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Society, on brink of break-up, reconsiders family values.

Christmas gave the world a savior -- and the Holy Family. Yet in this world, or certainly in our Western First World, the concept and actuality of family seems to be battling society's pressures even to survive.

Last week, in this space, the topic was the Catholic bishops' assessment of the family situation and their statement as a contribution to the United Nations International Year of the Family.

This week, in an attempt to advance the discussion a little further, the theme is more personal longings and society's longing, too. As a society, we want the family as a unit. We want social and family therapy for the troubled unit. But the starting point is a loving dose of reality therapy.

No family was/is perfect. One thing that has been lost is the easy acceptance of that fact. No family can be perfect because no marriage begins ready-made and fully formed. Family, like marriage, is a process, not an arrival point. The process never ends and two people, sometimes one, struggle to find the new strategies and formulas as the children arrive -- if they do -- and progress through the rearing stages.

It is a truism, but an acceptable one, that the amazing thing still is not the number of marriages and families that fail, but the number that survive and prosper, for how unlikely a process it is.

Two veritable strangers from entirely different backgrounds link up to face the future: in each others arms, side by side, hand-in-hand, or without glaring at each other across the table as a way of solving problems.

Two people formed by different processes are amalgamating not merely that background and their individual personalities, but their personal reactions to the process of family formation.

Marriage has always been a situation rife for misunderstanding, serious disagreement and a severing of relationships. Yet it works when there is sufficient love, sufficient friendship, sufficient sharing, sufficient concern about the other person, sufficient openness and, from that openness, sufficient trust.

Marriage wreckers used to be booze, interfering relatives (in vaudeville, mothers-in-law; in the movies, designing women) poverty and joblessness. Puritanical Catholicism with its birth control stupidities has strained more married lives than ever did vaudeville mothers-in-law.

Today, however, society itself seems to be a marriage wrecker, an anti-family mechanism with its ethos of "me first," its dismissal of commitment, its glorification of possessions over people, that reduces sex to a consumer toy, one more interactive game, no batteries needed. No responsibility, either.

Marriage and family became part of the disposable culture. You don't like this selection? Try another.

And yet a questing society, which this surely is, cannot survive and does not want to survive in a moral wasteland. And slowly but surely this spoiled, soiled and not-quite civilized civilization, is struggling to reassert moral values. It is a remarkable thing to witness. And it is real.

The breakdown in social mores that began in the 1950s and '60s as part of a cultural revolution is only just now being understood and only on the threshold of being absorbed.

The breakdown cut across every social class and condition. The cost of social breakdown has been immeasurable, the pain unendurable for many, and the casualties permanent. At least a generation, possibly two, has grown up not knowing what values society holds or, more, cherishes. For society itself did not know. Yet the attempt to reestablish "family values," which are also "social values," is developing into a pressing current debate. (See story, page TK.)

But these family values, to attract and to hold, have to have good and strong and just constituent parts that were not necessarily present in the old code. And it was their absence that may have led to the fury, finally, of the social revolution.

The new family values have to give an equal voice to women. (The best part of the Clinton administration to date is that it is not afraid of strong, intelligent women.)

The new values will be based on total sexual openness; not permissiveness, openness. Our children, bombarded with details about sex, the sex organs, sexual diversity, devices and diseases will be spared at least the old hypocrisies in whatever new "life education" (which should incorporate sexual development education) we finally develop.

Family values will highlight love and commitment as a constituent part of sexual conduct. As a social norm this never had a 100 percent following, but the strong admonitory presence at least provided a starting point for discussing "why sex?" And can again.

The new family values, to hold strong, should accept racial diversity -- the old ones didn't; a new place for and understanding of people with disabilities -- the old ones didn't; and a new sense of Creation and oneness, if only through the secular concepts of ecology and environment -- the old ones didn't.

And, in time, we may even incorporate holiness.

The family, as domestic church, domestic synagogue, domestic temple, domestic shrine is at its best as a place of quasi-religious and not just convivial or dutiful pilgrimage. For that, we need the little customs and traditions that a decade ago may have seemed quaint and now seem essential.
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Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Dec 24, 1993
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