Avoiding 'Unpleasantries' at Family Gatherings

Avoiding conflicts at Thankgiving

Years ago, I lived in Mobile, Alabama, which was a wonderful cultural experience for a North Eastern-raised, transplanted Californian. While there, I had the great fortune to meet someone I would call affectionately a character, a consummate southern gentlemen in his genteel mannerisms and language from a bygone era.  I still chuckle to this day over his reference to the Civil War as “those recent unpleasantries.”

If your family is like mine, as holiday gatherings approache we are thinking of ways to avoid “unpleasantries” as the extended family gathers with all of their diverse opinions on religion, marriage, lifestyles and related issues of the day. There is always a tension between a sense of obligation to witness the Gospel and staying quiet for fear of causing a civil war. Love and preserving relationships for a better time and place is usually the best policy.

However, if a debate does happen, remember the advice of the great theologian Frank Sheed: “If you debate to win, at some point you will cheat. Always debate to reveal truth.” In other words, as we emphasize in our workshops, remember the most important audience is usually those overhearing the conversation, rather than the person with whom there is a difference of opinion. The objective for members of the Marriage Reality Movement is to be able to witness the truth about love and marriage in ways that our children can understand and embrace. Be conscious of the audience.

Here are some tips that may be helpful finding a way to plant seeds of truth that hopefully will provoke thought rather than conflict.

  1. Don’t fight old battles.
    Marriage has been redefined by the Supreme Court changing the meaning of the word in a way that permits same-sex couples. It may seem counterintuitive, but let them crow unchallenged. That is yesterday’s debate – let it go. Accept the fact that the word does not mean what we know to be true.
  2. Reintroduce the reality of marriage by using the term “marriage reality.
    The term “marriage reality” may sound funny at first, but it is far more preferable than the term “traditional marriage,” which conflicts with what we know to be true through our faith. Marriage is part of God's plan, not a human tradition. The term “marriage reality” makes a distinction between what people think marriage is and its reality.
  3. Explaining marriage reality.
    The response to the question, “What’s marriage reality?” is quite simple. Marriage reality is the institution that unites children with their mother and father. This is a fact that expresses the totality of marriage in God’s plan. This is what marriage is and this is what it does. Remind people that not all married men and women have children, but every child has a mother and father.
  4. Ask the key question.
    Rather than argue, simply ask the question: “Do you think it is good to have an institution that unites children with their mother and father?”  Don’t seek an agreement, but turn it over to the Holy Spirit and let people think about it.
  5. “But redefined marriage still unites children with their mother and father.”
    Acknowledge it is true that redefined marriage can be used for that purpose, but the Supreme Court has changed its purpose. Since its new purpose is the benefit of loving couples, it is now discriminatory to promote the unique value of men and women marrying before having children. Go back to the question: wouldn’t it be good to have a civil institution that can be used to encourage men and women to marry before having children?

Warning, warning, warning.

Now this is where most people get tripped up because of the false premises that we all unwittingly accept (the master of lies loves to create confusion).

In addition to the confusion of lies, the following are delicate areas. We all must tread carefully as what we say can be easily taken as judgments and personal criticisms. The past is the past, mistakes have been made by all of us, and as Pope Francis said, “Who am I to judge?” We are a community of love and hope for the future and our call is to witness the truth, not criticize things that can’t be changed. The challenge is how to love with God’s love and mercy.

  1. “But what about same-sex couples who are parenting?
    Remember, children parented by same-sex couple have suffered great misfortune – they have lost their mother, father or both. This has nothing to do with marriage reality, the institution that unites children with their mother and father.
    Avoid criticizing and have compassion recognizing that children in irregular family situations whatever the circumstances, love their parents, and their parents love them. Always charitably presume, like every parent, that they are trying to do their best.
  2. The truth about donor conception.
    This topic can come up in the context of the increasing trend for same-sex couples and single people to have children by donor conception. The reality of the harm with donor conception is revealed by looking at it from the perspective of the child. It is conceiving a child with the intention of depriving him of the fundamental human right to know and to be in relationship with his’s own mother, father or both - his own flesh and blood; part of his identity. This view of reality can be shocking to many because they have never thought of it that way before. 
    This is a very sensitive subject depending on the experience of those at the gathering. Many, including married men and women have privately used donor conception to solve an infertility problem without considering the consequences for the child. It can be a source of shame for the adults when they realize this reality, and can give voice to the questions that a child may have been harboring but has been conflicted over expressing. Be sensitive about saying things that will provoke guilt for those who have made mistakes that can't be undone. 
    The goal should be to help inform consciences of people who may be considering donor conception or may be in a position to witness its grave consequences to others in the future. A gentle way of handling the subject may be to simply say something like, “It would be a shame that the child would never know his father (mother)." This is a non-judgmental way of raising a concern that no one can deny because of the common desire we all have to know where we came from. "Who do I look like? Who are my relatives?" After planting the seed of truth, it may be best to just drop the subject and let people contemplate the reality.
  1. Homosexuality and gay lifestyles.
    Notice that in all of the suggestions for witnessing the truth about marriage reality and the human rights of children related to it, issues related to sexual behavior and lifestyles are not relevant. 
    Avoid scapegoating people with same-sex attraction because of concerns you have about the attacks on marriage and the family. As our friend Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse of the Ruth Institute reminds us, the real cause is the sexual revolution that started in the 1960’s or even before, and there are many victims who have fallen into its traps. Extended family gatherings are for building relationships and making connections that can lead to opportunities for ongoing conversations and evangelization.

Protesting the lie: Personally, I have developed a habit of remembering that the terms gay and lesbian are lies: there are no gay or lesbian persons in reality. That may sound shocking, but in reality there are only persons who are infinitely and unconditionally loved by God and are destined for eternal life. The recognition of sexual identity obscures the fact to them and to us that they are much more than that identity as Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) taught. My way of protesting the lie that the term gay or lesbian represents and witnessing to the person’s dignity is to simply substitute the phrase, “a person who has taken on a gay identity.” As St John Paul II taught, the only proper and adequate response to the human person is love.

Many of the concepts in these tips may be new or thought provoking. I hope they will be helpful, not only at Thanksgiving, but at any family gathering. The final tip is to turn to the Holy Spirit to guide you prayerfully in what you say and how you respond. Pray for peace in knowing that our role is limited to witnessing reality (truth) at times and in ways so that people can hear it, then shut up and turn the rest over to the Holy Spirit.