The context is the bishop's recent Social Justice Statement on the Family, which I've blogged on previously.
The family has no inherent value?!
Mr Mullins' basic line is, the family "holds no value in itself but it is an often fruitful means to a morally good life".
Is that view consonant with actual Catholic teaching? I don't think so!
Mullins is trying to argue that the single life has an inherent value and should not be viewed as 'failure'. That is at least potentially true. But his piece seems to reflect an utter ignorance of actual Catholic teaching surprising (though not!) for an editor of Eureka Street and of Cath News' weekly 'blog watcher' column.
Worse, his conclusion is that pro-family policies on the part of Government, or demands from the Church that Catholics actually conform to Church teaching on the family, far from being an obligations, are actually a bad thing when they run counter to 'the generally accepted norms of society'.
Sounds like relativism par excellence!
The family as a means to an end
In fact of course the Church has always taught that the family is the fundamental unit of society, the original cell of social life. It is a privileged community that stands prior to any public authority and that presents for us an image of ecclesial communion (CCC 2201-2213).
Mr Mullins seems to have forgotten altogether that our aim as Christians is not simply to lead a 'good moral life', but rather to get to heaven. That would be why marriage is a sacrament, providing grace to the spouses.
He also seems to ignore entirely the most basic reason just why we really have families, because it is not just to help us lead a morally good life - it is in order to perpetuate the human race!
One of the reasons why Australians should be concerned that only 50% of Catholics over 15 are married is that failure to marry generally translates into a failure to have children, at least at a rate sufficient to avoid an ageing demographic that will make it hard for us to care adequately for the elderly in future, and encourage the priestly and religious vocations we need to keep the Church alive in this country.
Australia's currently dire demographic outlook - particularly in the form of the baby boomer bulge - are being hidden to some degree in the short term by massive immigration. But those aren't sustainable responses in the longer term, as Governments past and present have actually acknowledged.
And in the case of the Church, the shrinkage in family size and number is having dire effects. Paix Liturgique's most recent newsletter provided some alarming figures for France that I suspect are pretty much mirrored in Australia. Every year, the newsletter points out, some 800 priests retire. The current upsurge in vocations - in France around 96 diocesan priests were set to be ordained this year - doesn't go anywhere near replacement rates.
The family as a means of combatting loneliness
Another key reason for being part of a family is that man is at base a social creature. As Scripture says, 'it is not good that man should be alone' (Gen 2:18). Men and women complement and complete each other, providing mutual support and room for spiritual and psychological growth.
That's why, for example, we have the model of the Holy Family set before us.
It is certainly possible to thrive alone if one has an intimate relationship with God, as the lives of the hermits, anchorites and others down the centuries attests. But this is a heroic lifestyle, a special vocation, not a norm appropriate to most.
And frankly it is hard to believe that the continued increase in the number of single person households represents a voluntary choice in most cases. Rather, it reflects a pattern of increasing secularization, as we discard the ties of family, ditch the concept of a lifelong commitment to another, and insist on living in ever larger spaces rather than facing the compromises involved in sharing.
The single vocation?
Mr Mullins proposes that instead of membership of a family, the test for whether our lives are successful or not is whether we live a life of self-giving, and points to other paths to achieve this.
That is true of course. While the family is not, as Mr Mullins tries to argue, simply the 'default unit' of society, it does not in fact reflect the highest state of life. Rather, the choice of celibacy/virginity for the sake of the kingdom is the highest state of life, with a life devoted to contemplation the highest path within that state.
But it has to be a deliberate choice.
It is not enough to find oneself unmarried and so devote yourself to good works.
Is there a solution to the growth in the number of single Catholics living on the margins of our parishes and communities in this country?
We could bring back more systematic discernment of one's vocation.
We could look to create new forms of communal living. Promote membership of religious orders as tertiaries, or the taking of private vows. But all these require radical commitments and rethinking. They require resistance to the creeping secularisation of our thinking.
And of course we could actually promote marriage - make sure there are social functions where young catholics can meet each other, support them to find appropriate partners.
Above all, we must rejectof the 'generally accepted norms of our society' that promote self-indulgence over commitment...