Saturday, May 19, 2007

Families as "pockets of insurrection"

In a chapter of his stunning A People's History of the United States that discusses the rise of the women's liberation movement in the 1970s, Howard Zinn writes:
In the problem of women was the germ of a solution, not only for their oppression, but for everybody's. The control of women in society was ingeniously effective. It was not done directly by the state. Instead, the family was used -- men to control women, women to control children, all to be preoccupied with one another, to turn to one another for help, to blame one another for trouble, to do violence to one another when things weren't going right. Why could this not be turned around? Could women liberating themselves, children freeing themselves, men and women beginning to understand one another, find the source of their common oppression outside rather than in one another? Perhaps then they could create nuggets of strength in their own relationships, millions of pockets of insurrection. They could revolutionize thought and behavior in exactly that seclusion of family privacy which the system had counted on to do its work of control and indoctrination. And together, instead of at odds -- male, female, parents, children -- they could undertake the changing of society itself.[1]
Zinn's insights here are helpful in thinking (rethinking?) the Catholic understanding of the family. As Catholics, as Christians, we are used to thinking of the family as the basic building block of society.[2] As Zinn points out, in the United States and elsewhere, as the basic building block of society, the family has been used in many ways as an agent of "control and indoctrination."
From a radically Catholic perspective, since the central social reality is the Church, and not the state, it is more helpful to think of the family as the basic building block of the Church -- the new society -- rather than the basic unit of the state, or of society.[3] Indeed, in Catholic circles you sometimes hear it said that the family is the "domestic church." If, as radical Catholic theologians like William T. Cavanaugh and Michael Baxter have argued, the Church is (also) a political reality, an alternative social body and way of life that will always be at odds with the societies in which it finds itself, then the family, as the "domestic church," will also be a revolutionary society that resists indoctrination into the state's system of domination and violence, or, drawing on Zinn's terms, an ecclesial "pocket of insurrection."
[1] Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present, Revised and Updated Edition (New York: Harper Perennial, 1995), pp. 503-4
[2] Cf. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nos. 211, 213.
[3] The Compendium is confusing on this matter. The above reference seems to say that the family exists for society, yet elsewhere it says that the state and society exist for the family. Cf. ibid, no. 214.
Posted by Michael J. Iafrate at
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