Being a husband is hard. Being a wife is hard. Raising children is hard. And so it seems obvious that our society should do everything it can to support the family.
But our nation considers only financial help — earned income credits, dependent deductions, child care assistance and so on — to be the kind of assistance it should offer.
Never does it reflect on the non-financial needs of the family — mainly, making the culture less toxic and more family-friendly.
After all, each of us came from a mom and a dad. And if America is the body, then the family is the nucleus of the nation.
But our country’s toxicity is attacking the very nucleus of which it is comprised. The media, altered gender roles, pornography, relaxed drug restrictions and other factors all work against the very values parents try to instill in their children.
Our society is sitting on a tree branch, sawing away at the limb.
Regenerating Our Society, One Family at a Time
To merely focus on the negatives can invoke a sensation of hopelessness, as we see the country we love falling. But there is something we can do.
We can transform, strengthen and teach our own families.
That is what gives us power and agency.
Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting with Mike Phelan, director of Marriage and Respect Life for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix. In his 16 years in the role, he has prepared countless couples for marriage, and written and edited entire curriculums.
When asked what the family means to him, he described society as a living body, with the family as the individual cell.
“The individual is not the primary cell of the church. The family is — because everything in the church is understood communally. And individuals are tremendously important, obviously, [and] were to Jesus. But, the family is the cell. And so that’s huge.”
This understanding is antithetical to many individuals whose lifestyles and ideologies run counter to thousands of years of western civilization.
Consider the 2015 Supreme Court decision that ruled the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage. In a blink of an eye, thousands of years of Judeo-Christian understanding of marriage was swept away.
“Marriage is a keystone of our social order,” then-Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the decision for the court, never connecting the obvious truth that marriage exists to create families, and children require a mom and a dad — a man and a woman.
That is not to say that a marriage requires children, but rather that children are the point of marriage.
If, instead, the individual is the primary cell in Phelan’s analogy, then any disordered belief — as long as it does not hurt others — is valid.
For the Body to Be Healthy, The Vast Majority of Cells Must Be Healthy
But when society attacks the familial cell, the results can be devastating.
“We can have some unhealthy cells, and we always do at any time. But we need the vast majority of the cells in the body to be healthy in order to be a healthy person,” Phelan said. “Same thing with society.”
“The family is the sanctuary of life,” he went on.
“So [this is the] place that, not only where life is protected the best and is most carefully cared for, but where we can learn to thrive. We can live a fullness of life if our families are helping us do that at a young age.”
When children grow up both nurtured and protected, there is a much better chance for them to live healthy, productive lives. If parents instill good values, these will take hold deeply in the heart, and their children can become more resilient to a toxic culture.
But when children feel vulnerable, afraid or unloved, they will seek out security and acceptance outside the family and plunge into a corrosive society with little or no defense.
The Primary Builder of Peace
“The family, based on marriage, is the primary builder of peace,” Phelan said, referencing a 2008 World Day of Peace message by Pope Benedict XVI.
“If peace is not learned in families, a lack of peace will spread.”
“In a neighborhood with strong families — strong marriages and families — you don’t need the police.”
There is a Christian understanding that a life full of grace has no need of the law, and a neighborhood that is populated by families raised in traditional values has less of a need of an external force to make them obey the law. Their hearts are ordered to Christ. (Of course, humans are fallen, and even Christian families fall short in many ways, necessitating someone — like the police — to enforce the law.)
Marriage Is God’s Creation
When asked what is the primary challenge facing families today, Phelan did not hesitate: the secularization of society.
“We all will run into troubles in our marriages,” he intoned. “There is no pain-free vocation in the world.”
He pointed out that the secular world “simply cannot understand what marriage really is. Marriage is God’s creation.”
But our culture cannot see the connection. “It is masked,” Phelan explained.
Couples who have a relationship with God, who see the fundamental connection and presence of their creator, “can survive any pothole,” he said.
The problem is when couples sever the understanding of marriage from God’s word.
“If we don’t understand that there’s more to this than just having a full bank account, and having career plans and having the right schools for our kids — if that’s as far as this goes — then we are set up for disappointment, failure and not knowing where to go when we are dealing with the normal challenges of marriage and family life,” Phelan said.
“That’s the primary problem. There’s no vision for it that’s based in the creator of all of us. [He] created marriage to bless us and be the primary image of love in the world.”
And when life does not turn out the way those living outside of Christ expected — if, for example, a child is born with disabilities — there is distress, anxiety, panic and, at the worst, divorce.
“If you learn to pray,” Phelan advised, “everything else gets ordered.”
Who Is at Fault?
Our culture is too quick to assign blame for society’s woes, but Phelan took pains to explain that those who are to blame are, in fact, Christians.
The Christian message is so good, and having a relationship with God is so transformative — so central to happiness — that it is the tragedy of the 21st century that so few people do.
As Phelan put it, a relationship with God provides the nourishment spouses need to feed each other and their children. When that kind of spiritual life is achieved, parents no longer think of promotions or raises or the great career they did or did not build.
“It’s like those things are nonsense. At the end of life, we’re going to want to know two things: Is there a God and do I have a relationship with him — and then, where am I at with all the people that God gave me to love?” he said.
Total Confusion as Couples Prepare for Marriage
When asked what he thought about couples intentionally preparing for marriage today, Phelan was quick to voice his excitement.
“There’s going to be this core that can build a culture for the future,” he said.
That positive sign that couples with strong Christian values will rebuild the culture was quite encouraging. According to Phelan, many couples undergoing marriage preparation today are miles ahead of where he and his wife were 25 years ago.
However, that does not change the fact that there are tremendous problems with plenty of couples.
“What are the problems?” He asked. “Total confusion, especially on sexuality.”
He described the cultural message that gets the reality of sex confused on a daily basis. Sexuality lies at the heart of marriages — so much so, that a married couple who does not “consummate” their marriage is considered unmarried.
When couples are confused about what sex actually is, they are likewise confused about what marriage is. The primary purpose of sex is procreation, though there is a second — very important — uniting component as well. But when couples believe that sexual intercourse is purely for the second reason, that it is just for recreation, they have lost the central meaning of their marriage.
“I cannot be a great lover of my wife … and be confused about the nature of sexuality,” Phelan said.
He believes this confusion of sexuality is the core challenge, leading directly to a rise in cohabitation. If you believe that sex is just recreation, “this does not foster a sense of total commitment to a person who is going to be flawed, just like you are flawed,” he said.
Other major challenges for young couples? College debt.
“I’m at the point where I am counseling young people to make sure that your college decision is not going to result in more than $25,000 in college debt or don’t do it. Don’t even go. Because to pay all that off, in addition to trying to build a home, becomes tremendously challenging,” Phelan said.
“Most people don’t use what they majored in college as their career.”
Bringing Life into the Culture of Death
Having and raising children is so often comprised of a series of small decisions with a vague bigger picture. But Phelan was clear it has to be more “intentional,” with bigger decisions made first and whims set aside.
The first big decision is to build a relationship with God, learn to pray together and make Sunday worship a key priority.
Another big decision? Live near people you have a close relationship with. “There’s no such thing as community without proximity,” Phelan pointed out.
“You can’t have your best friends across Phoenix and hope to sustain a relationship once you all have kids.”
Most important in Phelan’s view, however, is ensuring young children have a parent at home for the bulk of the day.
“At least a large amount of the time, the children need to be raised by their mother and or their father,” he said, arguing that daycare disconnects children from their parents.
“If we want to ground our children’s sense of self deeply in their family and not in the world — not in being dropped off at places — then we’ve got to provide at least a strong amount of one of us being home.”
He said that even if a couple has to work longer and delay retirement, “it’s so worth it because the kid’s identity is grounded in their family and in their relationships with each other.”
Regrowing the Branch
Our culture is confused, in large part, because Christians have often failed in spreading the good news about Jesus and living the gospel in our own lives, and our own relationships.
Christian author G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
Being a Christian is hard. Marriage is hard. Raising children is hard. It requires continual sacrifice and death to self.
But that is the heart — and mystery — of the Christian message. Our Lord taught us that only by dying will we truly live.
And it would be a life we can only start through praying often as a family.
“The family that prays together,” Phelan said, “stays together.”
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