Family-ism, the Heresy of Our Age

Assuming that Christianity is still a relevant force several centuries into the future, I believe that future theologians will look at our generation’s obsession with “family values” in the same way that the Manichieans or Catharism are regarded today, namely as a set of extreme and dangerous views that condemned normal life in the physical universe. I say this because the current Catholic church’s obsession with heterosexual marriage, rigid gender roles, extreme pro-natalism, and over-romantization of childbirth and parenthood would have been very foreign to previous iterations of the institution.

One reason why pagan Romans thought that early Christians were so weird and subversive is because the former rejected age-old Roman civic traditions, such as the belief in the maintaining the community through unbroken family lines and the requirement for aristocratic Romans to finance lavish building projects. The idea of short-term celibacy to achieve certain personal goals was not foreign to the Greco-Roman world (you see it a lot in the Stoics and in some of the Middle and Neo-Platonics), but the early Christian view that the entire endeavor of marriage and childbirth were pointless distractions would have seemed downright suicidal to traditional Romans. Yet, to early Christians, it would have been the height of folly to place their hopes on shallow, temporal concerns like progeny and civic pride.

The views of the early Church Fathers about marriage ranged from accepting it as a nessesary evil to prevent uncontrolled fornication among the hoi polloi (e.g., Clement of Alexandria) to those who thought that even marital sex was a sin. The most extreme of those in the latter camp was probably Jerome, who said that the only good thing about marriage was that it produced more virgins, and that Adam and Eve would have been perpetual virgins had the Fall never happened. The popularity of the monastic life in pre-modern times stemmed from the fact that the various “rules” promised a clear way to avoid a lengthy stay in Hell, whereas the married life appeared to be littered with too many worldly distractions and no clear route to Heaven.

The point I’m trying to make is that the Catholic church’s current obsession with protecting the nuclear, heterosexual, middle class family and having lots of legitimate babies is very anachronistic, considering that for most of its history it has taught that marriage automatically puts one on the spiritual B-team. This “Theology of the Body” business, in which Catholic couples are promised lots of hot, metaphysically charged sex within the confines of a sacramental heterosexual marriage, would have horrified Church Fathers like Jerome and Augustine of Hippo, neither of whom would have been willing to put such a positive spin on sex, marital or otherwise.

I suspect that this new emphasis on “family values” is based on the unpleasant reality that the religious and priestly lifestyles are never going to be as popular as they once were, so the nuclear family has to be the new laboratory for holiness, rather than the seminary, convent, or the monastery. Based on my observations of the families at St F, I don’t think this is going to be very successful, since these bunker-like “Humanae Vitae” inspired familial units seem to only be good at mass producing fringe followers who can only function within the conservotrad bubble, rather than “saints.”

The otherworldly focus of early and medieval Christians was such that they voluntarily supported a clergy “unstained” by sex and saw nothing unusual about ostensibly celibate men giving them advice about marriage and child-rearing, but I think that the tide is starting to turn on this front, at least in the West. The spectacle of the recent Synod on the Family, in which a bunch of elderly men with no known experience as husbands or fathers tell the rest of us how to run our own lives, isn’t likely to inspire confidence about the church and “family values” except among the already converted. Somehow I can’t imagine the hierarchy in the early, medieval, or Renaissance era church caring enough about the lives of the married laity to convene such a Synod, but then again, in those days the church had total control over the cultural narrative, something that doesn’t exist today.