Family Associations and their Societal Role

Vincenzo Bassi | Federation of Catholic Family Associations in Europe (FAFCE)

Family Associations and their Societal Role


As it is written in the Book of Genesis, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2,18). Nor is it good for families to be alone; the family cannot be isolated like a monad, Pope Francis told us when he received us to mark the 20th anniversary of the founding of the European Federation of Catholic Family Associations (FAFCE). As the Pope underlined, “Families need to go out from themselves; they need to dialogue and to encounter others, in order to build a unity that is not uniformity and that can generate progress and advance the common good” (Address of Pope Francis to the participants of the meeting organised by FAFCE, Clementine Hall, Vatican City, 1 June 2017).

To respond to this need, Catholic family networks provide a framework of mutual assistance and action, united to the pastors and with the strength of the evangelical announcement.

Mutual Help

For more than a century, family associations all over Europe have been established to organise, above all, mutual aid between neighbouring families. In France, in the 1920s, rural families gathered to buy a washing machine that passed from family to family during the week; later, they did the same with a television set, which they gathered to watch together during family evenings.

In responding to concrete needs, family associations facilitate exchange, dialogue, sharing; they contribute to the project that God has entrusted to the family, of making the world more domestic and favouring a “strong injection of family spirit” into our communities (Amoris Laetitia 183).

The family association, therefore, is naturally called to respond to new and evolving needs in accordance with the specific times and places in which they arise. Often, family associations meet needs well before they are provided by the public, so-called “welfare”, systems.

In Poland, for example, family associations help large families find homes and create networks of family-friendly local authorities. In Austria, they utilize their networks to welcome migrants and refugees. In the Czech Republic, they come to the aid of young mothers in difficulty, as well as parents with disabled children, and so forth.

Since the very beginning, family networks have been concerned first and foremost with education, because schools cannot do everything. Too often, parents find themselves deprived of means to take on the breadth of the task entrusted to them, since, as the Pope reminds us in Amoris Laetitia (84) “the overall education of children is a ‘most serious duty’ and at the same time a ‘primary right’ of parents. This is not just a task or a burden, but an essential and inalienable right that parents are called to defend and of which no one may claim to deprive them”. In other words, it is a question of a munus (id est “communion”, ‘duty’), intrinsically linked to the experience of motherhood and fatherhood. The educational sphere does not merely concern itself with the transmission of knowledge; rather, it bears responsibility for the formation of good habits, the cultivation of character, the embrace of tradition, and the discovery of purpose in life. This expanded understanding of education casts light on where family associations come into play, in support of this fundamental responsibility. It is essential to remember that those who educate always educate in the name and on behalf of parents.

Concrete Actions

Indeed, thanks to knowledge of the terrain, of the situation on the ground and of the concrete needs of the families that compose them and of the tools with which they operate, family associations are able to intervene with local authorities to propose concrete initiatives rooted in the common good, from accommodation and transportation to the fields of work and leisure, education and community life, health and the environment.

By regrouping at the national and European level, family associations become interlocutors of national political authorities who are able to influence and sometimes even guide the action of the State, which – as Pope Francis points out – “has the responsibility to pass laws and create work to ensure the future of young people and help them realize their plan of forming a family” (Amoris Laetitia 43).

Saint John Paul II, in Familiaris Consortio, had already warned that “families should grow in awareness of being ‘protagonists’ of what is known as ‘family politics’ and assume responsibility for transforming society; otherwise families will be the first victims of the evils that they have done no more than note with indifference. The Second Vatican Council’s appeal to go beyond an individualistic ethic therefore also holds good for the family as such (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 30)” (Familiaris Consortio 44).

In this regard, the particularity of France merits observation: French family policy is, to a certain extent, effective, as is visible in its comparatively high birth rates and women’s robust participation rate in the labour market. As a result, French family policy has often been upheld as an example, even though, for some years now these same policies have entered a deconstruction phase. Since 1945, the National Union of Family Associations (UNAF) is an institutional partner of the French State and one of the main architects of its family policy, a partner that the Government and the Parliament are obliged to consult on any measure that has a direct impact on the life of families. Nonetheless, it must be noted that, unfortunately, this system has not prevented certain drifts in policy and its implementation.

The Vocation of Catholic Family Associations

Catholic family associations are not only called to address Catholic families, but also to bring their services to everyone: herein lies their evangelizing force. Indeed, the reference to the Catholic faith is expressed mainly through their political, and eminently non-pastoral, activities and their proposals are based on the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church. The Magisterium of the Church is a rich, global and coherent source, generally respected as such even by those who do not adhere to it. The social teaching of the Church allows us to reach concrete propositions. Since family associations are humble practitioners of the Church’s social teaching, they celebrate their Christian identity and so stand firm on it like a city built upon a mountain. Catholic Social Teaching, as the Holy Father told us in 2017, is founded on the dignity of the human person: “The way of ‘being family’ that you want to spread is not subject to any contingent ideology, but grounded in the inviolable dignity of the person. On the basis of that dignity, Europe will be able to be truly one family of peoples” (Address of Pope Francis to the participants of the meeting organised by FAFCE, Clementine Hall, Vatican City, 1 June 2017).

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1,27). When God created woman, we could say that he created the family as well, and it is there that this image and this similarity to God himself is realized, because the two of them, man and woman, together, are the image of God ... In this sense, the family is evangelizing by being itself. Therefore, family associations are not ecclesial or faith movements, they only facilitate, precede and follow this work of apostolate: evangelization is the duty of every Christian – as St Paul himself writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, “woe is me, if I do not announce the gospel!” (1 Cor 9,16) – and this burning zeal to bring the love of God to everyone motivates Catholic family associations and provides a solid basis for their members’ commitment to their work.

For 25 years, the European Federation of Catholic Family Associations (FAFCE) has represented the associations of 18 European countries. Unfortunately, many European countries have yet to form an association of Catholic families. FAFCE’s mission is an undertaking of networking, information gathering, and effective interventions at the European institutions – especially the Council of Europe, European Parliament, and European Commission – to recall, in particular, the fundamental function of the family in our communities and to alert the nations of Europe to the reality of the demographic winter we are experiencing, considered by many to be a real form of suicide of Western societies (as described at the beginning of this Plenary Session by Prof. Gérard-François Dumont).

FAFCE organizes, coordinates, and represents family organizations across Europe. Most importantly, FAFCE does this with very limited means: we often say that if every family who shares our values and supports our activities in Europe only gave us one euro, we would have much more than we need. With more funds, we could bring the experience of family associations further throughout Europe and wherever they do not yet exist, demonstrating that families are not a problem, but a solution and an opportunity. Compared to the many special interests and lobbies present in Europe, especially in Brussels and in Strasbourg, we have a unique strength, which is that of the Gospel, of the Good News that gives meaning to our work. Behind us, when we sometimes work in a somewhat solitary way in Brussels, alienated from the everyday life of the families we represent, there are people who believe, people who trust in the one true God, a God who, having come to earth, did not choose to come as a prince or a leader. This God who became man instead chose to come to earth as a child in a family.

Some Precise Actions

It is on the basis of these premises that the Federation has been able to achieve very concrete results in the last 13 years, ever since FAFCE has had a permanent, professional presence with an office in Brussels.

How can we not think, for example, of the McCafferty Report, initially presented to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe with the declared aim of cancelling conscientious objection on the subject of abortion in European legislation. Thanks to the cooperation of other organizations and with parliamentarians from various political groups, this Report has become a milestone in the promotion of conscientious objection. The work of our office in Brussels contributed in 2014 to the rejection, by only 7 votes, of the Estrela Report, which aimed at declaring the right to abortion in the European Union.

Likewise, our office has been at the forefront of blocking an attempt to legitimize the practice of surrogacy, through the so-called De Sutter Report; this time in Strasbourg, on 11 October 2016, at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Even if it is an issue on which, compared to other issues, we can still work more easily – and we are working with various feminist groups, too – even here, the difference in votes was marginal: just five! This further demonstrates the importance of a continuous and professional approach to political advocacy at the institutional level and solidifies the value-add of FAFCE’s work.

This approach allows us today to speak at all levels to the demographic and anthropological challenges faced by our Countries. Over the last three years, we have been able to organize meetings with the major European political forces and with the governments of 13 European countries. We do so with a very concrete objective: to put the function of the family back at the centre of European politics and to consider every family and demographic policy as an investment in our common future. With this same objective, we systematically try to insert pro-family language into various European documents. We do not always succeed, but this is what we were able to accomplish, for example, in the Conclusions on demography of the Croatian Presidency of the Council of the EU or of a recent report on the EU budget in the European Parliament.

To Conclude: A Fundamental Reflection

The Experience of These Years of Pandemic

During this health crisis, all of us have experienced our families in a fresh and complete way: it became evident that distance from one’s family was one of the major causes of suffering. In the same way, in this time of war between two European countries, we see how families are the first to help, to welcome, to support.

On the basis of these experiences, we cannot fail to notice that the most pressing illness in our society is loneliness. The family is not a disease to be treated, but the treatment to the disease of loneliness. Thus, it is also possible for us to reflect on the meaning of the commitment and function of Catholic family associations. In this regard, in re-reading Amoris Laetitia, Laudato si’ and Familiaris consortio, we discover that the invitation is always the same, like a common thread: the Church not only cannot lose contact with the “people” but must also support and accompany them.

Starting from these readings, as president of FAFCE, I asked myself a question: how can our service to families change, after a health crisis that left families more uncertain about the future and, often, in general indifference?

Several times, in his teaching, Pope Francis invites us to be close to families, especially if they are fragile. In part, this is because fragility makes it easier to meet the Lord. Being close to families means putting the family at the centre in a tangible way, because the family is the fundamental nucleus of every relationship. In 2017, while receiving our Federation, the Holy Father encouraged us a lot in this sense. Interpreting his thought and also that of his predecessors, perhaps we can adapt a Latin brocard by saying: ubi familia, ibi ecclesia et communitas.

Family and Church

This direct connection between the family, on the one hand, and the Church and the communitas on the other, was clear and indisputable in the period preceding the industrial revolution.

At that time, the family performed a main function at the service of the community by serving its economic and productive nucleus. The family was essential to both the family’s members themselves and the entire community, ensuring, in an autonomous and subsidiary way, the survival of both. The family took pole position in both situations because it best understood the people involved, their particular needs, and the environment in which they operated.

The Church, through her shepherds, was at the service of the family, accompanying them and indicating the way to God. The Church gave meaning to people’s lives, in the proclamation of the Resurrection and in teaching hope and charity. The concreteness of God was thus experienced by families, who became the vehicle for the transmission of the faith and the Church. More than that, the relationship of the Church with sovereigns was also based on this role of service of the Church towards the family, so much that many pastors also carried out an important function of interpreting the needs of families towards the sovereign.

However, it must be said that between families and the Church, today as then, help has always been mutual: families offer vocations to the Church. Pastors, thanks to the accompaniment of families, are encouraged to renew, with new words, the teaching of the good news.

With the industrial revolution, the family lost its centrality. From being a centre of production, it began to perform an instrumental function. The centre of the production system was in fact not so much in the families as in the factories, to which the families provided a workforce and ensured high-quality human capital.

In this context, the Church had to manage the ever-more absolute power of the state. Where possible, it was, in fact, the Church which often suggested common sense to the rulers, on the one hand, and to keep the community of families together, on the other, thus guaranteeing social peace.

Despite the difficulties and contingencies, families remained solid and the Church never stopped carrying out her prophetic role of serving as light, salt, and leaven in the world alongside the families, who could always count on pastors capable of not making the families forget the presence of God, consoling them in hope.

The Challenges of Today

In the recent past, this role of the Church has been more difficult to play. The reason is simple: families no longer offer only labour and its members have become consumers, thus giving strength not only to the state but also to multinational corporations and financial institutions.

As a result of this, unfortunately, “consumerism” has infected our society. The “consumption” of goods, including drugs, has confused people, who are increasingly finding it difficult to give meaning to their lives. Even the family is no longer been experienced as a place for the realization of the person, a person who has, in the process, become more individual. Our families, even the Catholic ones, have remained more and more alone and fragile. Today, in the era of globalization, the situation has worsened further.

Capitalism no longer looks for its workforce in families. Thanks to mechanized manufacturing processes and advances in artificial intelligence, the production system does not need that human capital which is formed only in the family. It moves and settles, as long as labour is cheap, in developing countries. In doing so, these countries will be increasingly exploited, while the families of other countries, lacking decent wages, recklessly resort to debt to maintain their standard of living. Precisely because of this ever-higher indebtedness, in those countries, families today are not considered useful even to generate the consumers of tomorrow.

It is no coincidence that the demographic winter, which has been further worsened by the current crisis, is jeopardizing the future of our society. As a result, the family, no longer playing any social and economic role not even as a consumer because it is excessively indebted, is deemed no longer “useful” to the production system.

It is sad to say, but capitalism today regards the family as a dead branch, as a terminally ill person. Nowadays, big finance looks to the family to exploit it. For instance, it is interested in families’ savings, which in some countries, such as Italy, are huge, and are considered a treasure to be conquered.

Once savings have been lost, by more or less legitimate means, the family will certainly not disappear; however, it will not be allowed to carry out any economic and social function in an autonomous and subsidiary manner, and it will be treated like a stateless person, at the margins of society. Debt removes a family’s independence of action.

The Future of the Family is the Future of the Church

Before this moment arrives, we need to stop and reflect on our future and on the future of families. This must be done now. Indeed, beyond sociological, political or economic analyses, one thing is certain: in this context of atomization, alienation, and indebtedness, the family suffers, and suffers greatly. Above all else, the family suffers because of loneliness, and if the family suffers, the least of all members of society and the marginalized suffer more. No institution, in fact, can continually help poor people, orphans, and immigrants like families can.

But not only that: if the family suffers, the Church also suffers. Without the family, the Church is without a flock, and without the Church, the family is without a shepherd. This indissoluble bond is too often taken for granted, both by families and by the Church. The first has lost its spiritual dimension due to secularization, the second perhaps sometimes forgets the smell of the flock also due to objective difficulties (such as the scarcity of priests or the lack of availability of families themselves), which make it less easy to have direct contact with people.

Here, in order to recover this indissoluble bond between families and the Church, at the end of this long excursus and after much reflection, as president of Catholic Family Associations in Europe, I would like to raise the question of a new pact between families and their shepherds.

In 2015, in Florence, the Holy Father spoke clearly of a change of era, encouraging all of us to look to the future without fear, remaining united as a people and trusting in the Lord who will lead us on the roads of the world. To achieve this goal, it is necessary to spend our life as baptized laity, striving to be creative and missionary, recovering, in an integral way, reciprocity and understanding with our pastors.

The Role of Family Groups and Family Associations in this Change of Era

I think that Catholic families, after this period of health crisis, have acquired a new awareness of the necessary and irreplaceable role of pastors. Without pastors, without their guide and their physical attendance, even the Eucharist risks becoming a virtual rite emptied of its reality and concreteness, as Pope Francis also underlined on 17 April 2021, in the midst of the pandemic (“Familiarity with the Lord”, morning Mass homily).

However, our pastors cannot be left alone in this very difficult service. Rather, they must be helped to face the discomfort of solitude, accompanying families in closeness, truth and hope. For this reason, our associations will have to play a new role, without being afraid – as the president of the Forum of Italian family associations, Gianluigi De Palo said – of “getting their hands dirty” and “washing the feet” of our families, also facilitating the maintenance of that indissoluble unity between families and the Church.