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Recognizing Our Shared Commitment to the Natural Family

 

 

Richard Wilkins, J.D.

  BIO

Remarks to The World Congress of Families II, Monday Morning - November 15, 1999

The World Congress of Families represents a unique "coming together" of individuals and organizations that are strikingly diverse in religious faith, cultural background, and ethnic origin. Yet, despite all our differences, there is a fundamental tie that binds us together: our shared commitment to the celebration, protection and promotion of the natural family as the fundamental unit of society.

As this Congress begins, I would like to focus attention on three interrelated themes. First, regardless of theological and cultural distinctions, the world’s great religions do share a common conception of the natural family. This common conception must not be forgotten or neglected by modern society, for it provides the basis for a stable, productive and peaceful world. Second, social policies which focus on protecting and fortifying our shared conception of the natural family will strengthen society. By contrast, policies that disregard (or, even worse, undermine) the central role of the family will have disastrous consequences. Third, and finally, there is reason to be of good cheer. We have an opportunity, at this Congress, to set an agenda for family-affirming future action.

The profound importance of the natural family transcends religious and cultural boundaries. The Qur’an states that "Allah has made for you mates from yourselves and made for you out of them, children and grandchildren." The Bible, in the second chapter of Genesis, reflects the same truth: "And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone." The profound importance of the family unit established by Adam, Eve and their children is recognized in The Torah and explained in the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church:

The family is the original cell of social life. It is the natural society in which husband and wife are called to give themselves in love and in the gift of life. Authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society.

The fundamental truth that the natural family is the basic unit of society, furthermore, extends beyond the great monotheistic religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. The classic Taoist text, The Chuang Tzu, explains that familial ties are the basis of any stable society because "[w]hen people are brought together by Heaven,. . . when troubles come, they hold together."

Why does the natural family holds us together when troubles come? Because a properly functioning natural family has extraordinary strength. The source of that strength, furthermore, is briefly - but accurately - summarized in the founding document of this Congress, “A Call from the Families of the World.” As stated in the Call, a well-functioning natural family is characterized by (1) a strong, committed marital relationship between a man and a woman (2) which centers upon transmitting important religious and cultural values to children (3) in an atmosphere that emphasizes the essential interconnectedness and responsibilities of family members toward each other and the broader family of mankind. I will offer a few observations regarding each of these important characteristics.

Initially, and most essentially, the well-functioning natural family is founded upon a strong, stable union between a husband and wife. This legally binding relationship gives each partner to the union a legal and moral claim to the time, attention, support and energies of the other. The bedrock importance of marriage is unanimously emphasized by religious traditions all over the world. For example, the Proclamation to the World on the Family issued by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints affirms that marriage involves a “solemn responsibility to love and care for each other,” and explains that the relationship, to endure, must be characterized by “complete fidelity.” A loving, caring and completely faithful marriage provides a foundation for individual and social strength unmatched by any other relationship.

The next characteristic of the well-functioning natural family is that committed and faithful spouses are wholeheartedly engaged in transmitting vital religious, cultural and moral values to their children. The family, indeed, is the necessary foundation for any larger community because it is the sanctuary where women and men learn cooperation, sacrifice, love and mutual support; it is the training ground where children learn the public virtues of responsibility, work, fair play and social interdependence. Parents, therefore, have the surpassingly important duty to “rear their children in love and righteousness, to provide for their physical and spiritual needs, to teach them to love and serve one another, to observe the commandments of God, and to be law-abiding citizens wherever they live.” In fulfilling these important responsibilities, “fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.”

The well-functioning natural family, finally, emphasizes (and reinforces) the interconnectedness of family members and the human family in general. Familial relationships are based upon connectedness, responsibility and mutual support. Precisely because a well-functioning family is premised upon unswerving devotion to one’s spouse, children reared in such a union will understand the vital importance of loving and serving one another. A successful family demonstrates for its members — in a way no government program ever can — that all individual success is predicated on mutual interdependence. The consequences of disregarding this lesson are well-known, and as old as history itself. Cain, after killing his brother Able, asked “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain’s refusal to acknowledge the obvious answer to his own question resulted in mankind’s first recorded murder, and continues to be responsible for the most serious wrongs perpetuated by humanity to the present day. A solid and stable natural family imbues its members with the vital understanding that we are our brother’s keeper. There is no lesson more important for the survival of modern man.

Many modern observers, upon hearing the above description of the value and characteristics of the well-functioning natural family, will object that the unit — as described — is idealistic, religious in its overtones, and therefore inapplicable to the complexities of today’s modern world. To these observers I simply respond that the best research available on the family — much of it conducted by the United Nations itself — ratifies and confirms the importance of the above principles. A very useful book, and one that I urge every member of this audience to obtain and read, was completed by the United Nations University in 1995. The book, entitled “Strengthening the Family: Implications for International Development,” concluded that, even in situations of direst poverty, the single most important factor influencing social outcomes for individuals is whether they are members of a strong, stable, natural family. As the authors of the book concluded:

Children thriving in poor communities were statistically most likely to live in families characterized by traditional fireside family values; devoted mothers and fathers, happy marriages, and warm cooperative bonds with siblings, grandparents, other relatives and the broader community.

Solid, social scientific evidence, therefore, demonstrates that the strong, stable, natural family is more than a religiously motivated ideal. It is an observable, describable and reproducible unit of surpassing importance to modern society.

This very Congress, furthermore, demonstrates the breadth of the world-wide commitment to the natural family. Convened, here in Geneva, are many of the world’s leading academic, political, religious, and cultural experts on the family. During the next three days, these renowned experts, together with hundreds of exceptionally capable fathers, mothers and children, will join together — in the words of the Call — to “rall[y] organizations and individuals to protect and fortify the natural family,” develop “guidelines for the formulation and implementation of familycentered policies and laws,” raise “worldwide awareness” on the part of the public at large, and create “ongoing structures for mutual cooperation and support.” This charge is exceptionally important. More than individuals have signed the Call prior to the start of this Congress, and thousands more will sign the Call before January 31, 2000 when formal efforts to collect signatures will end. We must heed these thousands of Calls.

This brings me to the second theme I would like to address this morning: that we can develop policies to strengthen the family. Despite the surpassing importance of the natural family, not enough private, academic or governmental energy has gone into the imagination and creation of a familyfriendly world. There is, however, substantial evidence that family-focused efforts can be extraordinarily successful.

One of the more controversial issues in modem society is the question of teenage reproductive health education and services. Teenage sexuality — involving issues from disease to abortion to psychological health — presents some of the most serious challenges facing the modern world. While many pragmatically turn to contraception and abortion, there are family-centered approaches that not only address the serious problems presented by teenage pregnancy, but that strengthen the family as well.

As one example, family advocacy groups in the United States persuaded Congress to authorize a family-based sexual abstinence approach to teenage pregnancy prevention. The enabling legislation specifically recognized that: “the family is the basic social unit in which the values and attitudes of adolescents concerning sexuality and pregnancy are formed.” A program set up by Northwest Family Services included facilitating discussions between parents and children on human sexuality, the advantages of premarital abstinence and the medical facts of fetal development. A five year statistical analysis of the program, conducted by Dr. Stan Weed of the Institute for Research and Evaluation, found significant improvements in parent-child communication and, equally importantly, a substantial decrease in teenage pregnancy — a decrease, in fact, that substantially exceeded reductions obtained by more conventional programs focusing on public sex education and contraception training.

This example can and should be multiplied. Perhaps the most extensive study of adolescent behavior conducted anywhere in the world was completed in 1997 by the American Medical Association. That study found that the factors most “significantly related” to a decrease in risky adolescent behaviors were “parental expectations for scholastic achievement and the presence of connected, caring parents.” As a result, the authors of this study questioned the ways that many current social policies — such as emphasis on autonomy rights for children — “threaten family connectedness.” They concluded that “one can only hope” that government at all levels will seek to “develop policies that support families.”

We must begin that effort. Because families are the fundamental unit of society, government policy must stop by-passing the unit that can best strengthen society. A 1998 Report of the Secretary General on reducing vulnerability noted that (to be effective) government policy must “strengthen networks and organizations in the community.” Such “networks,” of course, largely consist of families. Fathers and mothers, by and large, love their children. Assistance that permits fathers and mothers to work together to strengthen their families to improve the condition of their children will not only be more successful than other possible approaches, it will strengthen society itself.

This brings me to my final theme: the opportunity presented at this Congress to initiate an international, family-affirming agenda. During the past decade, many pro-family and pro-life NGOs may have become discouraged by documents drafted at international conferences. There is a concerted, on-going effort by well-organized advocacy groups both nationally and internationally to undermine the principles stated in “A Call From the Families of the World.” There are efforts, for example, to use the lofty rhetoric of “human rights” to create international rights to abortion on demand, obtain absolute legal protection for unrestrained sexuality (even for children), redefine the very concept of marriage, diminish the role and importance of religion in public and private life, and reduce (and in some contexts, eliminate) parental control over the education and upbringing of their children. Because of these efforts, at many recent international meetings, the fundamental concepts of “faith,” “life,” “motherhood,” “parents” and “family” have become contentious battlefields. Dr. Kathryn Balmforth and others, in an important session that will be held on the final day of this Congress, will set out the details of this assault.

But we did not convene in Geneva to despair. Rather, we gather on the eve of the New Millennium to call governments at all levels to return to basic truths regarding the family: truths that have been recognized for centuries and reaffirmed in modern times. Existing language in international treaties, agreements and conference declarations already supports the natural family. That language must not be ignored. It can be used to set the entire international community on a life-affirming, pro-family path.

As Dr. Allan Carlson has already pointed out, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that the “family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society.” This vitally important language does not stand in isolation. A good friend of mine, Susan Roylance, has compiled an exceptionally valuable pamphlet, which will be made available to all Congress delegates. The pamphlet collects language regarding the family from numerous major international treaties, agreements and conference declarations. The importance of home, family, children and parents has been repeatedly emphasized in such diverse places as the World Conference on Human Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and the Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements. The delegates to this Congress should pay particular heed to the language in these documents that addresses such issues as marriage, human life, parents, children, and family values. Such attention may be the first step toward demanding — and obtaining — pro-family action on the local, national and international scenes.

On the family, consensus language in international agreements proclaims that “[tjhe family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society” and is entitled to “the widest possible protection and assistance.”

Regarding marriage, consensus language unequivocally states that “[t]he right of men and women of marriageable age to many and to found a family shall be recognized,” and that “husband and wife should be equal partners.”

On human life, consensus language reassures that, because of “the dignity and worth inherent in the human person,” the “child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care before as well as after birth,” and “motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance.”

The rights of parents regarding the care and education of their children have been given similar protection. According to the World Summit for Children, and other documents, “[t]he family has the primary responsibility for the nurturing and protection of children from infancy to adolescence.” Moreover, “[[for the full and harmonious development of their personality, children should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding.” Parents also “have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children,” and to “ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.”

The international community, finally, has not forgotten “traditional fireside family values.” On the contrary, consensus language commits the nations of the world “to the recognition of the family, in its supporting, educating and nurturing roles,” “with respect for cultural, religious and social aspects, in keeping with freedom, dignity and personally held values, and taking into account ethical considerations.”

The consensus language I have just outlined can provide a solid beginning for our efforts at this Congress. It is, of course, only a beginning. There is other language in international documents (which I have not noted and which will be addressed by Dr. Balmforth on Wednesday) that is exceptionally troublesome. The foregoing consensus language, furthermore, does not go far enough in supporting and promoting the values stated in “A Call From the Families of the World.” But, this language is a beginning. And beginnings are important.

The best way to improve society is to improve its families. By contrast, the quickest way to destroy society is to weaken its families. My own religious tradition warns that “disintegration of the family will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modem prophets.” The way to avoid those calamities is clear: strengthen the family. Despite the clarity of the path, local, national and international leaders have not been quick to see it. Perhaps the reason why is explained by a quotation from Goethe:

What is the most difficult of all?
That which seems to you the easiest,
To see with one’s eyes
What is lying before them.

We must all see what is lying before our eyes. We have a shared commitment to the natural family. The time has come to recognize and act upon it.

 

 

 

 

 

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