by Fr. Joseph J. Allen
There are many sociologists and psychologists who say today that the family, as the basic structure of our society, is disappearing. At the worst, it could mean that the family as that basic unit is unnecessary. This the Church will forever fight. At the best, it could mean that the family has undergone a tremendous change from what that word “family” has traditionally meant in the Christian perspective. This the Church would he foolish not to recognize.
But before we can say another word we must first establish that the family must be the main concern of the Church. This is so because Christianity has always been concerned for individuals-for the whole man” and how he lives- that is, how each individual adjusts to the world as a fully integrated person, who is capable of realizing the full potential of his physical, spiritual and intellectual capacity. The Church must see to this because every person deserves this opportunity as a child of God.
The Church begins her responsibility for the whole family phase by binding two Christians through the Sacrament of Marriage, and these ties, the Churches teach us, are not broken, even by death. This is why the Church uses her great power of memory in her Liturgy-to always reunite the family ..And, of course, for the Church we are all her family. It is from this beginning that all phases of family life are seen: we are born into this world, baptized, married and we leave this world via the Church. It is therefore because the family remains for the Church the way in which all men fit into this life, that every alert pastor and every alert Christian must ask himself two questions:
1. What has happened to the American family-what are the forces which have caused this great trouble in family life?
2. What is it that the Church must do?
In answering the first question- what are those forces-we must realize that there are many but we can see them all by looking at the greatest two forces today which include all the others. The first is the great affluence in which we are drown today. The second is the relativistic approach to life which removes all absolutes and says “it all depends” and “anything goes.” When we look at this great affluence in which youthful families are born, we find that they cannot even remember hard times. These young families, of which I include myself, have romped through a world where, no matter how rigorously their parents had to fight for an economic foothold, they themselves have been conditioned by security. How many of our middle socio-economic families have a need of food, or clothing, or education. They have been fed fluoride and vitamins; they have been immunized and vaccinated. Specialists remove tonsils and pull teeth-one specialist for the right side of your mouth- another for the left! Today it is many, instead of few-as it used to be-who have made in through college and-finally they have Medicare to secure their future. In this affluence we can have everything now and pay for it later-young couples buy houses on credit, they vacation and entertain on their expense accounts. In other words, what used to be the quality of thrift is associated with something tight or miserly-it is simply no longer looked upon as a virtue.
But don’t misunderstand me. Affluence need not be bad in itself. But it needs some absolutes-and this is where the Church is needed. Unfortunately, along with this affluence we have a theory which says everything is relative-and this is the second great danger to the family. The generation before us had their depression and their war and they had a definite social approval or disapproval for what they did.
Extramarital sex, however more or less there was of it-was simply not publically condoned. Marijuana to the youth was still something distant. And the book “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was still the most scandalous reading. In short, society was able to take a stand-it didn’t have to be as vague, as cosmopolitan and as relativistic as it does today.
And so what is the outcome of these two great forces on the family? Primarily, they have led to a man-centered satisfaction. The best example of this is this great passion for privacy! There was a time when nothing was thought of it even if a grandfather or grandmother lived with us. But today the suburban family is almost neurotic. They say today, “I don’t need anybody.” They build the highest fences around their homes and “don’t anybody mind my business.” Above all, they are told when they marry, “Don’t let your parents live with you.” The young American marrieds would rather rent a trailer or pitch a tent to escape the company of their in-laws. Meanwhile from all this good advice, we have 800,000 divorces and 300,000 children tragically involved. And, of course, because everything is relative, premarital sex and marital promiscuity are totally accepted as something “natural” and “relative” to the situation that you are in. You know the story-if you love the person at the time-sexual relations are acceptable. They somehow manage to separate what is truthful and good from what is love and they cannot be separated. It is even accepted by some voices of the clergy who say that we must have this “freedom” as they write in the pages of Playboy magazine. And of course Hollywood has helped in this dying image. It has reached a new moral low in film production-the main feature are no longer the story-it now glamorizes prostitution and homosexuality and nudity and gutter language.
And so it is from the unguided affluence and an unlimited relativism that we move to the results-to a family situation which is indeed different than what the Church creates at marriage. Is it any wonder that they say the family is dying?
But if I were to stop now I would leave you with nothing but the problem. This is the second part of that question-What is the Church to do? I do not have the answer-all but I do know this-if the Church and its pastors do not attempt to find solutions to these many problems, they are failing to fulfill the greatest of their challenges-to love through concern for their people.
Now everybody talks about the Church being relevant today-this is where it is first relevant-when it recognizes its spiritual calling, its message and its mission to its people. But Christian families just don’t happen. They need the guidance which will declare what the absolutes are -what is right and what is wrong- and the Church can begin by bringing its people into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It must not be a question of Church law- what the Church says-it is how her people live-it is your life-style. It is time for parents not only to say what is Christian but to live as Christian. Instead of sending their children to Church, they must take them, and taking them is not enough if the first thing they do as they leave Church is to curse their nearest relative or cheat on their job- or teach your child to love while you hate! It is a time for parents to take Religious Education seriously-there must be a tremendous move to be consistent between what we say and what we do. You know the most important thing about a funeral is not how you dress. In other words, there is no longer room for hypocrisy!
But for the Church, we must remember that no lasting change in society was ever reached without first changing the hearts of men: We as pastors must change the hearts of our people before any of these changes can occur.
And so every specific answer to every specific problem that faces the family-and there are many-depends on this change of heart-this real love at the grass roots. A WORD magazine article entitled “I am Christ,” made the right point. He spoke of the basis of love and concern and this is where it all starts. It is only this kind of real love from the Church which will draw the remnants of a losing family into a strong family. And it is only when the family can turn to the Church and when the Church, in turn, is ready to answer their needs, through its pastors, that such a relationship can be established.
Now I have mentioned the forces which have shaped the contemporary and often tragic family, and I have tried to show how the Church must react. Now I would like to make one final point; and it is this: the painful truth tells us that all who need this help are not outside of the Church. These problems are not limited to other than those in our family-nor are they limited to non-Orthodox. The Orthodox family-no matter what nationality-is no longer the “ghetto-type” family-it must learn to survive in the contemporary American pluralistic culture and still remain Orthodox. Some of the families with the most trying problems come to worship right beside you. It is to them that the pastor must “go” as Christ did amongst the sinners, not as a fence-sitter, but to say what is right and what is wrong. And not because they have more precious souls because they are my parishioners. But because they too must “convert.” To be a Christian is not something that you are born into-it is something that you become-and we are always in this state of becoming Christian. So we must convert our own people first, and that may be a very new and perhaps strange thought to some of us. But this is a conversion from doubt and fear to hope and life.
And if we fail here, we fail completely and then they are right-then the family will have no meaning-then the propaganda of Madison Avenue will form their values instead of the Church.
Finally, it is the Church, like Christ, who comes to minister and who comes to serve. This is the basis of all that Christ gave to us and because of this, the Church must engender a style of life which indeed ministers to the problems, to the doubts and to the sufferings of the family-and indeed to the whole world of our time.
Fr. Joseph Allen is Pastor of St. Anthony’s Church, Bergenfield, NJ.