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The Church and The Family: An Ethical Task

  • Margaret A. Farley (a1)


There has been a kind of “turn to the family” on the part of the Christian churches in the past decade, manifesting a concern for what is judged to be the western family in “crisis.” Unfortunately, the voices of religion have had little more effect than the voices of psychology or sociology in either healing or empowering the family, and they have had perhaps less success in interpreting the difficulties which beset the contemporary family as an institution. This failure may represent simply the intractability of the problems which individuals and families face. It may also, however, represent an almost tragic perception on the part of many persons that the Christian tradition regarding family life is today too oppressive to yield a prophetic, a healing or a freeing word.

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1 I am indebted-for much of the historical material here to the work of Greer, Rowan A., “The Family and the Early Church,” Unpublished manuscript, 1979.

2 See Nisbet, Robert A., The Social Philosophers: Community and Conflict in Western Thought (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1973), p. 178.

3 See Fiorenza, Elizabeth Schüssler, “Discipleship and Patriarchy: Early Christian Ethos and Christian Ethics in a feminist Theological Perspective,” 1982 Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics, p. 143.

4 See Yost, John K., “The Traditional Western Concept of Marriage and the Family: Rediscovering Its Renaissance-Reformation Roots,” Andover Newton Quarterly 20 (March, 1980), 169–80.

5 Lazareth, William H., Luther on the Christian Home (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), p. 133.

6 Ibid., p. 220.

7 See Harrison, Beverly, “L'Effet des industrialisation sur le role des femmes dans la societe,” Concilium 111 (1976), 91103. See also Degler, Carl N., At Odds: Women and the Family in America from the Revolution to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).

8 See Martos, Joseph, Doors to the Sacred (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981), pp. 397452.

9 Gaudium et Spes I, 47 and 52.

10 Paul, Pope John II, “The Apostolic Exhortation on the Family,” II, 16, in Origins 11 (Dec. 24, 1981), 443.

11 This way of understanding the relation between the love of God and the love of a human person is especially important for women's perception of the possibility of direct love of God which is not mediated through love of a husband. Its special importance for women comes not from the fact that women love differently from men, but from the historical situation in which women in particular were taught that marriage precluded for them a direct relationship with God comparable to that of the virgin. It is also interesting to note that this problem was not addressed by the Protestant reformers when they rejected celibacy in favor of marriage for the majority of Christians. The reason it was not addressed was that the Reformers generally did not talk about a direct love of God in the sense used here. Reformation spirituality tended to speak of faith in God and love for neighbor, implying on the one hand a reverential awe and even distance in relation to God, and on the other hand, a critique of the incorporation of eros into agape if the latter was directed toward God.

12 Niebuhr, Reinhold, Moral Man and Immoral Society (New York: Scribner's, 1932), p. 47.

13 See Wingren, Gustaf, Luther on Vocation, tr. Rasmussen, Carl C. (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957), p. 6.

14 See Gaudium et Spes I, 48. Here for the first time an ecumenical council refers to the family as a “domestic church.”

15 This, of course, is not true of the work of many contemporary moral theologians, both Protestant and Roman Catholic. It does remain true in what is otherwise considered an advance in the thinking of the Roman Catholic hierarchy—that is, in the recent writing of Paul, Pope John II, published in English in L'Osservatore Romano over several months in 19791980. Here sexuality is treated in dramatically positive terms as a part of creation, but it is ultimately marred in principle by sin.

16 I have treated the relevant historical material more fully in my article, Sources of Sexual Inequality in the History of Christian Thought,” Journal of Religion 56 (April, 1976), 162–76.

17 See Luther, Martin, The Estate of Marriage; John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion II, 8, 44. See also Lazareth, , Luther on the Christian Home, pp. 208217; Wallace, Ronald S., Calvin's Doctrine of the Christian Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1959), pp. 174–75.

18 See, for example, Fairbairn, W. R. D., Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1952), pp. 137–42. See also Ruddick, S., “Better Sex,” in Baker, R. and Elliston, F., eds., Philosophy and Sex (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1975), pp. 83104.

19 Niebuhr, Reinhold, The Nature and Destiny of Man (New York: Scribner's, 1943) II, 313. Another aspect of this relativity is contemporary longevity. No one now can spend their whole life in the care of their children (with the exception, perhaps, of parents with differently-abled children).

20 See Gelles, Richard J., Family Violence (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1979), pp. 74–76, 126–30; Violence in the Family (Washington, DC: U. S. Catholic Conference, 1979), p. 7; Gelles, R., “A Profile of Violence toward Children in the United States” in Gerbner, G., et al., eds., Child Abuse (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 85.

21 See Gelles, , “A Profile of Violence toward Children in the United States,” pp. 101103; Straus, Murray, “Sexuality, Inequality, Cultural Norms, and Wife Beating” in Viano, E., ed., Victims and Society (New York: Vintage, 1976), pp. 545–46; Ross, Catherine J., “The Lessons of the Past: Defining and Controlling Child Abuse in the United States” in Gerbner, , et al., pp. 6668.

22 See Violence in the Family, p. 15.

23 See Feshbach, Seymour, “Child Abuse and the Dynamics of Human Agression and Violence,” in Gerbner, , et al., p. 58.

24 See Fiorenza, , “Discipleship and Patriarchy,” pp. 142–48.

25 See Lazareth, pp. 141-42, 224-25; Wingren, p. 50. See also Harkness, Georgia, John Calvin: The Man and his Ethics (New York: Henry Holt, 1931), p. 135. Even the English Puritans, who emphasized the covenant character of marriage, built into that covenant a strong patriarchal model. See Johnson, James T., A Society Ordained by God (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1970), esp. pp. 2326. See also Pius, Pope XI, Casti Connubii II, 74.

26 Wallace, p. 158.

27 Ibid., p. 159.

28 Ibid. See also Lazareth, p. 165.

29 See Thomas, John L., “Socio-cultural Profile of American Catholic Families,” manuscript presented at the University of Notre Dame, June, 1980, p. 17.

30 See Keniston, Kenneth, All Our Children (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977).

31 Aries, Phillippe, Centuries of Childhood (New York: Knopf, 1962).

32 Lasch, Christopher, Haven in a Heartless World (New York: Basic, 1975).

33 It cannot be irrelevant in this regard that, for example, fifteen percent of all American children under eighteen years of age live below the poverty level (or that forty-one percent of all black children live below the poverty level, and more than fifty percent of black and Spanish female-headed families live below the poverty level).

The Church and The Family: An Ethical Task

  • Margaret A. Farley (a1)


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