It’s always a pleasant surprise when I take a break, sink into my living room couch, turn the television on -- and find that one of my favorite comedy shows, Modern Family, is airing. (The other one is Big Bang Theory.)
Sixty-something Jay has two grown children, Claire and Mitchell, from a previous marriage. Jay is now married to Colombian Gloria who is about half his age. Gloria has a son, Manny, from her own previous marriage but Jay has taken over and treats Manny as his own child.
Claire is a wife in the suburbs; her husband Phil works in real estate and always tries to be a cool dad. They deal with the challenges of raising two teenage daughters and a younger son.
Mitchell is a gay lawyer who lives with his partner, Cam. They have adopted a girl from Vietnam.
The characters are constantly brought together by traditional occasions like Halloween, Christmas, birthdays, crises, and simply by their familial ties. The conflict situations bring to fore their issues both trivial and profound.
In the end, the problem is resolved and everybody feels warm and fuzzy towards everybody else.
Why am I talking about my favorite comedy? News of the celebration of the World Meeting of Families, this year held in Milan, Italy, has captured my attention. The Web site catholic.org defines the “fundamental identity” of the family – “a communion of love founded upon marriage and called to be a shrine of life, a small Church, a cell of society.”
Statements, too, that the proposals for reproductive health, divorce and especially same-sex marriages threaten the integrity and sanctity of the family disturb – and anger -- me greatly.
Indeed the word “family” has been used and misused too many times. Yes, it is the basic unit of society. Yes, it is sacred. But how is family to be defined? Is it a structure, or something more substantive? If it is not founded in marriage, is it not a family anymore?
In elementary school, we learned that families are either nuclear or extended. Nuclear is when there is a mother and a father and a child or children. Extended families include grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and others.
Since then, however, we have become exposed to many other arrangements that may not necessarily fit into either of the molds taught us as children.
The migrant-worker phenomenon has given rise to a generation of children growing up without one or both parents. The kids are instead cared for by relatives, with only pictures, voice recordings, monthly remittances and the packages of chocolates and rubber shoes as a reminder of their parents’ presence. The Internet seems to have bridged this gap – but “seems” is the operative word.
There are single-parent families due to separations – or to the absence of a formal union to begin with.
In contrast, we have heard tales of married couples putting up a show of togetherness when they in fact have grown apart and have ceased to bring each other happiness.
See many wives enduring an abusive – physical, verbal or otherwise -- relationship for fear of the social stigma attached to being a “broken” family.
See many dutiful husbands, providing well for their families, driving their wives to and from church, doing errands left and right -- but leading a double life by having a lover or a string of flings on the side.
And yet these same people pooh-pooh the prospect of recognizing the union of same-sex couples, deriding it as “unnatural” and an insult to the sacrament. Pray, tell, how can two consenting adults in a committed, monogamous, loving relationship be any worse than a heterosexual couple where one or both habitually violate the covenants of trust and respect?
These are the same people who proclaim that the family is sacred, that its integrity is inviolable. They think they know what is best for you, or judge you for making the choices you did. In fact, they are talking above their heads.
Yes, the family is threatened -- but not by divorce, by the availability of reproductive health options, not by homosexual unions and other so-called controversial measures.
The real threats to the family are bigotry, hypocrisy and non-acceptance.
A family is meant to bring out the best in you. It can only be whole when the individuals in them – regardless of sex or age – are whole. It is what we come home to, what give us strength and purpose, and what enables us to feel how good it is to be alive.
Then again, I celebrate too those families founded in marriage that remain intact for the right reasons – genuine love, mutual respect, honesty and kindness.
Here’s to families who take on all shapes and sizes but remain sound and solid and beautiful at the core.