Archbishop George Pell: 'The strong family is a religious family'

Archbishop George Pell: 'The strong family is a religious family'

Archbishop George Pell

On 22 August 2001, Archbishop George Pell gave an address at a Quadrant magazine dinner in Sydney on "The Future of the Family in Australia."

Having analysed the factors causing increasing family breakdown over the past 30 years and the negative impact of this on our society, the Archbishop concluded that alleviating this crisis lay not simply in more family-friendly government policies - however necessary - but through a stronger religious input: "The strong family is the religious family. True and effective love of one's children requires sacrifice, making a gift of oneself to others, and it is this sacrificial love that maximises the chance of an encounter with the transcendent."

Archbishop Pell noted that from the early 20th century, the Australian family had enjoyed "a privileged place at law and in social and economic policy", as underlined in the 1907 landmark judgment of Henry Bournes Higgins in the Harvester case, which established the basic wage, defined as a wage sufficient to support a working man, his dependent wife and three children. But since the ending of the basic wage in 1973, the economic foundation of the single-income family had been eroded..

The Archbishop pointed out that "an enormous amount of empirical work has been done on the relationship between marriage breakdown and family dysfunction, and the rise of the different social pathologies that pose such problems today for all of us, but especially for law enforcement agencies and health and welfare workers. One of the many things this research makes clear is that if you want to preserve social stability or to prevent it being slowly eroded, it makes good sense to buttress the stability of the family."

Examples of the social costs of family failure include "large increases in psychiatric problems, both among children and single parents; large increases in physical health problems of many kinds; much higher risks of serious child abuse, including death; large rises in learning problems for children; an increase in negative attitudes about the self and others among the young; a much higher likelihood of using drugs and sexual promiscuity; and a very large proportion of criminal behaviour."

Since 1960, when Australia became "one of the first countries in the world to grant approval for the general distribution and use of the pill", women have been able "to defer marriage and childbirth, limit the number of children and pursue a career." This "coalesced with the rise of feminism to change the pattern of family life".

Feminism, in turn, has "coalesced with changes in how we thought about the economy". As it became more and more difficult for families to maintain their standard of living on one income, "feminism came to the rescue by sending wives out to work." Most families have now come to depend on at least two incomes to make ends meet.

"Champions of the free market," said the Archbishop, "should be concerned about the effects of the market on families - which is for most us the primary source of the values and standards by which we learn to live our lives." The work of a homemaker continues to be undervalued or disregarded in economic terms with the family itself "treated as something belonging strictly to the private sphere of life, as 'a private life-style choice' with no consequences for social life more generally".

Dr Pell pointed to France as an example of where "robust economic growth" (according to OECD figures) and "vigorous" job creation went hand in hand. He cited the research of Michael Gove, "a Eurosceptic editor at the Times," who drew "a connection between the way the French have worked to preserve the traditional breadwinner role for men and the way the English have undermined this role through radical market reforms."

Gove suggests that because French men are not as frequently engaged in work that is demeaning to them as men, they are less likely than their English counterparts to abandon their family commitments and less likely to be dumped by their wives. While in 1960 the British divorce rate was lower than that in France, today it is now 35 percent higher.

Archbishop Pell suggests that "a preferential option of the family" should characterise Australia's "social policy, law and our economic arrangements". For example, "a re-examination of no-fault divorce" should be considered, along with "re-introducing fault as an element in determining the custody of children and property settlements". Marriage should not be "the only contract people can walk away from without penalty" and it "should certainly be made harder and slower to get." Divorce involving children, he pointed out, "damages the social environment". Measures were therefore needed "to make marriage and family financially attractive."

Religious practice

Since "parents who stick together and raise children well are doing all of us an enormous service," it followed that "they should be rewarded for this, not penalised." Yet that is not the case at present, e.g., a "single income couple with two children on $30,000 a year receives a little under $4,400 in welfare; but a couple on $30,000 each with two children using child care receives almost $8,600 in welfare!"

This "bias against the family," said Dr Pell, "should be replaced with measures based on the rationale that healthy, well-adjusted children are the most important social investment for both the state and the community."

The Archbishop concluded by drawing attention to the positive impact of religious practice on family life. "On all these indicators - health, life-satisfaction, educational success, avoidance of drugs, crime, sexual promiscuity - the benefits are even greater where the family has some sort of serious religious or spiritual orientation (measured in regular worship or participation)."

Here is a fundamental challenge for the Churches which Archbishop Pell's timely analysis presents. If they can address successfully the present decline in religious practice, this will impact favourably on the future of the family, the health of society in general and, in turn, on the strength of the Churches themselves.

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