What has to be expected from the Plenary 2022

Pierpaolo Donati


Alma Mater Professor of Sociology, University of Bologna, Italy


A general premise for the Plenary

1. The challenge facing the 2022 Plenary is to understand why, in what sense, and with what practical consequences ‘the family’ is a common good that should be at the heart of all men and women of good will.

Basic questions: What qualifies a family as a common good? The worldwide debate about ‘what is’ and ‘what makes the family’, and what are its outcomes in terms of common goods (or evils), needs a clarification.

As a guideline for the work of the 2022 Plenary, I propose the perspective set out by Pope Francis (Amoris Laetitia, 31): “The welfare of the family is decisive for the future of the world and that of the Church (…) We do well to focus on concrete realities, since ‘the call and the demands of the Spirit resound in the events of history’, and through these ‘the Church can also be guided to a more profound understanding of the inexhaustible mystery of marriage and the family’” (emphasis mine).

The world context

2. All surveys conducted at national and international levels show that the family is at the top of the scale of people’s values under every latitude. People claim that the family is the most important thing in their lives. However, when one tries to clarify what is meant by ‘family’, one enters a field of great uncertainties and contingencies as to the affective, cognitive and symbolic references that the idea and the experience of the family brings with it. In all cases, the challenge is how to think and live love and care between family members. It is therefore a question of specifying, understanding and evaluating the different answers to this challenge that emerge today in people’s life-worlds. What is the ideal of the family? And what is its reality? In the gap between everyday experience and the desired ideal of a beautiful family lies the challenge of love.

3. We are all aware that the family is undergoing deep social and cultural transformations that must be understood and valued in their scope and in their consequences. If we consider the deep and rapid changes that the family faces today all over the world, due to the processes of modernization and globalization, it seems necessary to ask ourselves some basic questions that push us to rethink the fundamentals of the family and its reasons for existence in the present society and in the near future: “why the family, and what for?”. What are the roots of the family as a natural society and to what extent can culture change them? What reasons support the necessity and the goodness of the family beyond the changes in its social functions?

4. The plenary intends to answer these questions. It is intended to assess the phenomenology of the family in the contemporary world from the point of view of the best social sciences and social policies, in order to offer the Catholic social teaching in-depth elements of knowledge about the current situation and, as far as possible, the near future on a global level.

By referring to the analysis of social facts, the conference will reflect on the family on the horizon of its ontological being and in the perspective of exercising its primary tasks. It is a question of understanding how the family can today humanize the person in a society that is not always friendly with the family. The purpose of the Plenary is not to draw up a general descriptive report (there are plenty of them, at national and international level), but to focus on the lines of thought and action that can best support the family in the world of tomorrow. On the one hand, we need to clarify the deeper meaning of the family’s existence – family ontology, from the social, philosophical and theological viewpoints – and, on the other, to evaluate the practical implications for a better family promotion – social policies and good practices in family services – in the perspective of an integral human ecology.

In order to survive, our society needs ‘family friendly’ policies. It is still a question of implementing article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to start a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State”). To implement these human rights, it seems appropriate to deepen the meaning of family relationships today, taking into account the fact that they are necessary for the humanization of people, but also strongly contingent on the life course of people. The target is to make the family flourish as the primary relational good of society. To say that the family is a relational good means to affirm that the destiny and happiness of people depend on the fact that they consider and share family relationships as their fundamental common good. This common good is created by family members, but it is not particularistic and does not remain closed in the private sphere, because it pours its benefits on the community around with positive externalities that constitute the social capital of large social networks.

5. Modern social sciences have shown that family changes decide the most profound and significant changes in society. Every new society is the fruit of new family models. In the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AL), Pope Francis proposes a realistic approach to the theme of the family. He invites us to see the family not as an abstract ideal, but as a “trade” (AL 16) which must be approached with tenderness (AL 28), considering that the Word of God “is not a series of abstract ideas but rather a source of comfort and companionship for every family that experiences difficulties or suffering. For it shows them the goal of their journey” (AL 22). He writes: “Anthropological and cultural changes in our times influence all aspects of life and call for an analytic and diversified approach” that does not “allow an uncritical survival of older forms and models” in pastoral ministry and mission. We must be informed and impassioned interpreters of the wisdom of faith in a context in which “individuals, in personal and family life … receive less and less support from social structures than in the past”. “Faithful to Christ’s teaching we look to the reality of the family today in all its complexity, with both its lights and shadows” (AL 32).

Thinking of the family as a relational good and putting this concrete idea into practice in social policies and welfare services, can be a way to build a new ‘good society’.

The conference is intended to deepen the concept of family as a relational good

6. What is the significance in saying that the family is a “common good”?


Nowadays the family is subjected to a great discussion regarding what qualifies it as such. On one hand, there seems to exist great consent regarding the fact that the family is a common good; on the other hand, everyone interprets the family in one’s own way. It is not in any way clear how the different types of family make a common good for their own members and for the community.

7. The point is that, as soon as one asks which is the significance of the equation “family = common good”, the interpretations wander radically. In national and international surveys the prevailing answer is that the family is a common good in as much as it is at the top of the values shared as a setting of affection, love, and solidarity between intimates. In this sense, the family is a common good simply because the majority of the population shares the attachment to something which is felt as a primary support in everyday life, as a source of deep feelings, as a ‘private’ space, whatever its form. Only a minority sees and sustains the social functions of the family, those that the family performs for society. (In Italy such minority is less than 30%). And so one asks: does the common good that the family represents only consist in a shared value that each individual lives and interprets privately, or does it consist in something more and different?

In this short presentation, I should like to say clearly that the family is a common good in a very different sense in regard to the stereotypes that circulate in the mass media. The common good is not a good of an aggregative type which, as a general concept, consists of the sum of the well-being of the individuals belonging to a group or collectivity, but is instead a good of relational type, which consists in sharing the relationships from which derive both individual and community goods.[1] It is necessary to distinguish between aggregative and generative couples.

What does it mean to read the family in a relational mode (i.e. ‘relationally’)

8. The core of my argument is that it is necessary “to think relationally” about the family. Since human social reality, and the family in the first place, is made up of relations, only with relational thinking can one see something which otherwise remains hidden, latent, unsaid and indescribable, lacking reflexivity. I am referring to those relational goods on which the human quality and spirituality of life of every individual depend.

 If one looks at the image of a mother (or a father) with their small child in their arms, one sees two persons and their glances. One can identify with the feelings of the mother (or of the father) and can appreciate the glances and the gestures of the child. One does this interiorly. The feelings and thoughts of the external observing person, as well as of the mother (or father) and of the child, apparently seem to be events pertaining only to their individual interior life. But it is not exactly so. What happens inside each person is an effect of staying in a certain relationship within a specific relational context. The observing person is not only stimulated by the parent-child relationship she observes, but is living that relationship in herself, in a silent dialogue with that relationship, since the parent and the child are speaking to her through their relationship. These are the relations of which I am talking about. People observe individuals, but they feel and reflect through/with/in the relations to them. We are sensitive to other persons because they talk to us through/with/in the relation they have between them and with us. We, as persons, are ‘individuals-in-relation’ to others in a relational context. Relations shape the context and have an influence on the individuals because they belong to it in some way or another.

Let us imagine what a parent feels and imagine what a child feels. The truth is that we see two individuals, but we think through their relationship, we think with their relation, we put ourselves into their relation. What we feel depends upon the relationship that we act towards these figures and towards the situation in its complexity for what the latter signifies: the meaning of the situation is a relation, or, better, a network of relations.

The same thing occurs when one observes a couple of lovers. One sees two people who look at each other, they talk, they exchange affectionate gestures, they behave between themselves in a certain way: that way is a relation. Whoever observes the partners thinks that s/he can understand what type of relation they have by looking at their faces, their gestures and their communicative expressions. But what is the reality of their relationship? This reality remains invisible. Rarely do the people that live (in) this reality have a reflexive awareness of it. When this reality becomes a problem, to make it emerge, and to treat it in a counselling setting, requires a relational thought capable of comprehending the specific (sui generis) relationship that one is facing and the vicissitudes of this relationship.

9. It is the relationship that guides the perceptions and gives a form to our feelings, which of course are elaborated inside ourselves. A mother with a child, a father with a son, a couple of lovers or a family group find their identity in the relation of reciprocal belonging. The feelings come from that relationship. If there was a different relationship, the feelings would be different. The identity which we attribute to ourselves and to the others would also be different. Emotions and feelings lead people to take a positive identity if they generate a mature relationship, that is if they feed the relational skills of their identities. For example, when we say ‘this is a good mother’, or ‘a good father’, a ‘harmonious couple’, a ‘beautiful family’, or a ‘depressed mother’, or an ‘absent father’, an ‘entangled couple’, an ‘unhappy family’, etc., we refer to individual or collective qualities that are, in fact, relational goods or evils, which however remain impalpable.

10. The problem of the relations is that they are invisible, they are immaterial, they are intangible goods. In order to be able to understand what this means we can compare the reality of social relations with the air. Even air is invisible, it is intangible. However, we cannot live without air. The relationships are the same thing. We cannot live without the relationships. Without social relations, we die as human beings. But the fact is that we can perceive their existence only when they are negative, when they cause us problems, or are absent while we need them. In the case of air this is very clear. If the air is very polluted, or too hot or too cold, then we perceive it exists because it creates problems. The same happens in the family. It is when the bad relationships appear that we perceive the existence of an intangible and vexatious reality that eludes us. The relationships are part of our existence, not only corporeal but also and above all psychological, cultural and spiritual. When they become an irritating problem, then we are forced to reflect on as what to do, and we must find an “order from noise”.

A parallel comparison could be done with the light. In fact, we do not see the light as such, but we see things through/with/in the light. If we are in the dark, we cannot see anything. The light shows us the reality around us. In a large lit hall, we see that some things are illuminated more and others less, the beams of light colour in various ways people and things. And yet we do not see the light as we do not see social relations, but it is they who make us see persons and things. Their effect becomes visible when we turn off the light or we change their color and intensity. But still we cannot see the light as such.

The difference between the air and the social relationship is very instructive. The air is a mixture of various gases which doesn’t have an appropriate molecule. Social relationships are different because, when stabilized, they have a specific ‘social molecule’. To say that stable social relations have their own proper social molecule, while the air doesn’t, means that: (i) they exist as external reality with regards to the terms of the relationship, that is they are an emerging phenomenon (the Latin ex-sistere means ‘stay outside’ with its own consistency), whereas the air is only a mix of elements, i.e. an aggregative phenomenon; (ii) this emergent structure has sui generis properties, qualities and causal powers which are not the sum of those pertaining to its components (like in the formation of water H2O from hydrogen and oxygen).

The family has its own ‘molecular structure’ in so far as it emerges from the combination of the couple relation and the generative relation, with their agents and their own emergent effect, which means that, from these relations, a reality of different order comes into being that is called ‘family’. By analogy with the biological genome, I call it the ‘social genome of the family’. It is on the backdrop of this structure, which of course is highly dynamic, that the family can generate the relational goods (or, in case it fails, the relational evils) for itself and the surrounding community.

11. The world regarding social relations is a world in which we live like the air, but of which in ordinary life one is little or not aware, because one takes for granted the air itself. Just as today we realize that we have to take care of the air that is subject to pollution processes, so we must do the same with the family. Ecological problems are not only physical and material but concern the social and spiritual: this is integral ecology.

The activities of counselling and various therapeutic practices are ways that try to bring to the surface these relationships, rendering them more conscious and reflexive. In order to understand the relational dynamics in a family, practitioners need to organize their observations with certain modalities, i.e. they have to ponder relations by relying upon n-th order observations and relational feedbacks. Automatic feedbacks can be useful in terms of producing practical therapeutic effects, as when the practitioner adopts the technique of enjoining a paradoxical prescriptive norm according to the therapeutic model developed by the so-called Milano school (Milan family systems approach) and, more generally, by the school of systemic family therapy. But in this case social relations are not properly ‘seen’ and accounted for, they are only ‘performed’, they are used without achieving a deep understanding of their meaning. If people want to have families who are aware of what is happening within them, they have to activate a specific relationality able to be reflexive about their own relations, which means to foster a relational reflexivity in the interactions between the family members.

12. In pre-modern societies and yet again in early modernity, the world of social relationships was taken for granted. Society had its direction sufficiently stable, reproductive, based on mores and customs, in majority of religious origin. It was a society guided by habit (habitus). The society in which we live today is instead increasingly morphogenetic, which means that it continuously generates new social forms. We are living in the social morphogenesis. If we want to orient ourselves in the world, we must necessarily render the relationships more explicit and reflexive. We cannot take them for granted. The family must respond to the reflexive imperative, which means that it must become a ‘reflexive family’. A family is reflexive not only because its members are individually reflexive, insofar as they have adequate inner conversation, but because they reflect together on the common relationship that binds them as a community. This is relational reflexivity, different from individual reflexivity. Family relationships change constantly and, because of this, our comprehension needs to be made “more relational”. There aren’t any more fixed models and consequent deviances: we have to deal with processes of relational morphogenesis.

We need a new relational paradigm in family studies

13. In as much as the relationships nowadays are becoming morphogenetic, we have to arm ourselves with a new relational paradigm of the human person, of the family and of the whole society. This need regards all of the human and social sciences, but one must be careful: their exists many and different so-called ‘relational paradigms’. The fundamental distinction passes between constructivist and realistic paradigms, that is, in other words, between relationist (relativist) and properly relational (non-relativist) paradigms. The mystery of marriage and the family lies in the meaning of their complex relationality.

a) In those relational approaches that adopt a constructivist perspective, social relationships are seen as subjected to a radical contingency in all their elements, i.e. their situational goals, means, rules and value-pattern. For instance, the ‘pure relationship’ theorized by Anthony Giddens is seen in this way: the partners of a couple stay together until they can derive pleasure and satisfaction from their situational relationship.[2] From the agency’s point of view, relations are reduced to contingent exchanges and transactions. In a more radical version, they are reduced to communications and only to communications. In brief: the relations are seen as flows or transactions without specific qualities and without causal powers because they do not have their own structure. Consequently, we cannot talk about relational goods (and relational evils) specifically produced by couples and families. The latter are assumed to be generic primary groups, which they are not.[3]

Within a constructivist approach, the relational goods and evils are not distinguishable any more, they mix up. Since reality is considered as a social and cultural construction, the good and the bad become subjective feelings: no more rules and deviances, but only processes ad paradoxes, the sharing of problems, “a normal chaos of love”.

b) In those relational approaches that adopt a realist perspective (not that one naïve, but critical), instead, the relationships create, willing or not, structures, which are networks of relationships. These networks are made up not only of communications, but of a much more consistent ‘stuff’. Communications depend upon the web of relationships in which they occur. For instance, the relationship networks which form the families are born by flows of communications and transactions, but they emerge as a reality which goes well beyond the contents of the explicit communications and transactions. To give just an example, when a family has to decide where to go on holiday, and the members of the family make wholly different choices, one perceives that an agreed relationship is something at stake that exceeds not only their individual preferences, but also any possible combinations of them unless each one takes care first of all of their relationship as the good to be preserved. This reality is an emerging effect, that is a relational good (or bad, in case of failure), which, in its turn, induces positive or negative behaviours. Through these processes, virtues and/or vices are generated not only in the interior life of everyone, but in their relation as well. Consequently, one can and has to speak of good and bad relationships, which are distinguishable not just on the basis of pre-established rules and deviances, rather than as products of a sui generis relational structure. The chaos of love is a structure, either one wants or not.

One cannot understand a familiar dynamic if one does not intend it as an emerging effect from the same good or bad relationships which it produces. The family is not a group of aggregated individuals, it is a social relationship which emerges, if it emerges, from its own constitutive genome. It does not appear if it does not generate as such. The social genome of the family is a circumflex structure between four elements: the motivation of free giving, the rule of reciprocity, the sexuality and procreativity.[4] That which we call family in demographic and social statistics is simply group of individuals.

14. To see the family, one has to observe it “adequately”. Briefly: as one cannot see the virus with the naked eye one has to use an electronic microscope, likewise to see the relationships one needs a relational paradigm, which is our microscope. The relationship is not a simple exchange of things, so as water is not a transaction between hydrogen and oxygen. It is not even a type of channel in which the things which we exchange, for example the words I say to you and the glances that you have towards me. These words and glances build relationships that we cannot see, as we cannot see the light in the room. To see and understand the relationship one must put in act an operation of reflexivity, which means to go back on to what has come out from my previous interaction with the Other. We have to reflect upon the interactions that generate a new and irreducible reality in regards to the elements that they have generated.

This is the ‘being’ which is (inside) the relationship. The expression “being in relation” indicates a richness which is to be explored even more.

In order to manage the relationship one has to be reflexive in the sense of exercising both personal and relational reflexivity on the relationship itself.[5] The couples nowadays are highly deficient exactly regarding this. They individualize each partner’s ‘I/Self’ rather than make it relational. This leads to generate relational evils. In order to activate relational goods, both partners should exercise one’s reflexivity regarding the couple’s relationship and redefine continuously one’s personal and social identity, which changes in time, within it.[6]

The postmodern society does not help us. It conceives of the couple as a foam bubble, like in the paintings by Hieronymus Bosch. Therefore, an increasing number of couples are prey to what we call impeded or fractured forms of reflexivity. The partners are not able to integrate their personal and relational identity either in themselves or regarding the other.

On the other hand, ‘making a family’ means seeing and coping, that is living, a relationship of We, the We-relation, which consists in being part of a community of reference in which and from which depends one’s own well-being. But who is this We?

In my opinion, this ‘We’ is a family as “relational subject”[7] that willingly or unwillingly creates relational goods or relational evils.

The family as a We-relation

15. One asks oneself: does the We of the family mean being part of a collective entity (called family community) which dominates the individual and compels the same to subdue, or is it a reality that makes it flourish through its own familiarly relation? Both types of outcomes are possible. This is precisely the distinction between the families who produce relational evils and those who produce relational goods. The family is a good relation and produces relational goods if and when it can do so in such a way as every individual can personalize one’s own role in the family network, which signifies to make it become a mature individual “relational subject”.

The relational subject is not the “plural subject” or the ‘we think’ which someone refers to,[8] neither is it a type of collective conscience.[9] A collective conscience that thinks for each one of us in the family does not exist. There exists certainly a collective culture in the sense of a set of representations, images, styles of life which are shared by individuals and influence their agency. We, in fact, are immersed in this collective culture every day, inside and outside the family. However, this does not mean that the We of the collective culture matches with our personal conscience. Least of all, that the We signifies that everyone thinks in the same way. Something alike can occur in tribal societies, where the individual reflexivity is highly dependent upon the clan’s socio-cultural structure.[10]

In order to understand the existence of a Self that stays freely in the contest of the We, we have to refer to the concept of relational good.[11] The family members are a We to the extent, and in so far as they generate together a good which is born from their differences, it has to be compatible with the differences but also has to converge on a shared wellness in the liberty of everyone. This ‘good’ is anything that is done together (eating, going for a walk, going on holiday) or that requires the cooperation of each one (in the division of labour, in the decision-making process, etc.).

Here we verify the fact that in every moment of life we meet (or we collide) with the evidence of the differences (between the Self and the others, between the We on one side and the Other on the other side). The relationships either join us, but also differentiate us: they make us different inside the same We. This property of social relations, consisting in the fact that they unite the terms at the same time that they promote their differentiation, is what I call the ‘enigma of the relation’.[12] The relationship means distance, it says difference, and at the same time it says connection, link. Therefore, we have to understand how the good that is in the We-relationship can be compatible with the differences between those who generate and those who take advantage of it.

Let us make an example. Only a mother or a father who are aware of the fact that the child is a person who was born from them, and therefore is part of their identity (of father and mother), but is in fact the child of their relationship and at the same time another person different to them, are truly ‘generative’. Those parents (women and men) who say “I want a child to fulfil myself” (that is in my child I find my identity) do not generate a different person from themselves, but they generate (or try to generate) a copy of themselves, that is they generate Another that has to realize their own ‘I’. The relationship is that of an identity which tries to possess the other. The Other becomes entirely subordinated in its identity. There is no real reciprocity between the parent and the child. The relationship is seen as narcissism, and the relational goods cannot be generated or are generated only partially and insufficiently.

The social norm of reciprocity

16. In order to generate a relational good, the differences between the members of a family have to be managed in a certain way, i.e. they should be treated according to the norm of reciprocity. When this happens, one perceives the idea that love is knowing how to generate the different, to know it, offer it as a gift, live it as a gift. Love is not only a sentiment, it is a relationship of full reciprocity. In this and only in this relationship (the relationships are all different between them), the difference is not anymore a pure difference, it is not a split, but it is a relationship interpreted as an added value for whoever stays in that relationship.[13] It is a relational good which stays in the relationship, not outside it. If the difference becomes separated from the relationship that establishes the difference, we have the crises of who remains in the relation. The relationship stops being a meaningful difference and becomes a ‘thing’, it becomes reified, and generally it leads to degradation. One gives a label to the other person which reduces her to a thing. This happens to us every day, when, instead of having a relationship of an ‘I-You’ kind with another person, one labels and commodifies the other person in the relationship of the ‘I-It’ kind.[14] The relationship to the Other becomes a cliché. This happens when we give up to have confidence in the others and to cooperate with them because we consider them unable or unreliable. But there is another example of this, namely the reduction of the relationship, with its challenging differences, to a request for a recipe on how to behave. Take, for instance, a father who asks his friend what he has to say to his adolescent son about sexuality issues: he is simply reducing his problem of a good relationality with his son to a recipe of things to be reported to him.

Family life becomes a producer of relational goods if and when its members are able to manage their differences, and the related needs, ‘relationally’. Relational goods are resources which consist of relationships, they are not material things or functional performances. One is now able to understand why the family is a common good not in as much as a public good, or in as much as a private good, but in as much as a relational entity. A typology of social goods can be useful to understand better these differences.

If one classifies the social goods according to two axes: (i) the competitive/non-competitive character of the good, and (ii) the opportunity to choose/not-to-chose the good that one wants, we find four types of goods.

The public goods are those which are not competitive and which the persons cannot choose individually. The private goods, on the contrary, are competitive and can be chosen liberally. Different from these types there are the competitive goods which do not allow an individual choice (called secondary, associative relational goods), and the non-competitive goods in which people are free to choose (called primary relational goods). The family is a primary relational good.

Precisely because the family is a non-competitive good (it is a social form without functional equivalents), although the individual can choose between family and family, this social form can produce relational goods which the other social goods cannot create.

17. The family is a relational good (i) in itself for its members, given the fact that it can generate what other life styles cannot generate, and (ii) it is a relational good for the society because it develops functions that no other form of life can fulfil.

The literature regarding these arguments is endless. I should like here only to remember the fact that only the family produces the actual primary social virtues. The personal virtues are referred to the person as such, and their centre of indictment is the individual conscience. The social virtues are referred to the relationships between the people. The family is not just a place where the personal virtues are cultivated, but is also and above all the social infungible operator which transforms the personal virtues in social virtues.

Virtuous is the human person who is its subject. But the virtue can and must be referred also to the social relationships, and more generally to every intentional system of social action, like: to give and to receive trust, availability to the cooperation, reciprocity, responsibility. These primary social virtues are learned within the family or otherwise are never learned anymore. It is for this reason that we say that the family, based on the full reciprocity between the sexes and between the generations, is infungible, it does not have functional equivalents, it is the major social resource that the society can have. If a particular society consumes this resource, or even loses it, it undergoes many and such difficulties that, in the long run, it cannot survive.

The knowledge that comes from empirical research

18. At worldwide level, the debate regarding the family is nowadays concentrated on a basic question: is the natural family (‘normo-constituted’, both nuclear and extended) still a resource for the people and for the society, or is it, instead, a survival from the past which impedes the emancipation of the individuals and the advent of a freer, more equal, and happier society?

The empirical researches on the family as a social resource give interesting answers. They show that the natural family is above all a resource, instead of a restraint, for the wellbeing of the society.[15]

(i) The couple and the marriage. The empirical resources which have compared the effects of the different lifestyles on the people and on the society show that the married couples or those who are orientated towards marriage are more generative of relational goods with regards to all the other forms.[16]

(ii) The relationships between the generations. The families normo-established realize solidarity between the generations much more and better than the other forms of life. Children who live with their own parents benefit in their physical and psychological health, as well as they have major life expectancies, in regards to those who live in other contexts. The analysis of three different family structures, families with united parental couples, recomposed families and the one-parent families, evidence the greater fragility of these two last mentioned family structures. The breakage of the marital bond is related to a certain closure towards the external world and encourages an optimistic view of family life little inclined to assume responsibility towards the community. Particularly lacking is the capacity of the one-parent family to realize the cultural transmission and solidarity between generations, because these families have to confront in solitude the challenges linked to the growth of the children, as well as the pressures in the workplace.

(iii) Family and work. The family is a relational good for the working world because it compensates the market failures and rectifies certain relational ills produced by the place of work (stress, etc.). The working world “exploits” the family-resources and those do not take account of sufficiency of the requirements of family life. From here the enormous difficulty of the families, especially those with more children, to harmonize family and professional life. It is necessary that the working world recognizes the relational goods of the family and responds subsidiary to the family using those forms of reconciliation between family life and work in terms of time and adequate services.

(iv) Family, civic participation and social capital. The stable family is the source of primary capital of the society and it promotes responsible participation of the citizens in the public affairs. This fact is positively correlated to the number of children. The social capital consists in the relationships of trust, cooperation and reciprocity of the family which the family creates both internally (known as bonding social capital) and in those external networks, that is relationship, neighbourhood, friendship groups, associations (bridging) social capital. Consequently, the family is a resource of added social value not only because it forges better individuals under the profile of their health and their well-being, but also and above all in as much as it generates a woven community, that is a civil and public sphere, which requires rules and values of human life and thus promotes the common good.

These results lead to a very precise conclusion: the natural family is and remains the vital source of the society. The globalized society – in respect to the past – requires its presence more and more, and not just always less, because of the multiple roles of meditation which the family is called to accomplish in order to get both a better quality of life for the people and the development of the personal and social virtues.

A new historical phase

19. One can say that nowadays a new historical phase is opening, after the deinstitutionalization of the family. One can prospect the possibility that the changes underway can generates structures and relational structures that give a new institutional sense to the family.[17]

One has to take note that on the empirical level in as much as the family can suffer mutations, its constitutive genome does not cease to be the fons et origo of the society. Without this genome the society loses the quality and its own power of that living organism (fundamental cell) that, instead of being a burden for the society, constitutes the primary factor of humanization of the persons and of the social life.

The positive qualities of the family manifest themselves particularly in families where there are vulnerable or disabled members, because in those are activated special needs in management of the person in difficulty. These families develop special virtues, which one can call (empowerment) and (resilience). From such virtues derive the social advantages which the family with disabled or not self-sufficient members offers to the society, in as much as the commitment which the family poses in the rehabilitation and social inclusion of the person in difficulty in all of the social spheres from school to work signifies, believing in the possibility of social recovery of the most vulnerable and marginalized. Another example of families which generate goods for the whole society is given by the adoptive families and foster families.

20. Contrary to what most mass-media propagate as shared public opinion, the empirical research states that the nuclear family is the primary source of the society and remains the vital source of those societies which are more bearers of the future. The reason for which is simple: it is from the family that originates the primary social capital needed by society. The civil capital of the society is generated by the social virtues of the family, which has no functional equivalent. The globalized society can find a future civility if and to the extent that it will be capable of promoting a relational culture of the family able to rethink family life as the vital link between private well-being and public happiness.

Operationally it means recognizing a new culture regarding family rights based upon the principle that families, to develop their tasks, and build trust and social solidarity, must have access to their own rights. This means to recognize the citizenship rights of the family. Families should be considered subjects of a social citizenship pertaining to them as such. The family is a social subject which has its own complex of rights and duties in the political and civil community because of the irreplaceable mediations that it actually exerts.[18]

Family policy issues

21. The political and social systems can be evaluated according to the type and grade of promotional recognition which is given to the family in as much as a social subject which generates relational goods. One must admit that most political-social systems, instead of valuating and promoting the families as producers of individual and social goods, penalize them, because they do not recognize their social functions. This explains the decline in the birth rate, the ageing of the population, the fragmentation of the families and the woven community, and in general a series of social and psychological pathologies.

Social policies can be defined as family friendly provided that they have as a focal purpose the making of the family, and they don’t limit themselves only to pursue general purposes of well-being for the population, even if noble and positive, such as the fight against poverty or the reduction of unemployment. The latter are implicit and indirect with respect to family relationships, and quite often they do not promote the family as such. Therefore, they cannot automatically be defined as support and promotion of the social value of the family. Family policy requires specific direct and explicit measures in favour of the family’s potential to produce its relational goods. A policy is familiar if it aims explicitly to support the social functions and the added social value of the family as social capital. Concretely, the reconciliation policies between the family and work should be implemented according to the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity.

22. It is necessary to place side by side the policies regarding equal opportunities between men and women (gender mainstreaming) with an adequate family mainstreaming, which consists in the policies of support to the family relationships, that is to the relationships of reciprocity both between the adults who compose the family and between the generations.

Examples in such a direction are: policies of conciliation between family and work, tax policies which recognize the family expenses and sustain the educational functions of the family, policies regarding acceptance of life, social and sanitary services concentrated upon the support of the couple’s relationship and parenting, etc.

Particular mention deserve experiences as follows: (a) local alliances for the family, that is those practises which mobilize public and private actors to pursue family friendly policies in the local community, building social networks ad hoc in which every actor (schools, enterprises, hospitals, shops, entertainment, public institutions, etc.) provides its own resources and facilities to value the intra-family relationships and between the different families, coordinating the use of these resources to sustain the families in every sphere of daily life.[19] (b) The Families Group Conferences which try to resolve the family problems through the interactive encounter between the families which share a problem.[20] (c) The Districts for the family designed and made in the Province of Trento that mobilize the resources of the community to sustain the family life through forms of partnership between public and private actors, and the creation of new social networks, co-production of services, personalization of services to the families, the so-called ‘family districts’.[21]

All of these initiatives are based on a relational philosophy and methodologies of networking which aim to promote the family as a relational good for itself and for the community through interactive relational networks which stimulate the development of the natural potentials of the same families. The relational steering can be the solution which transforms the bad into the good relationships.


[1] P. Donati (2019), Discovering the Relational Goods: Their Nature, Genesis and Effects, in “International Review of Sociology”, vol. 29, n. 2, pp. 238-259.
[2] A. Giddens (1992). The Transformation of Intimacy. Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies. Cambridge: Polity Press.
[3] L.H. Walters (1982). ‘Are Families Different from Other Groups?’, Journal of Marriage and the Family, 44 (4), pp. 841-850.
[4] P. Donati (2013). La famiglia. Il genoma che fa vivere la società. Soveria Mannelli: Rubbettino.
[5] P. Donati (2021), Transcending modernity with relational thinking, London: Routledge.
[6] Sasha Roseneil & Kaisa Ketokivi (2015), ‘Relational Persons and Relational Processes: Developing the Notion of Relationality for the Sociology of Personal Life’. Sociology, DOI: 10.1177/0038038514561295.
[7] Precisely a collective relational subject: see P. Donati, M.S. Archer (2015). The Relational Subject. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, part II.
[8] On the ‘plural subject’ see M. Gilbert (2000). Sociality and Responsibility: New Essays in Plural Subject Theory. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefied. On the ‘group belief’ see R. Tuomela (1991). ‘Group Beliefs’. Synthese, 91, pp. 285-318.
[9] M. Douglas (1986). How Institutions Think. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press.
[10] See the famous book by E. Durkheim on The elementary forms of the religious life (1912). Something similar can happen also today in those ‘tribal settings’ which have been described by Michel Maffesoli.
[11] P. Donati (2019). Scoprire i beni relazionali. Per generare una nuova socialità, Soveria Mannelli: Rubbettino.
[12] P. Donati (2015). L’enigma della relazione. Milano-Udine: Mimesis edizioni.
[13] P. Donati (2013). ‘The added value of social relations’, Italian Journal of Sociology of Education, 5 (1), pp. 19-35 (available online).
[14] The distinction between ‘I-You’ and ‘I-It’ is the one drawn by Martin Buber (1988). The Knowledge of Man. Selected Essays. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International.
[15] A wide panorama of national and international researches is debated in the book P. Donati (ed.) (2012). Famiglia risorsa della società. Bologna: il Mulino. See also P. Donati and P. Sullins (eds.) (2015). The Conjugal Family: An Irreplaceable Resource for Society. Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
[16] P. Donati (2014), ‘Why the Family Makes a Difference with Respect to Lifestyles’, Anthropotes, 30 (2), pp. 545-577.
[17] Michael Gilding (2000). ‘Reflexivity over and above convention: the new orthodoxy in the sociology of personal life, formerly sociology of the family’. The British Journal of Sociology, 61 (4), pp. 757-777.
[18] P. Donati (2007). ‘The Fundamental Principles of Family Policy: Rethinking the “Rights of the Family” in a Society Undergoing Globalization’. In A. Scott Loveless and Thomas B. Holman (eds.). The Family in the New Millennium. Strengthening the Family. Westport, Connecticut. Praeger Publishers, pp. 274-305.
[19] Jan Schroeder (2008). “The German Initiative ‘Lokale Bündnisse für Familie’”, M.S. Archer and P. Donati (eds), Pursuing the Common Good: How Solidarity and Subsidiarity Can Work Together, Vatican City: Vatican Press, pp. 356-376.
[20] Jaakko Seikkula and Tom Erik Arnkil (2006). Dialogical Meet Social Networks, London: Karnac Books.
[21] Luciano Malfer (2013). L’esperienza trentina del ‘Distretto per la Famiglia’, Progetto speciale Coordinamento politiche familiari, Provincia autonoma di Trento.




The family and integral ecology

WEBINAR April 14-15, 2021 In preparation for the 2022 PASS Plenary on 'The family as a relational... Read more

©2012-2017 The Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences


Share Mail Twitter Facebook