The Holy Family

11 08 2010

Just some converging thoughts, along the line of the usual.

I was reading somewhere a footnote with a quote from the historian John Bossy where he wrote something to the effect that the modernization of religion is tied into the transformation of collective religion into individual religion. I think that is a good way of looking at it. But how does that tie in more generally to what was going on in the rest of society?

Then I started to think about the cult of St. Joseph in the West. Why did it evolve so late, and why was it that St. Joseph before the modern period was portrayed as an old man, and why afterwards is he portrayed as a man in his prime? Now, don’t get me wrong. I am very devoted to St. Joseph, but I am wondering whether the interiorization of religion and the rise of the nuclear family (and its apotheosis in Catholicism in the cult to the Holy Family) have anything to do with each other.

As in all questions in the social sciences, you are never going to have a “smoking gun”. Reading certain things in the recent days, however, makes me think that there is at least a significant trend at work here. I suppose I would have to delve into the personal and state that I grew up in an extended family situation. I feel that I was not just raised by my parents, but by my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and even my great-grandmother. So the analogy between the Trinitarian God and the nuclear family (father, mother, child) is somewhat lost on me. In rural Mexican society, you felt more part of a clan than a small nuclear family unit, even on this side of the border.

Perhaps this is also why John Paul II’s theology of the body never appealed to me either. I don’t find anything particularly noble or ascetical about the nuclear family situation in that I am used to the idea that the family is about obligations to your clan, and not some “life decision”. But that is a bit of a digression.

What that has to do with the individualization of religion, I am not sure. Perhaps in such a clan-like environment, religion was most seen as loyalty to familial beliefs and rituals. When I was young, this was even more the case than it is now. Before, there was a real series of rituals of food, prayer, and social interaction that had to be observed by everyone. Now, everyone seems to be going their separate ways (and a couple of them have become evangelicals). So there was a more collective attitude towards faith. Whether or not that is a good or bad thing, I cannot say. Only that even in my mother’s family, it is an endangered species.



8 responses

11 05 2011
Solemnity of St. Joseph « Ius Honorarium

[…] of the prophecies over the unique role St. Joseph played in Salvation history.  Arturo has written before on the cult of St. Joseph in the West, “wondering whether the interiorization of religion and […]

11 08 2010

I’ve wondered the same thing myself. Walk into an Orthodox church and you’ll see Christ, his Blessed Mother and John the Baptist (his cousin: i.e. extended family). But John is replaced with St. Joseph in most Catholic churches; there’s almost always a statue or stained glass of Joseph if not the whole Holy Family. From reading this blog I tend to think it does have something to do with more modern ways of thinking. Not that there is not great devotion to St. John still.

11 08 2010


11 08 2010

I think the domestication of the holy Family is of course linked to modern ideas about what life is about. Most people today believe that life is about self fulfillment in one form or another. The idea of a celibate old man who is the guardian of the Virgin and the Christ child is repulsive to most modern ears. To look at modern portrayals of the holy family one could easily forget the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of the Holy Mother. One could almost hear a group of contemporary Catholics poised before a modern holy family scene saying something like “what they do in the privacy of their own home is their business.” It’s no different with other disturbing Catholic images and individuals. St John the Baptist, a figure who might easily be confused with the local can collecting bum or box dwelling homeless guy is completely absent from the church. What of the nice garden statuary of St Francis? That holy and disturbing fool for Christ. The lives of most saints are rather disturbing to modern ears (not to mention the problem it might cause protestants) if the Church is to remain “relevant” these things have to be cleaned up a bit. Older concepts of family involve unconditional responsibility. Not so today.

11 08 2010
Gerard O'Neill

The nuclear family versus ‘clan’ dichotomy is an interesting one, but I think a false one. I too grew up in a clan-type, Catholic environment (in Northern Ireland), but the driving forces behind the experience were a) the fact that both my parents had large numbers of siblings who in turn went on to have large numbers of children (giving me over 30 cousins); and b) the fact that we mostly all lived in the same town.

Yet I still grew up in a nuclear family… and also experienced being part of a clan. The Catholic Church’s idolization/apotheosis of the nuclear family, so to speak, that you observe may simply be a function of a) smaller families (so fewer cousins) and b) greater geographic dispersion (from suburbia to emigration).

But like you said: we’re talking social science, so there’s never a smoking gun, rather the spread pattern of a shot gun…

11 08 2010
Henry Karlson

I myself find the developments of devotion to St Joseph odd, and I know some think it is used to displace much of the devotion to St John the Baptist. Your thoughts would, in some way, go along with this; St John was, after all, part of the greater clan.

Nonetheless, I do not think the Trinitarian similarities one can find with a couple and child does not have to lead to a focus to the nuclear family. The similarities were noted even in Ante-Nicene times, but it did not lead into some of the oddities as we see today.

11 08 2010
A Sinner

Related points:

-Marx and Engle’s “The Holy Family” and also Feuerbach.

-Also this comment I found on another blog and posted on mine where the guy calls the idolization of the nuclear family “the other secularism”:

11 08 2010
Arturo Vasquez

I should clarify: what I find so unconvincing about modern Catholicism is its attempt to seemlessly create sexual bliss, personal fulfillment, metaphysical identity, and demographic power out of the idea of the “nuclear family”. Perhaps the nuclear family is more conducive to the rhetoric of devotio moderna because it has its foundation in romantic love and not atavistic blood ties. And perhaps I think Catholicism made out of the nuclear family, a social relation based exclusively on the mutual choice of the couple, is barely Catholicism at all. But like I said, I am just jotting some things down.

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