The Family and Society: An Historical Primer

Witte, John, Jr. “The Family and Society: An Historical Primer.” Presentation to the Religion, Culture, and Family Project conference “Religion and the American Family Debate: Deeper Understandings, New Directions.” Chicago, IL, September 10-11, 1996.

John Witte’s presentation, “The Family and Society: An Historical Primer,” describes the medieval Roman Catholic and early modern Protestant traditions as the legal and social foundations of the Western family, suggesting that these ancient sources “hold the theological genetic code” not only of what the family was but what it can be today. Witte argues that medieval Catholicism understood marriage and the family as natural, contractual and sacramental. The Protestant Reformers, he notes, changed the sacramental for a social interpretation of the family, largely kept the contractual notion, and continued to see the family as a natural association. Witte adds that both sources believed the family to be governed externally by legal authorities and internally by moral authorities. Though contemporary notions of marriage and the family have largely jettisoned paternalism, patriarchy and prudishness, marriage has devolved into a purely contractual arrangement that is excessively individualistic. The ancient Christian traditions, adapted for today’s contexts, can restore a sense of the natural, the sacred and the communal to the family, ideas almost completely abandoned in the West since the 1960s.