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On the Feast of the Holy Family, Remember Why The Family Matters
One of the great quotations of the eminently quotable G.K. Chesterton came from what was possibly his greatest work, The Everlasting Man. In Chapter 7 of the first part, he reflected on the Punic wars, the conflicts between the Roman Republic and the Carthaginian Empire for control of the Mediterranean World in the 3rd Century BC. In the course of those reflections, he wrote these lines about the family and its import:
“The truth is that only men to whom the family is sacred will ever have a standard or a status by which to criticise the state. They alone can appeal to something more holy than the gods of the city; the gods of the hearth.”
Even in ancient Rome, this was obviously true. He refers to the Roman Republic, which itself rose to power after a husband’s response to an outrage against his wife. An outrage committed by the decadent son of the last tyrannical king of Rome, Tarquinnius Superbus, or Tarquin “the Proud.” As the Roman story goes, Tarquin’s son, Sextus lusted after the wife of one of his fellow military officers. The woman Lucretia, was a good and virtuous woman, and widely admired for being so.
Unfortunately, her beauty and goodness drew the attention of Sextus who tried to seduce her while her husband was away on campaign. Failing, he assaulted her, forcing her with the threat of shame and dishonor to herself and her husband. Immediately afterward, she sent word to her husband, told her of the outrage and, despite the pleas of her husband and friends, committed suicide. Griefstricken, her husband, father, and family friends overthrew the last, and worst, of the Roman kings, and established the Roman Republic.
The story should not be passed over too quickly. The Romans always considered it significant that an outrage to a woman inspired the revolt of kings, and Chesterton rightly draws attention to the point in the war against Carthage. Collatinus, Tarquin’s father-in-law, and the king’s nephew Brutus, who aided them, could appeal to something higher than Tarquin, though he were king of all Rome. They appealed to a higher good than the state. They appealed to the family. And that attack on the family by Tarquin’s son was too much to let stand.
Perhaps this is why unjust governments have so often hated the family and sought to control and even attack it. The family stands as the bulwark against an unjust state and society. Most note-worthily, Karl Marx attacked the family as a corrupt bourgeois institution, and the decadent progressive modern West largely follows the Marxist position. Modern progressives opposed to the nuclear family attack it as an oppressive form of “privilege” that they openly seek to dismantle.
But long before the modern pagan was so bold as to attack the family so directly, he did so in dozens of more subtle ways. Women were discouraged from having children, or encouraged to have fewer children. Mothers were encouraged to enter the workforce, leaving their children to be raised, not by a family, but but day-cares and a state educational system. Abortion, widespread contraception, no-fault divorce, and eventually the attempt to redefine the basic institution of marriage: all militated against long-lasting, faithful, and fruitful marriages.
Against this, the Catholic faith insists on the importance of the family. The family is so important because it was so basic and foundational. In the beginning, God decreed that it was not good for man to be alone. So he created Eve, telling them to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. (Genesis 1:28). Later, Scripture compares the relationship between a husband and wife to that of Christ and His Church. A mother and father united in a “til death do them part” relationship intrinsically ordered to the bearing and raising of children stands as one of the most basic of all human goods. And hence one that deserves society’s reverence and protection.
The family is not only good for society, broadly, however, but for the individual members of the family. One can see it as a kind of “training ground for virtue,” as a priest I know put it. Its members model, practice, and grow in the virtues, patience, love, of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
We are not the Holy Family, but we are also called to have Holy Families: families that practice and grow in patience, love, goodness, virtue, and holiness. Not being the Holy Family, we will often fall short, need to repent, and try again. Such is the moral life for those of us living in this world of Paradise Lost.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Pray for us.