Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

December 18,  2006  



Vatican ignores historical meaning of 'familia'

By Thomas F. Coleman

For at least a decade, Catholic Church officials in Rome have been attacking decisions by government leaders in many nations as they have given various rights to unmarried couples.  Church officials claim that such recognition is undermining the "family."

Just last week Church leaders leveled two attacks -- one against officials in the Italian city of Padua and the other against the Italian national government.

The Padua city council was criticized because it voted to allow unmarried couples, whether same-sex or opposite-sex, to register as "a family" and thereby gain certain rights and benefits.

At the national level, majority leaders in the Senate called on the government to draft legislation to provide unmarried couples, including gays and lesbians, many of the rights and benefits afforded to married couples. 

Responding to these two actions, L'Osservatore Romano -- the official Vatican newspaper -- published a front-page editorial entitled: "Christmas 2006: Eradicating the family is the priority of Italian politics."

Liberal politicians quickly responded to the Vatican's attacks.

"This does not negate the family in any way," Massimo D'Alema, Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, stated in an official release.  "The rights of Italians, women and men, who live together and have children . . . must be recognized even if they do not intend to get married."

"The Vatican has to get it into its head that what constitutes a family is decided by the members of that family and not by the Vatican," Parliament member Franco Grillini told Reuters in support of the action of the Padua city council.

Grillini is right.  History and tradition support a broad and inclusive definition of "family" which goes beyond relationships based on blood ties or marriage bonds.

The word "family" is derived from the Latin term "familia."  The primary meaning of "familia" is grounded in household-based relationships. 

The Merrian Webster dictionary has 23 entries for the word "family."  The first definition says family is "a group of individuals living under one roof and usually under one head." 

Even the Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges that the primary origin of "family" is the word "familia" which refers to "the household."

Rachael Hughes, author of "Family versus Familia, Historical Definitions of the Family" has written that "our modern usage of the word family as a unit of relatives is relatively new."  Hughes has a journalism degree from Brigham Young University where she specialized in Family History.

"It was not until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that family began to connote the intimacy of a nuclear family," she explains.  "Historically, the Latin term familia meant household"

It's amazing that the Vatican must be lectured on the meaning of a Latin term.  It seems that Church officials have had a convenient lapse of memory.

Church leaders in the United States have sometimes taken a more open and honest view of the meaning of "family" by recognizing that household members functioning as a family should be treated by the government as a family.

In the 1980s, a group of nuns in Florida were living together in an old mansion in a residential neighborhood.  Local officials threatened to evict them because the area was zoned for "single family" use only.

The local Catholic Bishop sued the city and argued that the household of the nuns did not violate the zoning ordinance.  The appellate court agreed.

Another example arose in San Francisco in the 1990s when the city passed a law requiring all city contractors to provide domestic partner benefits to their employees or have city funds terminated.  Catholic Charities was then receiving more than $4 million from the city to help run its services for the needy.

Archbishop William Levada found himself in a bind.  Since the term "domestic partners" implied a sexual relationship, he was not comfortable with Catholic Charities giving benefits to domestic partners.  But he also did not want to lose $4 million a year in city funds.

Levada's clever response was to provide "household" benefits instead of "domestic partner" benefits, allowing employees of the charity to designate one adult in their household to receive employment benefits.  An employee could choose a spouse, a partner, or a relative living in his or her household.

Levada, now a Cardinal, currently works in the Vatican.  He is the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Perhaps Cardinal Levada should remind his colleagues in Rome that "familia" is based on household relationships and not spousal status.  The Church should have no objections to benefits programs which recognize the household-based foundation of the term "family."

To read other editions of Column One, click here.

Unmarried America 2006

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.