Things Worth Dying For is the title of a timely new book by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who demonstrates that among those things we must defend to the death, none is more important than family. Apparently he has long known this, but it was deeply impressed upon him shortly after being installed as Archbishop of Philadelphia.
In the spring of 2012, Pope Benedict XVI approached the Church in Philadelphia with a request: Would we host the Eighth World Meeting of Families, set for 2015, if asked? I’d been Philadelphia’s archbishop for barely eight months. The archdiocese was mired in legal and financial crises. Media hostility was high. Lay and priestly morale was low. Welcoming families from around the globe, and the Pope himself, to such an environment would be unwise. This seemed obvious. Or so I thought.
The opposite was true. Our people stepped up enthusiastically. So did our deacons and priests. The local Jewish, Mormon, and other religious communities gave great support. So did businesses and foundations. So did local, state, and federal government. Despite the challenges it faced, the 2015 World Meeting of Families, with its many liturgies, teaching sessions, and entertainments, was a huge success. It surpassed our best hopes in attendance, content, and even finances. It was capped by a visit from Pope Francis, who succeeded Benedict XVI in 2013. More than eight hundred thousand people lined the city’s streets to greet him. Thousands more were turned away; security couldn’t process them quickly enough. Sitting with Francis as he traveled in the Popemobile, I watched his surprise turn to happy shock at the size and joy of the welcoming crowds.
One would expect, of course, a visiting Pope to draw huge crowds. But according to Archbishop Chaput, they had come motivated not only by faith but also by family.
A papal visit has its own special appeal. But the heart of the 2015 meeting’s success was its focus: the importance of the family. Throughout history, people have lived, worked, and died to nourish and protect their families. And for good reason. The family, rooted in the fertile differences between the sexes, is a cornerstone of human identity. It’s a deep source of security and personal meaning. It gives each of us a home and a role in the world that links past generations to the future.
These words call to mind those of Alex Haley: “In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future.” And as profound as is the impact of family on its individual members, says the Archbishop, its influence does not stop there.
The family’s work, though, goes well beyond the individual. “In the family,” wrote Aristotle, “are found the original sources and wellsprings of friendship, constitutional government, and justice.” The family ingrains moral character. It forms habits of work, mutual respect, and self-mastery. It thus undergirds every other social institution. Strong families make healthy societies. Weak and broken families do the opposite. As Pope Francis said at the start of his ministry: “The family is the salt of the earth and the light of the world; it is the leaven of society.”
One thinks of the similar insight by Sir Winston Churchill: “There is no doubt that it is around the family and the home that all the greatest virtues, the most dominating virtues of human society, are created, strengthened and maintained.” But what of families whose children, through no fault of their own, do not enjoy the benefit of both parents? The heroism often manifested in such less-than-ideal circumstances does not change the benefits offered by the ideal.
Humans are resilient creatures, and children often survive and thrive under the most challenging circumstances. Single-parent and blended families can be heroic examples of love. But a vast amount of research shows what, in a saner age, would be obvious. Families with two biological parents who remain married—i.e., a loving mother and father—produce the best outcomes for their children. Such children, on average, are happier and more mature. They do better in school. They have fewer health, behavioral, and emotional problems. And they achieve more success in adult life than children from other family structures.
Professor W. Bradford Wilcox has similarly stated, “Is growing up with married birth parents advantageous for a young person’s school success and later life chances? There is abundant evidence that it is.” It is also best for the parents themselves, notes Archbishop Chaput.
Nor is it a surprise, as research and married friends confirm, that the fidelity of a loving husband and wife results, over time, in a sexual intimacy deeper than anything possible in serial encounters. The irony here is rich: the same high wall of exclusiveness that marriage and family use to surround sex with privacy also allows its greatest experience and enjoyment.
Here one hears an echo of the ancient wisdom of Homer: “There is nothing greater and better than this, when a husband and wife keep a household in oneness of mind.” With such potential benefit for parents and children alike, how could a society not value and protect the family?
We nod piously at the value of marriage and family. But our nation’s life is now ordered to weaken both…. Hostility to the idea of the family itself—mother, father, children, and extended relations—is a unique mark of the modern era.
This warning resounds with that of others like our own Allan Carlson, founder of the International Organization for the Family: “The natural family stands reviled and threatened in the 21st century.” How to counter this colossal threat is part of the Archbishop’s offering, including this urgent advice:
The lesson is this. Protecting the family today won’t be achieved with sentimental religious pieties, and even less through a naïve over-reliance on professional family experts. Renewing family life will require a healthy skepticism toward the secular culture that surrounds us, an appropriate caution regarding its tools, and an active, convicted Christian witness of courage, intelligence, and love.
As Archbishop Chaput has eloquently shown, family is indeed worth living for and even dying for. We applaud his courageous call to action, and add our own originally issued at our 2015 World Congress of Families:
We reiterate the calls contained in the World Family Declaration: We call for a culture that honors and enables faithful, fulfilling, and resilient marriages; that recognizes and protects the uniquely valuable contributions of both mothers and fathers to the lives of their children; and that encourages the values and vision necessary for young people to look forward to and prepare for successful marriage and parenting. We call upon officials and policymakers, internationally, nationally, and at all levels of government, to immediately establish policies and implement measures to preserve and strengthen marriage and family. We urge citizens, leaders, and people of influence everywhere to place as their highest priority the protection and strengthening of the family as the irreplaceable foundation of civilization and our only hope for prosperity, peace, and progress.