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RGOD2: The imperative need of family

(Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series running daily through Saturday, Oct. 5. Please click HERE to read Part I.)

We live in an age where the reality of family life is changing dramatically as well as the symbolic use of the word family to exclude LGBT people. “Traditional Family Values” are deeply stigmatizing terms though nobody has defined what they mean.

From Russia to Africa, there is an emerging religious, cultural and political movement to define and protect family from a moral and social breakdown, and so it was very interesting to sit in a workshop on this topic in Rome this week, sponsored by the progressive Roman Catholic community of Sant Egidio and seek to understand where significant institutions are coming from and why family is such a hot issue right now.

Boys boys boys

So, did anyone notice that eight panelists were all men? This was a significant criticism by lots of attendees of an otherwise excellent conference, and by itself, is an illumination of sorts that the symbolic disintegration of family life is seen as a male preoccupation while the focus on the reality of family life was expressed in another panel on violence against women. The workshop on family violence was so full that people were turned away. So I got to listen to the men.

Most of what was said could be grounds for agreement and the development of a strategy to help support families who are struggling with multiple issues, from unemployment, alienation in our cities and high divorce rates where children can be the most vulnerable. The need for the social fabric to take care of the marginalized or the weakest was a theme taken up by Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, who is president of the Pontifical Council for the Family in the Vatican.

Elderly are being abandoned by mainly northern European families as opposed to Southern European where family ties and loyalties are deeper and civil society and government are increasingly being overwhelmed by the needs of an increasingly aging Europe. He based most of his theological and philosophical assessment on the idea that we are becoming an increasingly individualistic society where “community” becomes less of a social contract and movement to bind us together. He talked about love being liquid and our principal option being “the bitter drift of an individualistic culture” that creates an “abyss of pain affecting the weakest.” Marriage was somewhat idealized as the perfect state of society’s basic building block with procreation as its primary objective.

The Archbishop also made a very good point that families, like individuals are not meant by God to be alone. In connecting to others, we discover the image of God in all of us and reach our highest potential. He equates a lower marriage rate in Europe as a sign that people prefer to live on their own and this trait to individualism is ultimately weakening society.

A political and economic perspective

Antonio Tajani is vice president of the European Commission and saw secular Europe’s failure to acknowledge the important role of Christianity in the European Constitution as a further step away from the kind of social network and value system that had supported education and indeed economic prosperity in Europe.

A total of 9% of Italian businesses and 5 million people in Italy work in family businesses, so weakening the family is seen as an issue that could have profound effects for economic downturn. Like Archbishop Paglia, family was defined principally about mother/father and their children as the basic moral and economic “cradle of society.”

Academia’s turn

The third speaker, Italian Senator Giampiero Dalla Zuanna. gave a more scholarly and academic perspective by acknowledging the changing nature of deep committed relationships in contemporary Europe.

Family has changed but is not eliminated as some had fiercely predicted. He referred to biblical and Roman customs where the family could sometimes keep people trapped and referred to a historical story where another former Roman Senator killed his son simply for not obeying him.

Mutual attraction and the 17th century ideal of romantic love had even permeated into contemporary Catholic marriage rites and he saw this mutuality as a healthy development of marriage. People entered into marriage for mutual joy as well as for procreation. He acknowledged “the family is the most dangerous place in the world” as well as a place where people can be loved and flourish so people can discover their potential as well as a safe place of “keeping our weaknesses.”

Bio-medical research is also helping us understand other dynamics in relationships and clearly, as an Italian political leader, he has been observing the changing nature of marriage to include same gender couples. He was open to the idea that families cannot be simply defined and because of this dynamic quality are potentially “places of loved and flourishing humanity.”

French same-gender marriage and the Church

Archbishop Laurent Ulrich from France shared some of his initial reactions to France’s recognition of same-gender marriages and how the French Catholic Bishop’s conference is seeing this historic decision as an opportunity for dialogue with a conviction that Catholic Social Doctrine has something to contribute to the debate and to find common ground.

“We have the certainty that we have to respect men and women as they develop economic skills,” Ulrich said. He noted the same-gender equality debate shifted from economic inequality to more private issues and quoted a French Protestant pastor who said “Marriage is ongoing work on differences.” This quality of listening (in the French church’s position) although they may have opposed same-gender marriages, allowed room for engagement and mutual respect.

It was refreshing coming from the more vitriolic American religious scene where we were much more polarized over same gender marriage and churches spent more money than any other civil society organization to oppose it.

Interfaith challenges

The remainder of the panelists represented Indian, North African, Middle Eastern and Jewish perspectives on family and marriage in our age and although the tone of the exchanges was genuinely open and searching for some common ground, the vice president of the “Ennadha Movement” in Tunisia, Abdelfattah Mourou, went off on a tirade against homosexuals as a threat to family and society and therefore must be eradicated.

Mourou was the only panelist who waved his finger while yelling at us all and I believe he scared the hell out of all of us by his paradoxical advocacy for the loving family in a particular unloving communication style. It was difficult to hear the soft tomes of the English translator while the
Iman pontificated for 15 minutes. We know there are religious leaders like him not only in Tunisia where LGBT people are routinely murdered without police investigations or recourse, but right here in Europe.

I watched uncomfortable European Commissioners and Archbishops shift in their chairs as they wondered what on Earth they might have in common with the kind of religious theocracy? Sant Egido is proud of its interfaith dialogue but even absent representatives of the female half of our species, we could see there was a lot of work still to do.

No end in sight

In conclusion, the debate is rich and without end. Marriage and family are dynamic and unpredictable and cannot be defined or even policed. Polygamy was never mentioned even though it represents the experience of significant numbers of human beings and is a counter to the rugged individualism of Archbishop Paglia.

Same-gender marriage could also be a solution to his concern that individualism is ultimately bad for society, so why not help gays and older single people to meet so we can overcome our individualism and contribute to society? A divorced 85-year-old woman sitting beside me felt totally left out of the debate and switched off about half way through the two-hour session.

After living in the USA for 31 years, I can imagine why most Europeans were reluctant to give the Church any significant political recognition within the Constitution of Europe over very clear differences around gender equality, women’s reproductive rights and LGBT issues. As more Catholic countries like Spain, Ireland and France take a different direction from the path required by the churches, there will need to be some deeper form of engagement and reconciliation of values, intentions and some of the real concerns expressed from the platform.

This is why the Sant Egido dialogues are so helpful, but there are still significant voices absent from the table. There is clearly a shared longing for idyllic past eras that have perhaps been scrubbed clean of their shadow sides. For example, the president of the Jewish Community in Rome had some rather delightfully nostalgic ideas about how to strengthen family life by revising the ancient practice of arranged marriages. I can see that being welcomed in West Hollywood or Paris. He also went on to describe his childhood in Rome and from this experience wanted to ensure architectural design could serve the newly arrived immigrants in Italian cities so they might live in tower blocks with large enough courtyards where their children could play. It was a kind of Ghetto meets Bollywood.

I know some gay Indians who have been alienated from their families precisely because of arranged marriages, so they hide away in the USA! It is a kind of abandonment, but who abandoned whom? Is their rugged individualism not to enter into sham marriages morally wrong or are they seeking to contribute to community and build deep loving and lifelong commitments in a different way from their families of birth? All of this needs exploration.

So we had everything here from an informed Italian Senator who will one day have to vote on same- gender marriage and may convince Archbishop Paglia that family life will go on in holy Catholic Italy, and we all have a lot of common work to do to strengthen family life ... right through the dreadful prospect of holy terror in Tunisia. The LGBT movement in Tunisia is one of the most oppressed in the world. On the whole, these men did an admirable job, but they would have been richly complemented had their wives, daughters, grandmothers and even their mistresses been present. After all, this is Italy. Tomorrow’s final article is looking at Spiritual Terrorism.

SDGLN Contributor the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation and lives in San Diego. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.