The Family's Essential Role

Church, Society Upholding the Rights of Marriage

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, FEB. 8, 2009 ( As the status of the family and marriage continue to be at the forefront of many public debates, the social cost of marriage breakdowns isn’t far behind.

A recent study in England found that divorce results in a significant economic benefit for men, but penalizes women, reported the Observer newspaper Jan. 25. According to a study carried out by Stephen Jenkins, a director of the Institute for Social and Economic Research and chair of the Council of the International Association for Research on Income and Wealth, when a marriage splits up, the father’s disposable income increases by around one-third.

By contrast, and regardless of whether or not there are children, the average post-divorce income for women falls by more than a fifth, and is adversely affected for a number of years.

According to the report by the Observer the survey carried out by Jenkins is the first long-term study of income and marriage breakdowns.

Jenkins found that the poverty rate among divorced women is 27%, almost three times higher compared to their former spouses.

Economic penalties are not the only disadvantages associated with divorce. An Australian study published last year found that the emotional and social impact of divorce makes itself felt for decades afterwards, reported the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper July 10.

A research team headed by David de Vaus, of La Trobe University in Melbourne, presented the conclusions of a study at a conference of the Australian Institute of Family Studies. They compared the well-being of about 2,200 Australians aged 55 to 74.

Those divorced not only suffered trauma in the initial years following the end of their marriage, but they were also more likely to feel they lacked someone to confide in, and they were less satisfied with their home and health.


Benedict XVI recently affirmed the importance of the family for society in his message sent to the participants in the recitation of the rosary during the 6th World Day of Families meeting held in Mexico City.

During his video message on Jan. 17 the Pontiff said the family is a «vital cell of society.»

«Because of its essential role in society, the family has a right to have its proper identity recognized that is not to be confused with other forms of coexistence,» the Pope explained.

As a result Benedict XVI asked that the family based on the marriage of a man and a woman receive a sufficient level of legal, financial and social support.

The social importance of family life is not just something affirmed by the Church. Jennifer Roback Morse, a former research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and currently a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, recently published a second edition of her book «Love and Economics» (Ruth Institute Books).

One of the books sections is entitled, «Why There is No Substitute for the Family.» The family is irreplaceable not only in the sense that the two parents of a child play a unique role in its life, but also because the very institution of the family has no effective substitute.

Morse affirmed that the primary role of the family is relational. Clearly, some families carry out this task better than others, but no other institution does this better than the family, she argued.

Not optional

The fact that some families fail should not lead us to the conclusion that the family as an institution is merely optional, according to Morse.

«If we can hold the family together at the individual and personal level, we would have less need for grand schemes to replace the family at a societal level,» Morse affirmed.

Morse summarized the findings of a number of studies that document the adverse results of children brought up in single-parent families: poverty; lower educational results; and behavioral problems.

The task of raising children is simply too much for a single parent, said Morse. Moreover, other possible variations, such as cohabitation and stepfathers do not provide the same advantages as a family based on the two biological parents of the children.

The role of a father is more than just economic, Morse continued. His contribution to the moral development of children is something that society is guilty of largely ignoring, she accused.

«The real question is not whether men and women are different but how the difference allows each to contribute something unique to the moral development of children,» said Morse.

Commenting on the sweeping changes in moral norms and sexual habits in the last few decades, Morse noted that the changes unleashed in the 60s and 70s promised happiness and fulfillment through unlimited freedom. With the experience of hindsight Morse said that we can now conclude that the ability to sustain commitments is a gift that will bring deeper happiness and satisfaction.

«A great many adults are now ready to relearn whatever they can about lifelong marriage, for their own benefit as well as for the benefit of their children,» she concluded.

Freedom has its limits, Morse argued in the concluding chapter of the book. Every generation is not free to redefine the family and its obligations. Some virtues and obligations are indispensable, said Morse.


A similar view was expressed by Cardinal Seán Brady, archbishop of Armagh and primate of All Ireland, during his address last year to the Céifin Conference Nov. 4.

The theme of his speech was, «The Family as the Foundation of Society.»

The family based on marriage as the foundation of society is a truth revealed by God in the Scriptures, said Cardinal Brady, but it also one of the most precious human values, he added.

The welfare of marriage and the family are of public interest, the cardinal argued, and are fundamental to the common good. They are, therefore, entitled to special consideration and care from the state.

«Other relationships whether they are sexual or not, are the result of private interest,» he explained. «They do not have the same fundamental relationship to the good of society and to the bringing up of children as the family based on marriage,» Cardinal Brady maintained.

By asking that the family based on marriage is worthy of support from the state the cardinal clarified that the intention is not to penalize those who have chosen different types of relationships.

«It is rather to uphold the principle that the family based on marriage between a man and woman is so intimately connected to the good of society that it is deserving of special care and protection,» he said.


«The link between a public commitment to life-long marriage, and the stability of the family unit, as well as the distinct role of a mother and father in the generation and education of children, gives marriage a unique and qualitatively different relationship to society than any other form of relationship,» Cardinal Brady pointed out.

The family is an indispensable foundation for society, affirmed Benedict XVI in his video message during the Jan. 18 concluding mass of the World Meeting of Families.

«We have received life from others, which is developed and matured with the truths and values that we learn in relation and communion with the rest,» he explained.

«It is in the home where one learns to truly live, to value life and health, liberty and peace, justice and truth, work, concord and respect,» said the Pope. A truth valid for all cultures and societies.

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