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Institute observes major social change over 50 years

By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News


OTTAWA (CCN) — The Vanier Institute of the Family marked its 50th anniversary June 10-11 with a conference that revealed how much society and notions of family have changed in five decades.
Governor General Georges and Pauline Vanier founded the institute in 1965 as a non-religious institute to help social scientists understand the family so as to better support it. The Catholic couple for whom a cause for sainthood is underway might be astonished to see how much the family and marriage have been redefined both legally and societally since then.

Mary Frances Coady, author of Georges and Pauline Vanier: Portrait of Couple and the soon-to-be-published Mercy Within Mercy: Georges and Pauline Vanier and the Search for God (Darton Longman & Todd) said in an email it would be difficult to speculate on what the Vaniers’ reaction would be to the current changes.

“That said, however, I know that the Vaniers believed that a strong and loving family unit was essential for a healthy society,” she wrote. “They were under no illusion about the difficulties of marriage and family life, and they saw brokenness within their own family and in families that were close to them. Such experiences deepened their compassion.”

“They were obviously people of their time, but their lives were also deeply rooted in the love and mercy of God,” she said. “Did they wonder what paths the Vanier Institute might take after their deaths? Not that I can recall from the archived documents.”

In a panel on love June 11 at the Vanier Institute conference, a range of experts representing a variety of family backgrounds and present day combinations and working in various advocacy roles painted a complex picture of multiple family types.

Mary Gordon, founder of Roots of Empathy, a program designed to help young children learn how to empathize with others, said that while society may change the shape of the family, “children have the same exact needs you had when you were children.”

The first relationship, that of a mother with an infant, is the first relational template that affects the rest of the child’s life, she said. “We screw up the family and we have to create a whole host of organizations to deal with the outcome.”

Gordon said all children need to “have a sense of belonging,” and to be surrounded by unconditional love.

Coming from “a very Catholic” extended family in Newfoundland, Gordon said her mother welcomed everyone, from the unwed mother to the drunk just released from jail to the family table.

Gordon said she experienced a lot of love in her home, and was taught that everyone was a step away from having a hard time. Consequently, she was taught that people experiencing hard times should not be treated as if it is their fault.

“The family should be cherished and not blamed and shamed,” she said.

University of Ottawa sociological and anthropological studies professor Jean-Christophe Demers told the approximately 300 delegates that family bonds are created around love, but that he has found from his personal background that “love is not enough to keep the family together.” Demers said he experienced a breakdown in the relationship with his child’s mother that has led to difficulties with access to his child.

“Love is not enough to guarantee continuity,” he said.

Yet love “as a feeling” has become so prevalent in defining the postmodern family, he said.

The shift from more traditional notions of family was “extremely brutal,” he said. The quest for self-realization and changes in gender roles have created new forms of social ties and new forms of work. Globalization and economic pressures are also having an impact, he said.

Families ties are activated according to preferences, he said, but “that makes relationships subject to change.” The family has shifted from being an institution geared to producing children and caring for them, to being one based on relationships that further self-identity and affective bonds.

But seeing the family in this plastic way, as always subject to change, means that a few decades from now families might not be defined in terms of love, because they were not defined that way in the past, he said.

Demers said the changes proposed by the Second Vatican Council were “so light” the church “had a hard time distinguishing itself.” That did not mean the church did not offer alternatives to believers, he said, but the church no longer had the same influence on their lives as societal pushes for freedom and equality.

Peter Tilley, a single father of a 19-year-old daughter, said the empowerment of women has led to great changes in the family. In the 1950s and ’60s, the man was the breadwinner, and the woman had no choice to be able to leave, he said. Previously there were few outside influences on the family other than religion, but now there are many more, especially through the role of screens, whether computers or phones. While Facebook may be good to help connect families across generations that are now living in different parts of the world, social media now have a great influence on developing a child’s values than their families, he said. “Parents have no control.”

As executive director of The Ottawa Mission, an outreach to homeless people, Tilley said most of the people they serve come from “broken” family units. “Most are no longer in touch with their families,” he said. Many have mental health and addiction issues, he said.

He sees bonds form among the homeless, who then look out for each other. Tilley said when a homeless person goes into hospice care and the Mission contacts the families, “it’s amazing how fast people want to reconnect.”

Sometimes they’ll take mats to sleep on the floor of their family member’s room, through a “desire to understand and to get closure.” These might be “families without love, trying to figure out what went wrong and how to bring it together,” Tilley said.

Queer activist and lawyer barbara findlay spoke of growing up the eldest of five children in a working class family that “survived on abuse and secrets and convention.”

When she first revealed as a young woman that she was lesbian, she was sent to a mental institution and no one in her family visited, she said. “Homophobia” has continued to cause “a rift” between her and her siblings, she said.

Discovering the lesbian community was a great joy that helped her to experience love and to “know who I was,” she said. However, when she began to advocate for transgender rights, her “chosen family” began to reject her. For findlay, “love and support and connection is family.”

“It is our relationships that make us human,” she said. She said hiding certain types of relationships such as transgendered parents and polyandrous relationships and not treating them as equal does violence to those relationships.

The state should support loving and caring relationships among people whether or not they are in a family, she said, noting that in her home province of British Columbia five legal parents can be recognized on a birth certificate, from biological parents, to surrogates, to sperm or egg donors.

Determining at birth that a child is male or female is a form of state-certified discrimination that will follow a child for the rest of its life, she said.

Keynote speaker June 10 for the 50th anniversary conference was award-winning author Andrew Solomon, who wrote Far from the Tree, about the raising of children, such as those with disabilities, or great genius, who are very different from their parents. The philanthropist and gay rights activist has fathered a child for a lesbian couple, and one of the women then acted as a surrogate mother for the child he is raising with his husband.

Conference speakers represented an array of academic disciplines, human rights experts, think-tanks and social service agencies.

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