2004 - Crossroads
Family in Crisis
An interview with Professor Robert Royal, President of the Faith and
Reason Institute in Washington, DC, about the social benefits of the family and
its breakdown today, and the central role of education
edited by Maurizio Maniscalco
Family seems to be at once the declared cornerstone of our society and the most
The troubles over the family show how deep the cultural crisis that we face in
the West is. The various social and intellectual currents that have undermined
personal identity, confidence in the existence of truth, and belief that individuals
and societies can know and do know the truth really show their ultimate effects
when you look at the family. I have been consulted by several Catholic politicians
about what to do. They are puzzled and worried. You don’t go into politics
because you have a talent for metaphysics. Attempts to protect and define family
today are like a philosophical proof that the sky is blue. Everyone took it for
granted until asked to explain why the obvious must be true.
What’s happened? What has so weakened the family in the course
of the years?
In the front ranks, I would put several assumptions. A profound belief in the
radical autonomy of the person appears here. It’s very curious: our intellectual
elites deplore a lack of deep connection with one another, and then license one
of the attitudes that most quickly breaks up connection at its most natural and
logical point. But even all this might not have been so bad if the courts–another
segment of elite opinion–had not decided to go along with this socially
destructive view. That is why they have become the preferred avenue for social
revolution. Then, for a century or more, we in the West have witnessed the wide
dissemination of the view that sex is meaningless, “like shaking hands,” as
Dustin Hoffman said famously in the movie “The Graduate.”
What happened historically to the family in the US?
Well, that’s a long story. America–the land of the open frontier
and the immigrant–has, since its beginnings, had many centrifugal forces
that might have destroyed families. And they did, in a minor degree, for the
first 150 years of the nation’s existence. Then came contraception in the
1930s. This was so shocking at the time that it was not only Catholics who saw
it as a social threat. On March 22, 1931, the Washington Post commented in an
editorial, “It is impossible to reconcile the doctrine of the divine institution
of marriage with any modernistic plan for the mechanical regulation of human
birth.” Abortion, of course, came to America in 1973 with Roe v. Wade.
The effect of these two social changes was to separate sex and reproduction entirely.
Easy divorce, cohabitation, open promiscuity, and much more were–given
human nature–bound to follow. These matters pinched a little, especially
when people noticed that radical sexual liberation hit children particularly
hard. But no one seemed to think that this intergenerational factor, one of the
prime material foundations of marriage, should carry much weight. By the same
logic, homosexual marriage is just one more form of the liberation of sex from
its deep biological and social meaning.
Still, is there a role, a task, a responsibility, a “something” that
only family can offer? Is there a “unicum” that family–and
not State or any other institution–brings into the life of the individual
The long answer is “yes.” But let me elaborate. Traditional families
will continue amidst the chaos. And we see from social science research that
married couples are happier, healthier, wealthier, less subject to mental disorders,
and many other positive things. Again, this only seems natural from the traditional
point of view, but for some time the elite culture contained almost nothing else
but stories about the pathologies of traditional marriage. Those elites still
want the benefits without paying the price for them. But even the social benefits
are not the full story. Where else, except in the family, do we get unconditional
love from people who know us well, that is, people who know our flaws as well
as our strengths? I believe it was the American poet Robert Frost who said that
the family was the place where, if you came to the door, they had to take you
in. You could waste many words in a social science analysis and arrive at no
better account of the uniqueness of real family.
What role does education–or lack of it–play in the current
All the things mentioned above that led to the family’s decline have been
transmitted through state education systems for years. They were politically
correct before the term had been invented. There is a struggle going on in America
just now. Some people say America would have had another Great Awakening of religion,
as it had two or three times in the past, if the elites had not suppressed much
of it. That may be true. And maybe the schools will benefit from the renewed
energy of American religious groups. But it only points all the more to the necessity
for alternative forms of education, be they religious, in the home, or in private
institutions. The parents who think they will be able to counteract the effects
of their children spending most of their hours in a school that urges them to
go directly against parental values are kidding themselves. Drastic measures
are needed and a real will to find another way to form children to be well-educated
and productive members of the society, but possessing a set of values least found
at the commanding heights of secular education.
Many think that divorce, even though we got used to it, really represented an
earthquake. Socially, politically, in terms of self awareness...
Politically, the breakup of the family presents many problems.
If you look at welfare programs, for example, most of what they do is to substitute
for family functions when there has been a breakdown. Studies have shown that
if you graduate from high school, get married and stay married, and
take a job–any job–and continue to work at it, you and your family’s
chances of being poor are very small. Then, intact families give rise to less
crime, drug abuse, illegitimacy, and other social pathologies. As a Christian,
I think all people are capable of sin, and some of the sins of the rich , particularly
hardness of heart, may be much more grave than those of the poor. But society
suffers immediately and spectacularly from the results of family breakdown. And
there are not many good solutions once the process begins. In America today,
though many social indicators are improving, we still have two-thirds of blacks
born out of wedlock and one-fourth of whites. Changing social dynamics have helped
all these people, but how can you realistically hope to help that many people
who grow up in difficult circumstances? Psychologists used to study what your
father and mother did to you to make you neurotic. And that’s a problem.
But have we given sufficient weight, even today, to what it does to you to be
without a father (usually) or a mother? That has vast social consequences.