This post is part of a series of six focusing on the Catholic church’s teaching on marriage and how it fosters the goods of: economic life, the church, civic society, fidelity, unity, and procreation.

I was recently at my sons’ Cub Scout Halloween party. There were costumes, carved pumpkins, candy, and general mayhem, everything you would expect. In the midst of the kids were parents, some running games, some handing out candy, and some just enjoying their kids at play.

This Cub Scout meeting was a clear example of what the Catechism of the Catholic Church indicates about families: they are “the original cell of social life.” (2207) The scout meeting was run by families for the well-being of children and also connected families to each other. These families cut across economic lines and engaged in activities that were good for the children and modeled community engagement.

While not everyone does scouts, activities like these naturally flow out of family life. Parents get involved in scouts or pee-wee sports or volunteer at schools. Married couples invest in their homes and neighborhoods, vote in local elections, and volunteer for city activities. Obviously, those who are single engage in similar work, but, for married couples and families, these activities emerge naturally and organically from the activities of the home. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (246) puts it this way:

The social subjectivity of the family, both as a single unit and associated in a group, is expressed as well in the demonstrations of solidarity and sharing not only among families themselves but also in the various forms of participation in social and political life. This is what happens when the reality of the family is founded on love: being born in love and growing in love, solidarity belongs to the family as a constitutive and structural element.

If families practice love in the home, they will care about what families members do outside of the home. Parents will care about schools and sports and music because their kids are involved in these activities. Married couples who care about each other will care about the neighborhood and city where they live as well as each other’s endeavors. Perhaps the key aspect is that, because families engage in these activities and these activities involve others, families inevitably end up serving others and thereby serving society. To use the language of the Compendium, they engage in “demonstrations of solidarity.”

This solidarity means that families become active subjects in civic life. “Far from being only objects of political action, families can and must become active subjects.” (Compendium, 247) Of course families need laws to support them, but the emphasis here is on families’ crucial role in the construction and well-being of civic society. In his Familiaris Consortio, Saint John Paul the Great provides a list that indicates some of the ways families contribute to society, phrasing them in terms of rights to emphasize the need to protect this work of families:

  • the right to exist and progress as a family, that is to say, the right of every human being, even if he or she is poor, to found a family and to have adequate means to support it;
  • the right to exercise its responsibility regarding the transmission of life and to educate children; family life;
  • the right to the intimacy of conjugal and family life;
  • the right to the stability of the bond and of the institution of marriage;
  • the right to believe in and profess one’s faith and to propagate it;
  • the right to bring up children in accordance with the family’s own traditions and religious and cultural values, with the necessary instruments, means and institutions;
  • the right, especially of the poor and the sick, to obtain physical, social, political and economic security;
  • the right to housing suitable for living family life in a proper way;
  • the right to expression and to representation, either directly or through associations, before the economic, social and cultural public authorities and lower authorities;
  • the right to form associations with other families and institutions, in order to fulfill the family’s role suitably and expeditiously;
  • the right to protect minors by adequate institutions and legislation from harmful drugs, pornography, alcoholism, etc.;
  • the right to wholesome recreation of a kind that also fosters family values;
  • the right of the elderly to a worthy life and a worthy death;
  • the right to emigrate as a family in search of a better life.

These are not just good for families.  They are also good for society. Everyone needs physical, social, political, and economic security, adequate housing and health care, suitable housing, religious freedom, and to be cared for when they are young or old. While all members of society should be working toward these ends, these flow naturally from the love that binds members of the family together.

This last point bears repeating:  the solidarity that moves people to become agents of social life is rooted in the love of the individual members of the family. As section 213 of the Compendium says, it is “within the family the person is always at the center of attention as an end and never as a means.” The contribution of the family to society is not a subordination of the individual to the group. Instead, it is in loving the individuals in the family that the family starts to make their contributions to neighbors and strangers. The family’s work of solidarity is the natural fruit of fostering the dignity of individual’s within the family. To preserve dignity, the family “learns social responsibility and solidarity.” (Compendium, 213). This should not surprise us as the very nature of love seeks a person’s good, and what is good for a person is to be in relationships with others.

It is in these ways – demonstrations of solidarity that make families active subjects in social and political life and that flow from the love of people within the family—that marriages make their “unique and irreplaceable contribution to the good of society.” (213)