Dear Father Angelo,
there is a question that arises quite frequently when we talk among friends about “family” and how to live out the relationships in that context.
Basically, my question is: to what extent does the family “come first” over “the others” in terms of availability, sacrifice, renunciation?
I know people who believe that “the family” comes first inexorably, therefore without exception the family members – whatever the need – take precedence over those who aren’t family; in essence, you cannot, even if the world falls, say no to your son or daughter, who needs to keep his or her child to go have fun on the fourth night in a row, but if the neighbor is dying, you don’t move a finger because they’re not your family.
At the other extreme, I know people so in love with their role as a “helpful” person, that when a friend or acquaintance opens their mouth vaguely mentioning a hidden desire, they go out of their way to fulfill it (even if not asked) and thus to arouse the other’s admiration, but if the parents, or even the spouse express a comparable desire, they do not even notice, because helping in the family is taken for “granted” and perhaps does not provoke equally satisfying reactions. Similarly, I see people who, even in the Christian sphere, become so attached to their role in volunteering, for example, that they heavily neglect the family.
It seems to me that these are two equally “wrong” extremes that actually conceal a certain amount of complacency.
What is the right moral evaluation of this problem?
I assure you of my constant prayers and I thank you once again.
1. it is true, the extremes you have presented to me are wrong.
Your email gives me an opportunity to mention that there is an order in love, in the practice of charity.
2. Regarding the order of charity between us and our neighbor, Sacred Scripture commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Lv 19:18 and Mt 22:39), and therefore love for ourselves precedes that of our neighbor, since it is the highest comparison or example.
Saint Augustine writes: “First of all, learn to love yourself … In fact, if you don’t know how to love yourself, how can you truly love your neighbor?” (Sermo 368).
And St. Thomas: “The love with which a man loves himself is the form and root of friendship. For if we have friendship with others it is because we do unto them as we do unto ourselves” (Summa theologica, II-II, 25, 4).
3. Certainly love for the family precedes dedication to others.
Sacred Scripture says: “whoever does not provide for relatives and especially family members has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1Tm 5:8).
“Therefore, charity regards those who are nearer to us before those who are better”, concludes St. Thomas (Summa theologica, II-II, 26, 7, sed contra).
4. The reason why parents should be loved first is this: after God they are the first to give us existence.
However, those who are married, since they have become one flesh with their partner and children, must give them precedence. Then the parents, siblings and other relatives come according to need and to degree of affinity.
5. However, there is to be proportionality with the good to be accomplished.
There is a great difference between caring for the grandson because the son is going to have fun for the fourth night in a row while not giving a hand to a neighbor who has a dying person in the house.
Common sense is enough to understand who should be given priority.
So, the grave need of our neighbor takes precedence over those goods of loved ones that are after all futile.
6. Theologians also present other distinctions and say that it is never lawful to commit sin on the pretext of spiritually helping one’s neighbor, not even to free him from mortal sin.
St. Thomas says that “a man ought not to give away to any evil of sin, which counteracts his share of happiness, not even to free his neighbor from sin” (Summa theologica, II-II, 26, 4).
This does not mean that one should not help others. Only that the principle laid down by St. Paul applies to this case, that evil must not be done even for a good that may come of it (rf. Rom 3:8).
7. Theologians also remind us that it is necessary to love the spiritual good of one’s neighbor more than our bodily good.
In fact, the soul of the neighbor participates directly in the glory of God, while the body only indirectly (and, that is, receiving the surfeit that comes through the soul).
Therefore, when the eternal salvation of one’s neighbor is required, that obliges one to help even with the danger of one’s own life.
This happened very often in the past for priests who went to help the plague victims at the hospital or in their homes.
Father Cristoforo in I promessi sposi [ndr The promised newlyweds by Alessandro Manzoni] is a good example of that.
8. St. Thomas adds: “Every man is immediately concerned with the care of his own body, but not with his neighbor’s welfare, except perhaps in cases of urgency: wherefore, charity does not necessarily require a man to imperil his own body for his neighbor’s welfare, except in a case where he is under obligation to do so and if a man of his own accord offer himself for that purpose, this belongs to the perfection of charity” (Summa theologica, II-II, 26, 5, ad 3).
I heartily thank you for your constant prayer, which I gladly reciprocate.
I bless you.