December 4, 2020

Family Futures


In the opening scene of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel “The Leopard,” beautifully rendered by Luchino Visconti’s 1963 film of the same name, it is May 1860, and the Sicilian Prince of Salina’s family has gathered to recite the rosary. When I first saw that film, I was impressed by this archaic Old-World custom. Growing up among nominal Protestants and secular Jews in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1950s and 1960s, I had never witnessed anything like it. I had only a couple of Roman Catholic classmates, one of whom lived in a large family that seemed to be in a state of perpetual pandemonium. It appeared to confirm the stereotype of Catholics as poor and ignorant – ignorant because they were poor, poor because they were ignorant. Large families were considered a sign of ignorance.

My own Ukrainian Catholic faith seemed to chiefly require attending a beautiful but opaque weekly ceremony in a language I could only half understand. It came as a belated revelation that, as our church leaders teach, Ukrainian Catholicism (and, for that matter, Orthodoxy) encourages large families that engage in regular devotions – not just perfunctory prayers at the Christmas and Easter tables. Today, the Coronavirus pandemic has enhanced the importance of family worship, not only as a complement to, but almost as a substitute for public church services. Yet the pious family belongs to a traditional lifestyle that runs counter to trends that began some six decades ago.

By using contraceptive technology to separate sexual relations from procreation, the 1960s sexual revolution detached them from marriage (a tenuous connection in the best of times). At the same time, marriage became separate from procreation – once considered its primary purpose. This has led to redefinitions of marriage, family, and parenthood. It is claimed, for instance, that one can have as many as five “natural” parents (Elaine Tyler May, “Myths and Realities of the American Family,” in Philippe Ariès and Georges Duby, eds., A History of Private Life, vol. 5, Riddles of Identity in Modern Times, ed. Antoine Prost and Gérard Vincent, 1991, p. 590). Sociologists see this as evolution. Others see it as devolution and dissolution.

In the United States, 90 percent of households were families in 1940; in 2010, 66.4 percent. Fertility dropped from 3.4 children per woman to 1.8. Single-parent births rose from 6 percent in 1960 to 43 percent in 2010. Similar patterns are documented in France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom (Michel Gurfinkiel, “Christian Democracy,” First Things, August-September 2020, p. 31). In France, mothers increasingly choose to remain single (Antoine Prost, “Public and Private Spheres in France,” in Ariès and Duby, 84).

True, we tend to idealize what one historian calls the “national obsession with family life” of 1950s America, with its “domestic ideology,” “polarized gender roles,” “pro-natalism,” and “normative” nuclear family (May in Ariès and Duby, 539-92). That ideal was rooted in the Victorian family, itself a departure from earlier norms. And as she argues, the supposed demise of the family is nothing new – it was already proclaimed in the 17th century. The family’s size and composition, as well as its economic and social functions, have simply evolved (id., 589-90).

To the cold, dispassionate eye of the social scientist, that is just the way it is. But to the rest of us, it seems reasonable to prefer some historic forms of the family over others, especially when those forms seem to foster the relative health and happiness of both parents and children. And hasn’t the core of the family – the married couple and their offspring – remained constant? Certainly the Christian model of the Holy Family – Joseph, Mary, and Jesus – has not changed.

Be that as it may, current trends pose a problem for our Ukrainian churches. Following St. John Chrysostom, they naturally envision the family household as a “little Church” (Vigen Guroian, “Family and Christian Virtue in a Post-Christian World,” in James M. Kushiner, ed., Creed and Culture, 2003; John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation “Familiaris Consortio,” 1981, no. 59). It is the core of the parish, which is part of a wider Church and ethnic community – the “immigration” or “diaspora.”

Is the diaspora Ukrainian family a viable institution? The statistical probability of any Ukrainian Catholic or Orthodox in America marrying and founding a family with someone who is also both Ukrainian and Catholic or Orthodox is minimal. Those of marriageable age will not likely meet in church, simply because so few of them are there. The parishioner of tomorrow may be the only Ukrainian Christian in his or her family. The closer these individuals are to their church, the farther they will be from their loved ones. Ministering to them requires a special pastoral approach. (See Familiaris Consortio, no. 78)

But will tomorrow’s American even have a family? Among my dozen closest friends, five are married, two are childless widows, one is divorced, and four never married. Altogether, we have five offspring. If we are a mirror of society, that society is moribund. It is reported, moreover, that Millennials tend not to want children. The instinct to reproduce is so fundamental that anything that neutralizes it must be potent indeed. Have Millennials lost confidence in society and hope for the future? Perhaps some despair – not unreasonably – of raising morally healthy children in our decadent culture. True, there are still large families like that of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett – or of my Roman Catholic classmate, who grew up to become a successful attorney with 11 children, including adoptees, and 16 grandchildren. Most likely, the future belongs to them.

Sometimes a metaphor for mafias, street gangs, or cults, “family” has been redefined almost beyond recognition. This contemplative period of St. Philip’s Fast, between the American family feast of Thanksgiving and the Holy Family feast of Christmas, is an appropriate time to consider the future of the Ukrainian American family – and be grateful for what remains of it.


Andrew Sorokowski can be reached at