On Family, Future, and Our Common Home
In the ecological vision of Catholicism’s hierarchical magisterium, a healthy future for our children is sustainable, natural… and straight. Catholic environmentalism is not unique in this respect: the ubiquity of what queer theorist Lee Edelman terms “reproductive futurism” within the environmental movement is well attested. Yet, there is a distinctive force and intensity to this dynamic in the theological imaginary of ‘integral ecology,’ wherein respect for nature-as-creation is explicitly linked to both care for the earth – our common home, as Pope Francis has called it – and a resolutely heteronormative version of family. Both, it is argued, flow from the wellspring of divine design: the created order of natural and human/social ecology.
When prominent U.S. bishops ally themselves with vehemently anti-environment Republicans in their quest to protect ‘the family’ and ‘Christian values,’ a reminder of the wider scope of integral ecology provides leverage: surely a habitable earth is a good thing for families. Likewise, when free-market devotees question why concern for the environment should lead to the church meddling in economics, the wisdom of integral ecology’s uniting of social and ecological issues shines through. But those who take LGBTQ persons’ flourishing seriously as an element of creaturely wellbeing have reason to be wary of this form of holism. If, as Benedict XVI and Francis after him aver, “the book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations,” then the denigration of non-normative sexual and family relations within this vision of integral ecology is a feature rather than a bug.
Laudato si’s integral ecology joins care for the earth to respect for a series of “indisputable truths” (LS 6) about creation’s scriptural beginning and its heavenly end: from embodied personhood in its binary gendered form to naturally reproductive sexuality; from nurturing families to just societies; from responsible creatureliness to the wellbeing of the community of creation. In this perspective, LGBTQ lives drag and grate against nature’s purposes in ‘the home’ and, by extension, in our ‘common home’ – no matter how firm their commitments to ecological, global, and intergenerational justice. Francis’s pastoral gestures toward a kind of non-judgmental inclusivity notwithstanding, official Catholic environmentalism depicts queerness as, by definition, dis-integrating and unsustainable. Structurally speaking, there isn’t a future for queer subjects.
Discipleship at the End of this World
Let’s hold that apocalyptic thought. For many LGBTQ folks, papal encyclicals are not the last word, whether on family or the future. Lives well-lived bear witness to the path-forging creativity and bravery of those who cannot assume the future is for them and those who make their way with ‘chosen family.’ In Catholic contexts, the experience of queer partners and parents becomes testimony against the narrowing of intimate relations of love and care to an idealized metaphysical reading of the Adam-Eve scene.
In complementary fashion, queer ecologies are proliferating, with some scholars seeking to show the inherent queerness of nature. In Catholic theology and ethics, ‘nature’ remains a battleground, but similar challenges can be found. One compelling strategy highlights the presence of disparate methodological approaches: in the realm of environmental ecology, LS is far more ready to take onboard contemporary science, whereas such engagement is noticeably lacking when it comes to gender/sexuality – i.e., human ecology. As well, revised understandings of natural law reveal a more elastic framework capable of incorporating and validating queer sexuality and familial construction.
Legally and ecclesially, efforts to integrate LGBTQ experience into the existing ecology of the possible are essential. Strategies of reform and inclusion, however, also raise questions about the ultimate goal of queer politics. Some see a compromise – albeit perhaps a necessary one – on its broader transformative horizons.
For Christians, utopian or revolutionary aspirations are woven through understandings of cruciform discipleship and its mysterious link to eschatological renewal. When it comes to the value of family, the Jesus of the gospels is ambivalent, at best.
A recent experience with my undergraduate Christology class illustrates the shocking kernel buried within confident discourses of nature and centuries of respectability politics: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26). As we read this passage aloud, one student who is normally a very close reader took it to be saying the precise opposite of its plain sense. Another student glared at me. Many frowned and looked uncomfortable.
These are hard words. Like the later saints who abandon hearth and home for spiritual pursuits, they pressure not only social convention but also judgments of what is right and good and holy. Lose your life to save it? Sometimes, they get snared in contradiction – are we to “hate” or “honor” our mothers and fathers? Context matters; interpretation is required; and extremism isn’t usually a good look.
Catholicism’s eventual acceptance and later celebration of (straight) married life might be welcomed as a corrective to a hierarchy of holiness in which celibate clerics hold pride of place. Nevertheless, as queer scholars and others have emphasized, the sacralization of the nuclear family is a culturally- and historically-specific development, which, in many ways, betrays more ambiguous and radical understandings of kinship and community in the Christian tradition. Moreover, Catholicism’s pro-family shift cannot be accurately narrated without describing its enmeshment in the ungodly intersections of: property relations on an increasingly capitalist trajectory; deep-seated sexism (see: wives as property); and the patriarchal household as a racialized and colonialist apparatus of control.
Somewhere between the gospel call to whole-hearted conversion and an awareness of the family’s violent record, a difficult question takes shape: Does the focus on preserving family, queer or otherwise, begin to seem more compatible with the repetition of the oppressive same and less aligned with allegiance to God’s inbreaking reign?
Abolition, Apocalypse, and the Family
Catholic theology is not alone in its reflexive defensiveness around the family, nor indeed in its seemingly perpetual anxiety that the family is in crisis. In this sense, my students’ chilly reaction to any apocalyptic provocations around family structure gives an accurate reading of the pulse. According to Sophie Lewis, any real challenge to the institution of the family has been rendered all but invisible even in progressive politics. Yet as she argues in her recent book, Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation, the idea has a long history and is a recurrent theme in revolutionary social thought.
I want to suggest that reviving this genre of question is timely and necessary – on its own terms, yes, but also in conjunction with my earlier evaluation of integral ecology as a response to planetary crises.
Abolish the family?! It sounds bad. Really bad. Then again, so does the end of the world. I don’t know whether we could locate Jesus of Nazareth in the “potted history of family abolitionism” that she unfolds in her short book, but the apocalyptic flavor of a gospel-take on kinship makes for an intriguing proximity.
This is especially the case at a moment when the notion of “environmental apocalypse” has many of us thinking about the end: not as a wanton embrace of annihilation or nihilism, but as occasion for careful negotiation with the destructive-creative dynamics of real transformation. Many scholars who employ apocalyptic discourse in the context of climate change, for example, do so in recognition of the scope and scale of the changes needed. This work thinks at ambivalent edges and tests the limits of the imagination, certainly of the western capitalist imagination, and, in some cases, the limits of any hope that can be given a name, a form.
In these ventures, thinkers of environmental apocalypse are regularly chastised for pessimism or shamed for irresponsibility. While not always fair, such criticisms highlight that there is always a risk of losing touch, and leaving others – already overburdened others – to pick up the pieces of elites’ catastrophism. Still, if reckoning with loss and negativity is essential for honesty in this planetary moment, and if the paradoxical call to discipleship lives somewhere within the meaning of what recent popes have called “ecological conversion,” then an apocalyptic decisiveness is unavoidable: must you not lose your future to save it?
If there is anything that invokes this vertiginous loss of self and certainty – as well as an equally disorienting yet alluring glimmer of the possibility that lies beyond – Lewis has found it in the call to abolish the family. There is no getting around the fact that family abolition is both psychologically distressing and “maximally difficult political terrain.” Writing from within a broadly Marxist tradition, Lewis quips: “It’s easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the family.”
While she is clear (more clear than the Lukan Jesus) that “[m]ost family abolitionists love their families,” she insists on the difficult terrain of abolition rather than the ameliorative options of family reform or expansion. Lewis is well aware that a more circumscribed critique – e.g., abolish the white family or the bourgeois family – might seem more persuasive: it’s true that the family has been a real site of resistance for subordinated groups against the strictures of state, society, and capital, and it’s likewise evident that many people depend on the protections, however insufficient, afforded by familial status. She is almost persuaded herself.
What turns the tide is her canvassing of radical thinkers from marginalized communities who articulate, in various ways, a twofold truth: family-based resistance is valuable; the family nonetheless functions as an apparatus of capitalist-settler colonialist-racist-patriarchal-heterosexist control and, in all this, as a technology for the privatization of care. Lewis summarizes: “The family is a shield that human beings have taken up, quite rightly, to survive a war. If we cannot countenance ever putting down that shield, perhaps we have forgotten that the war does not have to go on forever” (31). What will come after the family to take its place? Quoting a classic socialist-feminist text from the early 1970s, Lewis answers: “nothing” (84).
That said, what is sought is not nothing. Glossing the roots of “abolition” in the Hegelian concept Aufhebung (translated as “positive supersession”), Lewis offers that “this rather stiff bit of jargon unites the ideas of lifting up, destroying, preserving, and radically transforming, all at once” (80). Hers is a project for care and liberation. Practically speaking, there are scattered hints as to what this could look like: one finds mention of shared kitchens, universal health care and childcare; gestures to non-monogamy, children’s liberation, and the refusal of work; fighting the nation-state that separates families at the border and fighting families that separate queer children from their desire. I find Lewis’s reserve vis-à-vis programmatic visions to be salutary and I appreciate her emphasis on “educating our desire” toward possibilities as yet unforeseen.
My overall contention is that there are lessons in family abolitionism which could allow Catholic theology to think differently about a sustainable future – through something of an apocalyptic injection. In papal environmentalism, queer people are assigned to a position of negativity and non-futurity, implicitly seen as harbingers of destruction, of the end. This is insulting and riven by misunderstanding. Yet, I am suggesting that this association might be consciously redeployed in a moment of surging interest around the notion of environmental apocalypse. All the more so when we notice its convergence with strands of Christian tradition that see the end of the “natural” family as part of the eschatological renewal of God’s beloved creation.
From this perspective, I would grant the priority of the family in integral ecology, but turn its central assumption about continuity inside out: now, the family appears as a primary obstacle to a just and liberative future rather than its primary vehicle. Specifically, Lewis and her sources spur us to see how the family structure inhibits several prerogatives shared by Laudato si’ in its more radical moments. These include: economic justice, insofar as it entails an unflinching critique of capitalism; social justice, as an anti-racist and decolonial project; and the expansion of love and care beyond the logic of scarcity and privatization. When these aspirations feature prominently in our vision of environmental sustainability (and they must!), Lewis’s case for family abolition may be heard not so much as an unalloyed threat but rather as a sincere expression of apocalyptic hope.