What Exactly Is the Nature of the "Crisis" in the Family?

For those readers not living in the United States and/or are not sports fans, allow me to tell the stories of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson.

Ray Rice is a professional American football player, playing (until recently) a high-profile position (running back) for a team that two years ago won the Super Bowl.  He was not a super-star, but he was a star.  And, he was generally seen as one of the "good guys"--a stand-up figure who did good things in the community.

This summer, a video surfaced from a casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey.  In the video, Rice was seen dragging the unconscious body of his girlfriend (now wife, BTW) out of an elevator.  In the wake of the video, there was a great deal of public conversation, inside the sports world and outside of it, regarding the proper punishment for Rice.  He initially got a 2 game suspension, until a second video emerged, this time from inside the elevator, that showed Rice cold-cocking his girlfriend and then appearing to look for a place to hide her body.  He was suspended indefinitely and cut by his team.  Now, Rice in the in midst of appeals, and the fall-out from the story continues to circle.  A significant segment of the sport-fan community thinks the commissioner of the NFL should resign/be fired for his handling of the situation, and one of the most prominent sports commenters in the country, Bill Simmons, was  suspended for voicing this view publicly.  My sense is that the majority of sports fans think that Ray Rice needs to go away from football for a long time.

Adrian Peterson is also a running back, and a better one than Ray Rice.  In fact, he is probably a once-in-a-generation talent.  About a month ago, he was charged with child abuse, stemming from allegedly beating his four year old son with a switch.  The beatings were so severe that the child had bleeding wounds on his genitals and rear end.  There is no video of this incident, but there is no real claim that it didn't happen.  Peterson was suspended indefinitely by his team, and my sense is that the majority of sports fans think he needs to go away from football for a long time.

Fifty years ago, no one would have given a shit about either Rice's or Peterson's actions (especially Peterson's).  Now we do.  We recognize that intra-family violence is a serious problem, that can have devastating long-term consequences on families and children.  Our concern for people in that situation, while likely not where it should be, is far, far greater than it once was.  And, perhaps most importantly, we recognize the toll these behaviors had on previous generations of families, back when no one thought it was a problem.  Just as it is a problem now, it was a problem then, even if people didn't recognize it.

So, what does Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson have to do with the Synod on the Family going on in the Vatican?

Even in the context of the conciliatory and progressive relatio from yesterday, the Synod has been convened under the auspices of the idea that the family is in crisis.  But what exactly is the nature of this "crisis"?  What specifically are the problems with the family that the Synod seeks to address?  The document operates under the assumption that we all know that the family is in crisis, without really examining that premise.

I am sure in the minds of some of the participants, the crisis is that a given family is less likely to be organized along the lines of the "traditional" (I use quotation marks here, because often ideas about what constitutes a "traditional" family are far younger than people think) nuclear, Christian-oriented family.  If that is your definition, then the family is in crisis, as social norms that once enforced these models have eroded.  But if that's the problem, then the "crisis" in the family is co-terminal with a general reduction in the public profile of religious affiliation, and it doesn't seem to be worthwhile to talk about it in separate terms.

Instead, the claim seems to be that there are empirical problems with families that are, at least in part, separate from the general decline in religious observance.  Said another way, the symptoms of the crisis should be recognizable to secular social scientists, not simply to those who think religious practice is a good thing in and of itself.

So, what are the concrete problems with the family?  The relatio says:

Many children are born outside marriage, especially in certain countries, and there are many who subsequently grow up with just one of their parents or in an enlarged or reconstituted family context. The number of divorces is growing and it is not rare to encounter cases in which decisions are taken solely on the basis of economic factors. The condition of women still needs to be defended and promoted, as situations of violence within the family are not rare. Children are frequently the object of contention between parents, and are the true victims of family breakdown. Societies riven by violence due to war, terrorism or the presence of organized crime experience deteriorating family situations. Furthermore, migration is another sign of the times, to be faced and understood in terms of the burden of consequences for family life. (Paragraph 8).

Let's break that down.  First, we have "children born outside of marriage."  Well, at least one form of "children born outside of marriage," teen pregnancy, is at historically low levels in the United States, as a result of reduced sexual activity by teenagers.  I grant that, as the marriage rate goes down, it would stand to reason that the number of children born "outside of marriage" would correspondingly go up.  But it is not obvious that a child born to long term partners who happen not to be married is in an objectively worse situation than if the same couple were officially married.

Second, we have children who "subsequently grow up with just one of their parents or in an enlarged or reconstituted family context."  That is indeed a thing that happens, but it is implausible to assert that more children now are living in "an enlarged or reconstructed family context" than, say, in 1350, or even 1850.  Families were broken up at a now-inconceivably high rate because of disease and low life expectancy.  If that's a bad thing, and I am more than willing to concede that it is, then it would seem things are much better now that they were in the past, unless one wants to assert that watching your parents get divorced is significantly worse for children than watching them die from the Black Death.

Third, we have divorces.  In the United States, there is a great deal of debate as to what the divorce rates actually are, and what the proper way to measure those rates is.  This study suggests that one particular generation, the Baby Boomers, divorce at disproportionately high rates as compared to all other population groups.  If that is true, we would expect the divorce rate to drop sharply once that generation is no longer with us.  In any case, it is incorrect to say that divorce is "growing," at least in the United States.  Moreover, if it is the case that divorces are often caused by economic conditions, then it seems the fix would be to address those economic conditions, not frame family break-down as a moral problem.

Fourth, we have violence against women.  As I mentioned in my intro, whatever problems exist in this area, surely things are getting better in this area than in the past.  At least now, there is a recognition that this violence is unacceptable and destructive.  That simply didn't exist in the past.

Fifth, we have war, terrorism, organized crime, and migration.  Once again, these are indeed problems, and there are certainly places in the world where these are endemic.  But, on the whole, are these things more common now than during the medieval period, were casual political violence was a way of life?  It seems to me that this has always been a problem, and, at most, it is no worse than it has always been.

Some might say this is pedantic, and maybe it is.  But using the rhetoric of "crisis" feeds into a narrative that everything now is terrible and getting worse, which implies that everything in the past was better.  That is simply not the case.  I happen to think that things are on the whole (whatever that means) better for the family than they have been at any time in history, but I think it is undeniable that the situation of the family now is a mix of positives and negatives, just like any time in history.  Certainly there are new negatives now than there were in the past, but there are also new positives.  To focus only on the negatives, and especially to portray things as negatives that are actually getting better, is to forgo actual analysis of the situation and retreat into politically-motivated rhetoric.

I don't mean to say that there are not problems with the family, or that all of the issues identified by the Synod are bogus (children as pawns in the revenge games of divorced parents, for example, is a real problem).  But if we really want to take concrete steps to fix problems, we have to properly identify what those problems are.  And we should not say that things are in crisis if they are in the same state they always are.  If everything is a crisis, then nothing is a crisis.


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