On Natural and Intentional Families

This post continues a series of reflections that I began here.

What I’m trying to do in these posts is figure out just what I think about same-sex marriage, and why. And to get any farther, I find I need to introduce some terminology.

By natural family, I mean what we usually think of when we use the word: a father, a mother, and their natural offspring, the fruit of their own two bodies. I’m avoiding the word “biological children”, because I refuse to reduce people to their biology. We are more than that.

By intentional family, I mean a group of people who have chosen to live together in a manner similar to a natural family, adopting the same mutual obligations to one another as you’d find in a natural family. We often see this kind of family in heartwarming movies and TV shows; Lilo and Stitch comes right to mind.

Of course, there are many families that don’t match either notion perfectly. Many natural families are lacking a parent or have one or two members who aren’t truly related, strictly speaking, and I suspect that many intentional families have one or two members that are. And actually, a married man and woman who do not yet have any children fit in both categories.

The primary difference between these two kinds of family is embodied in the old saying, “You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your relatives.” In other words, intentional families are less stable by the very nature of things: my children will always be my children, come what may, but it can take real commitment to avoid dissolving a voluntary relationship.

Please note, I’m speaking about both in their ideal forms. I’m well aware that many natural families are disasters. But you don’t measure the nature of an oak tree by examining immature or blighted samples; you measure the nature of an oak tree by looking for the most healthy, majestic oak you can find.

The point here is that by my lights, a same-sex couple with children is an intentional family. So is a blended family formed of a man and a woman and their children from previous marriages. And so, interestingly, is a monastery of Benedictine monks. In each case, stability is of the essence.

  • By Tim Muldoon, August 10, 2012 @ 5:20 pm

    Will, I see where you’re going, but there’s a problem with positing a strong difference between natural and intentional families. For one: what about the Holy Family? Joseph was an adoptive father. Further, by extension you’re implicating all adoptive families. The ones I know (full disclosure: my own included) have had to move heaven and earth to establish their families, and you’re in a tough place suggesting a priori that “intentional families are less stable by the very nature of things.” What nature?

  • By Will Duquette, August 10, 2012 @ 5:38 pm

    Tim, don’t get ahead of the game! I said there was a difference; but I haven’t made any value judgements at this point. When I say that “intentional families are less stable by the very nature of things”, all I mean is that there is literally nothing I can do to change the fact that my eldest son is my eldest son. I could in theory disown him legally; and yet he would remain my eldest son in fact, even if not in law. This isn’t true of intentional relationships. They are relationships by choice, and people who choose one way can choose differently.

    Perhaps what I should have said is that intentional families take more work to set up and more commitment to keep going; which seems to be consistent with what you say.

    Anyway, I’m not setting up a moral dichotomy, natural families GOOD, intentional families BAD.

  • By Will Duquette, August 10, 2012 @ 6:13 pm

    In fact, come to think of it, the Holy Family is a perfect symbol for what I’m going to talk about next.

Other Links to this Post

WordPress Themes