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Laura Keynes: Politicians fail the family. The Pope has the answer


Family life brings joy and exasperation in equal measure. Yet these days it can often feel like the stresses outweigh the joys. If you’ve been following the ‘Chore Wars’ debate you’ll be under the impression that families aren’t just under pressure: they’re at war. Why? What factors are driving this domestic strife?

Simple observation can provide answers. With both partners out working all hours, or where finances are tight, it’s hard to find the time and money for household tasks. Things are reaching breaking point, but what’s the solution? Indeed, is anyone looking for a solution, or merely picking over the bones?

Statistics about family life in Britain today make for sobering reading. Family breakdown is occurring at an unprecedented rate, and costing society dear. Nearly half of today’s twenty-year-olds will never marry, preferring to co-habit (co-habitation is projected to rise to 3.7million by 2031 according to the ONS) even though studies show that marriage offers greater protection against family breakdown. The cost of living crisis has caused a whole generation to hit the pause button on family life.

It’s not entirely clear what politicians are doing to address the crisis. There’s a lot of talk about bolstering marriage and the family, but little evidence that political solutions are doing much for families. Politicians favour cheaper childcare even though it has the effect of forcing primary caregivers out of the home and into work.

In a small corner of Rome this week, however, the problems facing modern families are being discussed. Solutions are being looked for. Not by politicians, but by a group of Catholics – mostly bishops, but also some married couples and lay experts in different fields. The talk isn’t just theological. The working document, the blueprint for discussion, looks at external pressures on the family.

Economic and cultural factors affecting marriage and family life are a big part of the discussion. The bishops will focus on things like migration, poverty, consumerism, and the impact of labour structures on the family unit. These are things that affect all families, not just Catholic families.

The family is the fundamental building block of society, where we learn to get along with each other despite our differences. Taking care of the family means taking care of the common good.

Despite all the talk from our politicians about how much they care about the family, nothing is actually getting done to support families in crisis, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

The Catholic Church is often vilified by the political and media elite for not changing its teachings according to the changing mores of the age, and yet it’s the Church, rather than secular politicians, that retains an optimistic vision of what the family can be and do. It’s the Church that’s encouraging couples to think of marriage as a life-long commitment for good of raising a family, and it’s the Church that’s reminding people that individualism and consumerism are hollow pursuits compared to the joys of family life.

Secular channels like BBC Woman’s Hour or The Guardian encourage an angst-ridden bitter vision of marriage until that great thing ‘Equality’ comes along and mends all. This is marriage as war, in other words; ‘equality’ the only harmoniser.

You don’t have to be Catholic to find Pope Francis’s vision of marriage a much more attractive and workable proposition. His vision of family life as a place where differences are tolerated and worked through is a place where everyone is equal but not the same. In his words, it’s about “unity not uniformity”, and it’s a much more optimistic vision for society. So even if you have no interest in Catholicism, it’s worth paying a little attention to the message coming out of Rome at the moment.

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Laura Keynes
Laura Keynes
Dr Keynes is a Cambridge-based academic, writer and critic with two very young children. She writes for Standpoint magazine, the Catholic Herald and The Tablet. Find her on twitter @LMKeynes.

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