We are family

Philadelphia’s World Meeting of Families (WMOF) might have seemed like an afterthought during the triumphant U.S. tour of Pope Francis, but in fact, as he himself said, it was the primary reason he had come to America.

And although the 24/7 news coverage of the pope’s every move in Washington and New York was the equivalent of a press blackout for the simultaneous events of the World Meeting, I am here to tell you that it was an unalloyed success.

Indeed, the debt-ridden, scandal-riddled, world-weary Archdiocese of Philadelphia rose magnificently to the challenge given to it by its then new archbishop three years ago, pulling off what many thought would be impossible. It hosted upwards of 20,000 people for four days of speeches, breakout sessions and special events — from movies to murals — and laid the groundwork for a rousing reception of Pope Francis and the largest Mass of his entire visit. Kudos to the entire WMOF team assembled by Archbishop Charles Chaput for a job very well done.

The timing of a meeting on families at this juncture in our history was providential. As the pope said in Cuba, the family “saves us from two present-day phenomena: fragmentation (division) and uniformity. In both cases, people turn into isolated individuals, easy to manipulate and to rule.”

While the pope’s tone in the U.S. was predominantly upbeat, he clearly sees the family as a bulwark against an increasingly threatening world order. So does Fabrice Hadjadj. In a gem of a talk at WMOF that will be published in First Things, Hadjadj, an atheist and Jew who converted to Catholicism, spoke one evening on “Family: The Home of Holy Anarchy.”

Hadjadj sees clearly the threats of a looming dictatorship of technology and identifies the family as “the guardian of human freedom and dignity.”

For Hadjadj, the family is the “one true anarchist institution” because it came before both the law and the state. Not the individual, but “the family is the basic cell of society,” Hadjadj said, and it is the family in all of its divinely ordained randomness that remains outside of all the rationalist controls of the technocratic society in which we live. Technology disrupts family relationships in myriad ways, and it is on the verge of creating “improved human beings” through genetic and technical interventions. This power comes at a cost, Hadjadj said. In our brave new world, the whole notion of procreative love is itself anarchistic. “What sex unites, modern science tends to separate,” with sex separated from procreation, and procreation from sex. This is presented as convenience, but it is a way of rationalizing and controlling the “supreme adventure” of the family.

For Hadjadj, the family resists rationalization. It is unpredictable. It is the “school of charity,” because it is in the family where you love people you did not choose to be with.

“They are different, unique and implausibly free. No meeting organizer would deliberately bring them all together. A bunch of very diverse people related by blood and marriage may gather around the Sunday table for lunch, but it’s virtually impossible to keep them orderly for more than half an hour.”

For the pope, the family is “the place where we come to learn the meaning and value of human relationships. ... We learn to stake everything on another person, and we learn that it is worth it.”

For most of us, families are simply the unchangeable fact of our lives, for better or, sometimes, for worse. The WMOF provided all of us with an opportunity to remind ourselves that the family is, in all of its imperfection and its challenges, the crucible of love and the cornerstone of society.

Greg Erlandson is OSV’s publisher.