Family, Become What You Are
Frans and Annemieke Alting von Geusau- Houben FAITH MAGAZINE September - October 2015
Frans and Annemieke Alting von Geusau- Houben look at the current position of Catholic families, and write from their own experience about the possibilities and practicalities of a radical and joy-filled Catholic family life.
'Each family finds within itself a summons that cannot be ignored, and that specifies both its dignity and its responsibility: family, become what you are.' (John-Paul II, Familiaris Consortio)
We are (grand)parents in a Dutch family. Our children began to go to school in the late 60s of the twentieth century. For us parents, the 1960s were very different from the 1940s when we went to school.
We grew up during the German wartime occupation from 1940 to 1945 and the post-war period of reconstruction. American Marshall Aid came to an end in 1952 when we entered university. In the Netherlands it was a period in which the Christian and Catholic Churches kept their strong identity both in faith and in social organization. Our parents could be confident about the Catholic schools to which they sent us. No reason to discuss school teaching at home. It was enough to be assured that we would properly memorise what we had learned.
The 60s were an era of change. School education became an issue of national policy. Catholic and other denominational schools were to be treated on equal terms with other state-funded schools. Financial advantage was obtained at the price of government control. Dutch society changed to a pluralist democracy in which Christian churches began to lose their own identity. We could no longer be sure that Catholic schools still offered Catholic teaching. As a vital cell our Catholic families had to renew their deepest commitment to be signs of contradiction. Such commitment obliges us to witness to the unique and irreplaceable task of the family in bringing up and forming our children in particular with respect to education in the faith, family education and questions relating to the right to life; subjects for frequent discussion, learning and reading in the family.
A sign of contradiction
In the Netherlands as in the other countries of Europe and North America, law and policy in the decades following the Second World War moved steadily away from the teaching of the Gospel and the magisterium of the Church on matters of marriage, family and life.
In a way we are all – in the West as in the former communist states – victims of a kind of Newspeak introduced to us as the language of progress. The legalisation of abortion, for instance, was prepared in this way. The unborn child was reduced to a foetus or a tissue, mother’s and father’s responsibility for the child were reduced to the mother’s right of privacy, and abortion itself came to be called interruption or termination of pregnancy. For most people it has become literally unthinkable that the issue is murder of a human person.
The moving away happened in stages. It began with the distribution of the contraceptive pill. The pill disconnected intercourse from its intended aim of receiving children. Henceforward intercourse became possible without consequences or mutual commitment.
It continued with the legalisation of abortion; in the United States in 1973 with the Supreme Court Judgement in Roe v. Wade, in the Netherlands through the adoption by Parliament in 1981 of the Law on the interruption of pregnancy. Christian politicians justified their support for this law with the fallacy that the new law would end illegal abortions and prevent full legalisation as in the United States. Reality, of course, would turn out to be different. A lawmaker or judge who legalizes selective killing promotes moral acceptance of selective killing. Abortion practice with respect to children with possible Downs Syndrome has made it very clear. At the same time the legalisation of abortion facilitated the legalisation of euthanasia. In the Netherlands a law to that effect was adopted in 2001, with the same arguments of our Christian politicians and the same consequences. In both cases, the Christian politicians told us that they agreed personally with our resistance against the legalisation, but were unable as politicians to do otherwise.
In parallel with the demolition of the right to life runs the destruction of marriage and family as defined in the Catholic Church:
"The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.”
“The family, in fact, is born of the intimate communion of life and love founded on the marriage between one man and one woman. It possesses its own specific and original social dimension, in that it is the principal place of interpersonal relationships, the first and vital cell of society. The family is a divine institution that stands at the foundation of life of the human person as the prototype of every social order.”
It is quite clear from the text just quoted that marriage and family are not institutions of positive law that can be defined, deleted or amended by a majority in parliament. The task of lawmakers is to recognize the fundamental human right to marriage and family and to protect these rights. As article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated:
“(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”
The drafters of the 1948 Declaration had good reasons to include article 16. The Declaration was adopted in response to the “disregard and contempt for human rights [that] have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.” The totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century saw it as their principal objectives to destroy the faith and the family as the natural unit in society. They knew that faith and the family were the principal barriers to total rule over human beings.
The special protection offered to marriage and family in European and Western law was clearly the outcome of the Gospel and the teachings of the Church. Thanks to them and to Canon Law, the pagan customs of polygamy, concubines, arranged marriages and the repression of women had been replaced by monogamy, marriage for life and mutual consent between the spouses.
The profound tragedy of our times is that our democratic majorities are applying the same tactics as the totalitarian rulers of the past to destroy marriage and family. They introduced the right to divorce by mutual consent and “redefined” marriage and family in such a way that there is no longer anything left for special protection. In European Union law, civil law of most member states and judge-made law in the United States, the right to marry has been “modernized” so as to include partnerships and same-sex unions. Such modernization of language is another example of Newspeak as explained in George Orwell’s 1984.
As a consequence, every true Christian family in our society is, by definition, a sign of contradiction. It thus raises the important question as to how we can responsibly educate and form our children and grandchildren to stay the course in adversity.
As we learned, our education must adapt to and grow with the growing up of our children. We must also be attentive to their differences in character. Each of our children is an absolutely unique person.
In their first ten to twelve years our children will normally live at home together with their parents and be fully dependent upon them. A family of young children has a variety of opportunities to bear witness to their being a Christian household. They radiate joy to others while travelling; in restaurants they pray together before starting their meals; they go to church together; they are helpful to others. Well-raised children are a joy for others.
Children in those ages are too small to burden them with the task of being a sign of contradiction at school. They must be protected against negative influences. Their family homes are open to friends, but they do not accept every invitation they get for parties. Homeschooling is possible only in some families and countries, but catechising in the Faith can always be organized for our children.
In more and more countries, governments arrange "sex education" at school and at a very young age. It is up to us parents to resist and in any case to give family education at home before it comes at school. In this way we parents continue to be their points of reference. What they learn at school comes home as their questions to us parents. Parents should join forces with other parents and will find out that many school teachers actually dislike the material they get from official sources, and be open to parents' views.
When the time came for our children to go to secondary school, they had to bike quite some distance (ten miles or more) to high school. The smaller ones would sometimes encounter aggressive behaviour from others and needed protection. We saw to it that they would always bike together with others, but they also learned judo to protect themselves. They also practised other sports to be strong and fit.
This is the time in which our children begin to form their own opinions and become rebellious. In this phase parents must do a lot of listening, and home must become the place for lively discussions and talking during meals. It also is the time for working together on household chores and repair jobs, for making music together and playing together. At this age children will begin to understand what it means to be a sign of contradiction in the world. Talking about it will strengthen their confidence in us parents as their points of reference. During this period in our family we installed a very long dinner table in the sunniest part of our house, where everybody could join in the talk and the togetherness.
On their way to adulthood and greater independence, the secondary school phase also was the time for developing their reading skills, their eagerness to learn and their healthy curiosity. Not every child has an equal drive for this, but we should urge them all to try. It is their time for good reading, real literature, no more youth books and not only pious writings. Reading literature and history opens windows in their young minds and helps them not to lock themselves up in their own world and their own opinions. Ideally they also learn and practice other languages than their own; their holidays are used to gather knowledge and understanding of art and other cultures, rather than just sunning on a beach.
Together as a family
At this stage, we and our children regularly went to the prayer sessions of Emmanuel – the French charismatic renewal movement – in Paray-le-Monial, where we discovered the joy of the faith and the wealth of the universal church to which we belong. It saved our faith at a time the Dutch Catholic Church suffered from internal polarization.
We also made music and performed theatre for others especially during the Christmas season. Our performances were meant for the lonely, but also formed us. Over Christmas day we could be found rehearsing together and creating stage settings rather than just over-eating!
As a final example, we could mention the need for children at this age to learn their proper limits. We taught them it was too early to have a permanent friend or a “date”, but encouraged them to seek friends across the borders of country, language and church. We taught them not to smoke or drink before turning eighteen or nineteen and to return no later than midnight from their parties. In their peer group it earned them ridicule but also curiosity and respect.
Once they successfully concluded high school, they entered the transitional stage to independence. We were privileged to be in a position to allow our children to go to university after completing high school. We gave them a gap year for study and reflection either at the Institut Catholique in Paris or at the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, USA. They learned another language and studied civilization, theology and philosophy; they also did voluntary social work. Thereafter five of them studied at Leyden University in the Netherlands and one trained as an officer in the Dutch marines, later studying economics and business. They were active in student life, but followed another of our family principles: complete successfully what you have started. We gently assisted them in such endeavour.
We thank the Lord for the grace that kept us together for so many beautiful years and gave us six children and twenty six grandchildren. We wrote on the basis of our faith in Christ, our hope for future generations, our profound love for each other, for our wonderful children and our lovely grandchildren. We did not study to become (grand)parents, but we learned a lot from being it. What we learned we happily pass on.
And now there are six families as vital cells of society, willing to accept the mission of being a Christian family in society. We thank the Lord for his blessings!
Adapted from “Become What You Are” by Frans and Annemeike Alting von Geusau, to be published for their family on their 55th Wedding Anniversary in the Netherlands. Frans Alting von Geusau is Professor Emeritus of International Law, Tilburg University and Western Cooperation, Leiden University and was on the Council of the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need from 1992 to 2008.