Book Review: The Choice of the Family by Jean Laffitte

2015, “The Choice of the Family: A Call to Wholeness, Abundant Life, and Enduring Happiness.”

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I saw this book and picked it up because the title posed an unusual juxtaposition of the words “choice” and “family.” For someone immersed in the regular, secular media, like I am, “choice” is a word associated with abortion, not usually with traditional family structures. This interview with Jean Laffitte, Bishop and Head of the Pontifical Council for the Family, instead aims to show that he sees accurately the challenges facing the family as well as its importance as an authentic path for personal development and holiness, rather than a mere default position that people slip into out of lack of resistance.

The Choice of the Family takes up the call of Pope St. John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical Familiaris Consortio, which said:

“Since God’s plan for marriage and the family touches men and women in the concreteness of their daily existence in specific social and cultural situations, the Church ought to apply herself to understanding the situations within which marriage and the family are lived today, in order to fulfill her task of serving.”

From the opening which goes through Laffitte’s background and his studies at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Life, the book highlights that the family is an under-studied and under-recognized force in social life and also how clearly Laffitte sees the struggles facing men and women in family life today.

The Significance of the Family

So often we do not appreciate just how much we receive from our families. The modern age is typically conceived of as comprised of atomized individuals. Yet in actuality, each of us is born into specific constraints, gifts and relations that come from our families. Carl Anderson’s, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, summarizes it well in his statement in the Introduction:

Each family exists within a living ecology–a unique environment shaped by the dynamism of its members, who present a variety of age, health, maturity, responsibility….No institution in society can shape and, in so many ways, determine a person’s life to the same extent as the man and woman who give one life, and the family with which one shares one’s formative years.”

The family we are born into gives us the foundational relationships in our lives, brings us up in a history of culture and lived experience whether these concepts are consciously acknowledged or not.

Cohabitation: Fear of Being Alone

The family is also where we will confront our inner darkness. Laffitte explains the widespread practice of cohabitation: “There is a fear of remaining alone. A lot of people are not able to be alone for ten minutes; they absolutely must enter into a relationship, telephoning, speaking, sending messages” (42).

So often we desire to be among others, to be affirmed, but first Laffitte says: “Yet man may only come out of solitude on the condition that it has first been confronted and not avoided” (43).

If solitude and loneliness are not faced, he later explains, divorce becomes likely when the spouse no longer provides the level of emotional affirmation the other seeks. So when couples run into hardship, the instinct is to pull away to find greener pastures elsewhere, but this solves nothing and the situation of fleeing from trouble is likely to recur again and again.

To be whole as individuals, as children of God and as spouses, Laffitte says, we must learn to stand alone before ourselves and God. This sometimes painful but fruitful experience must be undergone before marriage and over and over again within it. Solitude is a “structuring experience,” he says.

Yet despite the difficulties posed by cohabitation and high levels of divorce, “There is something very attractive in conjugal sanctity because it is a holiness that passes through the mediation of human love in its most brilliant form.”

The Separateness of the Spouses

The unity promised by marriage is attractive, but Laffitte is unwavering on the important truth that the husband and wife inevitably remain separate persons:

“Two persons who united together never form one person. They remain two subjects having freedom….Why? Because we have two ontological realities that are very distinct from each other … One forms a single being to the degree that there is a communion of desire, of feelings and of affection, but, within the choice of love, each remains sovereign in his given freedom until the very end.”

This bit of clear-eyed acknowledgement reveals Laffitte’s (and the Church’s) well-balanced and honest understanding of human relationships. So often we hear about “unity” in marriage that we can easily veer into the error of forgetting the unique individuality of the spouses. The difference between healthy relationships and unhealthy ones is not the presence of disagreements, but how they are dealt with. When we remember the distinctness and individuality of our spouse, that he or she has different opinions and motivations while both good, we can learn to get along. Interpersonal communion is only truly possible through this separation that acknowledges the other as unique, as someone who must undergo her or his own experience of solitude before God.

Overall, Laffitte is both profoundly understanding of the trials afflicting marriages and also hopeful, hopeful that the struggles can be overcome charitably. And he does something valuable. Sometimes to accurately describe and know a problem is to help see the way out of it. At the very least, the Church is certainly “in touch” with the experiences of family today.

I got this book free from the Blogging for Books program. My thoughts and opinions are my own.

This essay was originally published on the Truth and Charity Forum of HLI at http://www.truthandcharityforum.org/book-review-the-choice-of-the-family-an-interview-with-jean-laffitte/

Questions: in what ways has family life shaped you? Do you think Laffitte gets it right? Are we people who are afraid of being alone?

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