ultimate “profession,” because it is precisely through this upbringing that society is nurtured and perpetuated. I believe there was a time when that statement was addressed only to husbands and fathers. Today, however, it seems that it is acquiring a very strong meaning for wives and mothers as well.
Mothers, in particular, need to be reminded of the importance of their involvement in the work of the home. Such reminders will be facilitated by the example of fathers who show how much they value the work of their wives in the home by joining it once again. Our perception of the matter is that, in order for society to move from today’s misconception of parenthood, it is essential that husbands recognize the vital importance of the mother’s work in the home as well as their own. Otherwise, it will not be possible for mothers, and women at large, to accept this importance, either.
The family (the home) is the place to which we all return, as Professor Rafael Alvira has declared over the past two decades on many occasions. Caring for a home and a family is, without a doubt, the most important professional work a person can perform in building the “global cradle” for the children of God, a work wherein women especially have been entrusted with a very special “charisma” (as G.K. Chesterton reminded us).
Certainly the richness of being a human person, man and woman, allows fathers and mothers to be subjects of a broad and plural set of “professions” in the social sphere. But still, the most basic and necessary profession is primarily accomplished in the family home, where the human person can experience, in a pure and natural way, all there is to know that makes life worth living.
Antonio Argandoña is Professor Emeritus, IESE Business School—Universidad de Navarra. Rafael Hurtado is Permanent Lecturer and Researcher, Universidad Panamericana, Campus Guadalajara.