Many studies have empirically proved that the family exists all across societies. For example, the fourth European Values Study, published in 2009, showed that 84 percent of the European population considers the family very important—in Italy the percentage is 91 per cent. The family is the number one thing in 46 countries out of 47: it’s more important than work, friendships, religion, hobbies, which all vary in importance, depending on the country. But ISTAT, Italy’s national statistics agency, showed that nuclear families with no more than three people and one-person households are increasing.
These numbers, which shed light on widespread dynamics, repropose a crucial question: what constitutes a family? Not all cohabitations can be considered families. In order to avoid confusion, logic suggests that each “thing” has a specific name. Claude Lévi-Strauss defined the socially sanctioned union of a man and a woman, together with their children, as a “universal phenomenon that exists in all societies.” In other words, he referred to social and cultural traits that were universally specific to families. I believe these universal traits are still valid today and cannot be reasonably disproved. They can translate into many forms, as history has taught us and as the future will prove. These traits, however, correspond to “families” only if they preserve the qualities Lévi-Strauss talked about. But what are these qualities?
The family is based on the relationships between its members (a man, a woman and their children). This “primary society” allows human beings to develop their constitutive differences—for example, sexual differences, which make men different from women, or generational differences between grandparents, parents and children. In other words, a family is formally created to express the sexual difference that is at the origin of life. The identity of human beings is deeply connected to the existence of a generative couple and the history of the generations of which the couple is an expression—a fact that is constant, not merely biological and common to all families. As Pope John Paul II put it, “The genealogy of the person is inscribed in the biology of generation.”
The daily, stable primary relationships between members of the family foster a balanced growth of the person, which is the dramatic strength of the family. For each human being, family is the place to understand and develop personal identity. Since family is a relationship among a man, a woman and future generations, it implies a pact between a man and a woman, a pact that is socially and publicly accepted. This pact, which is marriage, links different generations and allows younger people to be connected to their ancestors.
For men and women, even spontaneous self-consciousness is based on an original relationship and sense of belonging that can be renovated at all times.
The family spreads across society as a common, not a private, good and sheds light on the intrinsically relational character of human beings. Being part of a family implies being part of society and vice versa. It’s thanks to the relationship between society and family that individuals develop enough trust to work together in a cooperative way, thus contributing to the public good.
Our individual-based, fragmented society is facing the crucial challenge of whether or not to recognize the family as a social entity.
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