Cupich & Cantú Ask Economists to Consider the Challenges Facing the Modern Family

The social-political ideals of individualism have a long history and profound influence upon American culture. In short, individualism is the belief that self-reliance and independence are virtues, that the interests of the individual should take precedence over the interests of a group. But for Catholics, the family—not the individual—has priority.

In his opening remarks to the symposium on “The Family in the Changing Economy” held in International House at the University of Chicago on April 30th, Blase J. Cupich—in his first Lumen Christi event as newly installed Archbishop of Chicago—cited the Church’s long history of fighting for economic justice on behalf of the family, starting with Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum which examined the effects of industrialization on families. “Since its inception, Catholic social teaching has focused on the family as primary, not the individual,” said Cupich.

This is not to say that the Church ignores the needs of the individual. On the contrary, many elements of Catholic social teaching stress human rights, the dignity of each individual person, and the sanctity of human life. But the individual is always born into a family. The individual does not exist on its own. “The baby knows its mother before it knows itself,” remarked Bishop Oscar Cantú (Las Cruces, NM)—Chair of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace—in his keynote address. “It understands its independent existence only after it has experienced relationship. The smile of the mother is something that the baby responds to, long before it even knows that it is an independent being. We all understand ourselves in relation, not in isolation.”

It is difficult to have a clear idea of the importance of the family in our modern culture. Many people take it for granted; many people think of sociality as belonging to a social or political group.

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From left to right, Kasey Buckles (University of Notre Dame) and Claudia Olivetti (Boston University) discuss “Marriage in the Modern Economy”

But the family is prior to everything—including the State. “The family is not seen as just one of many volunteer associations that might come or go as the social order develops. Rather, the family is understood to be the central unit of all social orders,” argued Cantú.

Pope Leo XIII made this explicit in Rerum Novarum. In this encyclical, Cantú explained, “the family is treated as one of three irreplaceable institutions that are essential for human happiness. Like the Church and the State, the family is not an optional, but a necessary social institution. It also precedes the State, and is therefore not simply dependent on it.”

Cantú made several key points about the family. First, we are created for community. Before we speak about schools and clubs and political organizations, we have to address the community that we know from the moment of birth. “The community that is most basic to humans is marriage and family. Thus the family mirrors the Trinity, by way of metaphor, and so participates in reality at the deepest level,” said Cantú of the spiritual and mystical nature of family life. “We are both individuals and members of a greater whole, and each is constituent of our created nature. This understanding flies in the face of the modern individualistic attitude that pervades our culture.”

Second—we are made for self-sacrificing love, for the total donation of the self. This is what Christians mean they speak about love.

Finally, if we are made for such love, where does one most intimately experience it? “The family, with all its limitations that come from human frailty, is the place best suited for learning to give and receive this love,” said Cantú. “It is meant to be the training ground for all social relationships.”

The family, in its beauty, its frailty—from the primordial to the ancient world through today—has faced many challenges. Cantú shared that our historical moment isn’t unique. “Since the time of Christ, and even before Christ among Jewish people, in many different contexts, there has been a necessity among the People of God to work out principles of social life and order amid the changing relationships of Church and State.”

However, Cantú made clear that the Industrial Revolution transformed society to such an extent (from a rural to an urban landscape) that the Church had a duty to respond in an urgent manner. “Consideration of these principles has taken on special import during the last 200 years, particularly as the idea and the reality of a pluralistic secular state has arisen, and social philosophies and investigations have been developing into full-fledged sciences, such as sociology, anthropology, and, noteworthy for this conference, economics,” he said.

Archbishop Cupich presented the problems facing families today. “There are many features of American culture in this historical moment that make genuine family life extraordinarily difficult and, at times, seemingly impossible. A pervasive materialism fuels a frantic consumerism. People are then defined—and they define themselves—in the measure that they can acquire things.” Not only do families feel pressures that drive them to unnecessary despair, “government or business policies can further strain family time and resources. Human needs and personal dignity are too often irrelevant in an economy driven by cost-cutting, stock holders’ expectations, or a bottom line that trumps the rights and well-being of workers.”

Cantu QuoteHow can economists address these concerns?

Cupich asked that they challenge the nature of the markets: “The moral vision and ethical principles of Catholic social teaching emphasize that the family cannot fit within an economy whose only value is efficiency. The market needs to be a means, not an end; the market cannot form our values. A society measuring economic success in terms of numbers injures human flourishing if people forget the dignity of human beings and basic human values. The Church affirms the dignity of all families and all members of families in a context of solidarity and justice, not the logic of profit.”

He urged economists to remember that the limiting nature of their discipline: “The Church seeks to meet families where they are and accompany them through the joys and sorrows of life, in the blessings and trials of marriage, in the opportunities and challenges presented by our culture. Human dignity must always be at the center. Solidarity is not efficient, nor is it driven by the logic of profit; it is a way of following Christ.”