“The weakening of the family finds one of its causes in a culture that more and more promotes extreme individualism. The strengthening of individual freedoms – something that of course we can be proud of – becomes a negative if it has no limits, because with no boundaries, it is very difficult to create strong and lasting relationships, and society itself becomes just a collection of individuals.
In this context, the French philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky speaks of a ‘second individualist revolution’ where extreme consumerism in society produces a cult of hedonism, privatization of life and a dangerous self-referentiality, all of which lead to the drying up of human relationships that unfortunately we see all around us. Individuals structure their existence to exaltation of the ego, the cult of the ego, the perfection of the ego – an approach that is both a way of life and a value to be promoted. ‘I’ becomes more important than ‘We’, solitude more important than communion; and individual rights more important than those of the family.
For the first time in history, the connection between ‘marriage, family and life’ is broken – a connection that has always and rightly been considered the engine of human society. With that connection destroyed, each individual, in a frenzy of omnipotence, reconstructs it as he or she pleases”
This excerpt is from a speech the President of the Pontifical Council for the Family delivered recently at the 20th Asia Pacific Congress on Faith, Life and Family. It is clear that Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia is addressing the worldwide erosion of the family as an institution. The weight of his diagnosis is by itself oppressively alarming. But, his warning has a broader implication beyond the fate of the family, an implication which if adequately pondered should jolt us even more out of what Pope Francis has dubbed the ‘globalization of indifference.’
It is the disappearance of culture. Culture’s demise results from society’s abandonment of truth existing outside of ourselves. Our willingness to ignore and eventually to deny this reality, a reality from which mankind has forever drawn a shared albeit general understanding of ethical right and wrong, will obviate any efforts we may attempt at social well-being. Indeed, not only will the concept of family be obsolete so will be the concept of society itself. Ethics, we should understand, are not confining barriers but helpful road signs. They don’t impede; they guide.
Solipsism is deadly. If we fail to retain and cultivate the understanding that truth both creates and arises in relationship – a connection which requires a shared understanding of truth outside ourselves – civilization as we have traditionally known it will come to an end. In Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis warns against societies that are “economically advanced but ethically debilitated”. How would we, citizens of the world’s richest and putatively most religious nation, describe ourselves?
For many of us, awareness of the Divine has dwindled to a dim spark. But, attempting to fan it with a blast of theology would risk extinguishing it. Like St. Paul’s ‘milk before meat,’ we should perhaps begin our recovery by re-introducing ourselves to those ethics fundamental to our humanity and then allow the Holy Spirit to nurse us back to a saner (consider the root of this word) society.
Dana Robinson is chair of the board of trustees of the National Catholic Community Foundation.