Let us suppose we are looking at people who are not going to Yale or Harvard, or even to the local state university. First, they can’t afford it, and second, they lack the capacity to immerse themselves in absurdity for the sake of a few courses here and there that will deepen their understanding of the world, or that will at least help them make a living. They are not going to write papers on Herbert Marcuse and Woodstock. Perhaps their intelligence lies elsewhere. Or perhaps their backs and their arms are stronger than their minds. What capital can we give them to help set them up in life?
Currently, we don’t give them any at all. We flush many billions of dollars into higher education, often of very dubious quality, so that our “best” students can afford to go to college. The colleges themselves count on that money, floating their sticker prices upward to take it all in. State schools milk the population quite well, taking in many thousands of students who have developed neither manual nor intellectual skills, squeezing them for what they are worth, and conferring upon them degrees that mean little more than that the graduate usually shows up to work on time and follows directions.
The net result, as I see it, is twofold. First, a skilled working man — let’s say a carpenter who has learned his trade well and has worked hard, who has a child with the intellectual capacity to attend one of the elite colleges — will be less able to afford it now than in 1940, when four years’ tuition at Harvard cost one and a half years of the national median household income. Second, that same man, if he does not have a child capable of going to one of those schools, will be rifled for all he is worth to send his children to lower-tier schools, or will watch helplessly as the children flit from service job to service job.
Again I ask, what capital can we give to people who are not going to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, accountants, stock brokers, or business executives? Maybe I could put it this way instead: What capital of theirs have we rifled these last several generations?
I call to mind here my grandfathers, who were hard workers but not saints, not by a long shot. One worked for 15 years in the coal mines. That was brutally hard and dangerous work. Imagine swinging a pickax against a wall for nine hours a day, when the ceiling is so low you can’t straighten up. Then, one day, he couldn’t take it anymore. He had a nervous breakdown. He would collapse if he were away from his home for even a day. By then, he was well on his way toward middle age, and he and his wife had three boys and three girls. The state took pity on him and considered him permanently disabled. So they received a monthly check.
It wasn’t much. They lived poor enough — but they did not live in squalor. For poverty is one thing, and squalor is another. You’re poor when you don’t have money, but you’re squalid when you don’t have any decency, and that is primarily a moral condition, not a material one. They kept clean by taking the weekly bath, with hot water poured from buckets into a metal tub. The privy was outside. Each child had one or two changes of clothes, handed down from one to the next. My grandmother cooked and washed constantly. That meant scrubbing the clothes on a washboard, wringing them out, and hanging them to dry on the line, just as all the neighbor wives did. It also meant trooping up the hill to the coop every so often, grabbing a chicken, cracking its neck, and plucking out all the feathers, to get it ready for soup.
My grandfather should never have been a coal miner. He should have been a farmer. He didn’t stay idle at home. The house came with a sizable piece of property, so he cut it into terraces, just as they did in Calabria, where he was a boy, and he farmed it. He once told me that he could put a seed in the ground and spit on it, and it would grow. He tended that land, his garden, as well as any piece of land could be tended. They got from it all the vegetables they needed: beans, peas, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, radishes, corn, zucchini. They got plums, apples, peaches, and grapes. They got figs from a fig tree that had no business surviving so far north. They got eggs and chickens, and I believe he kept a pig or two for a while. They made do.
They had the advantage then, too, of no television, and so there was still a considerable sense of community. They knew all their neighbors. In fact, they knew their neighbors across the generations. That meant that they were never really alone. Italian was spoken up and down the street, though my grandfather did not want his children to speak it, and as they grew older they forgot what little they ever knew. When it came time to build a house, the men of the neighborhood would get together to do that. My grandfather himself had built the house his family lived in.
But there was much more. Here I dearly wish that Catholics would actually read the encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII, rather than rely upon commentators who reduce them to a single political position, as for instance that workers have the right to form unions. For Leo’s social vision was an intricate and coherent whole, with the church and the family at the heart of it. The family, he saw, was itself a society, with its own duties and rights, and its own sphere of governance, with the father as the head. He wrote quite movingly about the dignity of the wife and the mutual love that characterizes a true Christian marriage. But a society needs a head, and without any sense of being controversial, as at that time he was not, he affirmed that the head was the father. He saw, too, that the growing ambitions of the state — he was thinking particularly about socialism in its various forms — came at the expense of the father. That is, he saw that to weaken the father is to weaken the family, and that weak families are exactly what the enlightened wanted. And this has not changed.
But my grandfather, as debilitated as he was in his spirit, was not a weak father. He might have been too stern in his bearing; he grew up believing that it was not a father’s place to be overly affectionate with his children, that he would lose their respect, and that that would hurt the children in the end. I don’t believe he was right about that, but that is what both he and his wife took for granted. But he did more than tell his children he loved them: He did love them. He made sure that they grew up respectful of their elders. He made sure that they worked hard. The girls did not fall backward into shamelessness. The boys did not get other people’s daughters pregnant. They did not cheat or lie or steal, or even use foul language. My grandfather — one of those old Italian men with a great respect for religion, though he did not himself often attend Mass — made sure that they all went to church, the boys included.
They had, you see, a great fund of moral capital. All the children worked when they were old enough for it. All the money, too, went back to the family. Even when my mother was engaged, she worked as a seamstress in one of the many local dress factories and gave her whole paycheck to her parents. The boys lent themselves out in the summer as seasonal farm workers. All three of them entered the service, one of them lying about his age to try to enlist at the end of the Second World War. All six children were married, without any out of wedlock births, and without divorces. All six, with some straying here and there, remained in the Church. All had families that thrived in a material way, at least. All of them ended up living within a half mile of their parents. When their parents needed the house painted, the boys were there to do it. Same thing with paving the driveway, installing pipes for plumbing, and putting siding over the old asphalt shingles. They wanted for nothing. And the 19 grandchildren were at that house constantly, eating homemade cookies and pie, watching television, or playing in the backyard. Their stricture against showing affection didn’t apply to grandchildren, so we were made much of.
My grandmother was a saint. I could write a great deal about her unfailing charity and her cheerful deference to a man who was often difficult to get along with. I mean to take nothing from her when I say that she couldn’t have raised those children without him there as the head of the family. The boys were physically strong and active; the girls were stubborn. They would have been unmanageable if she had been alone. But she wasn’t alone: He was there, powerfully built and remarkably intelligent — he with his second-grade education could put many of my students to shame, with his general knowledge of the world. He and she made that family into a society that spanned several generations.
Through their example, we can see that the main fund of capital for people whose children are not going to be doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs is moral. Now let us see how the well-to-do rob them of it.
The first thing to do is to cripple the family. That can be done most quickly by crippling the father, or removing him altogether. How do we accomplish that? We take aim at his authority. We say, for a while, that we merely wish that the marriage be egalitarian; but what we really want is that it should be egalitarian and weak. It’s not as if we are going to take some of the authority of the father and lend it to the mother. For the secret is that a good and strong father — not a patsy, and not a tyrant — enhances the authority of his wife, and a weak or absent father compromises it or destroys it altogether. So we look kindly upon single motherhood and invade the woman’s home with social workers. We embrace feminism. That always was a revolt of some women against other women: in our day, mainly well-to-do women, college graduates, against women whose husbands are not professionals and who might actually wish to raise their own children at home, with neither monetary assistance nor moral interference from the state.
I am thinking now of a family I know. The father is a manual laborer of considerable talent. He doesn’t drink, doesn’t go to the casino, and doesn’t sleep around. He works hard when he comes home, too, so the back yard is now half vegetable garden, half park. The children are bright but not the right fit for college. If this were a sane world, if the elites had not polluted the moral watershed upstream, there would be order in this household. That is, the family would exist as a zone of authority and law-abiding in its own right, and it would span the generations. It would not be truncated by divorces and made chaotic with out-of-wedlock births. The sons and daughters would be preparing themselves, in a clear and coherent way, for assuming the duties of fathers and mothers. It would resemble the family of my grandparents.
But though the mother and father are genuinely good people, they have no moral capital. It has been rifled. They cannot depend upon the local school to preach such difficult virtues as chastity, manly courage, and piety. The school preaches quite the opposite. The television is an open sewer. The local drug stores peddle porn. The churches have capitulated and preach niceness rather than holiness; and people, bored with niceness, turn instead to what is neither nice nor holy, but simply material — riches, if they can get them, and sexual thrills, in any case.
After we’ve crippled the family with no-fault divorce, easy sex, smiling upon unwed motherhood, abortion on demand, and perversion parades — after we have cut its muscles to ribbons, and made it a cringing ward of the state, hurting rich families somewhat, and devastating the poor and the working class — we go after the boys. Back during the potato famine in Ireland, a certain family named Harkins pooled its little money to send one boy, a “likely lad” of 14, alone to the United States, to keep the family alive there. He arrived in New York, worked hard, and raised a family. His grandson became the first bishop of the diocese of Providence and was the founder of the college where I teach.
He and thousands like him built bridges and skyscrapers, mined coal, farmed the land, paved roads, and raised churches, not with money in the collection plate, but with their own hands. Of course they had the inestimable assistance of their wives, who had to be strong, too, and far stronger and more skilled than most of our college graduates are today. But the Brooklyn Bridge was not going to be built by people named Mary. We have depreciated work that is done with back and hands, because we don’t have to do that work; we’re educated, you see, and can do such necessary things as come up with Five Year Plans for the teaching of gender diversity.
I have no quarrel with studying the humanities. It’s how I earn my living. But I know well that all that I’m privileged to do, I do upon the bent backs of thousands of men who sweated more than I ever will. I am reminded of it every time I take a walk; I see roads, and houses, and bridges, and stone walls, miles of stone walls that once were the boundaries of farms and pastures in my neighborhood, and I know that all those stones came from the acres and acres of fields cleared by man and horse, and all those walls were built up of stones either muscled into place by the men, or lifted to their place by winch and pulley.
My reasoning here is simple enough. Suppose your family is not going to do well or even survive if it places all its hope in academic study. Then your children have to make their way by skilled hands or strong back or both. But that means, as a brute practical fact, that you are going to have to raise boys and girls to be men and women. Those boys will have to learn a trade. They will have to be carpenters, roofers, road builders, plumbers, welders, auto mechanics. And they will have to be more, not less, traditional in their morals and in their view of manhood. The boy who is encouraged to be effeminate is not going to repair motorcycles.
Perhaps it’s easier to see these things by applying them to a specific family. Let’s say we have what my grandparents came to America with; not much schooling, not much money, and no real hope that the children would go to college. There are millions of such families in the United States now. Let’s also grant them an intact marriage, and no illegitimate children on the side. Let’s grant them both boys and girls. As I’ve said, these are not going to be doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs. What does this family need to do to ensure that, a hundred years hence, it will still be recognizable?
The boys have to be trained to be men. That is a sine qua non. They cannot be allowed to play around in effeminacy. The son of Lord Marchmain can do that, because he has a lot of money and a huge estate. The son of two college professors can do that, for the same reason. Not that the effeminacy will do those boys any good; it will hurt them, but they’ll still get by. But the working-class family has not that same margin for foolishness. They don’t get to pass their moral license along, hurting others more than themselves. They are at the base, not the top, of the watershed. If we are going to be depending upon Stan’s skilled hands and Sam’s strong back, then those hands had better soon be chapped and rough with calluses, and that back had better be straight and the shoulders broad.
In other words, if we really wanted to help the poor and the working class, we’d be preaching manliness and chivalry to the boys and training them up in hard but well-remunerated work. But if we didn’t care about them, we’d just continue in our own self-indulgent feminism, and let them go hang.
Next, we would cripple what was left of their neighborhood. Not much would be left; there isn’t much of a community once we’ve tossed the hand grenade into the family. But whatever is left would have to be dealt with. We remove their schools from their proximity and from their influence. We turn policemen into “safety officers,” who do not know the people they are charged with protecting, and who in some cases are no match for the boys now hanging about and delving into crime. Not satisfied with removing the father from the home, we remove the mother too, so that children spend most of their time with people who do not love them, and who move in and out of their lives as transients through a slum.
Finally, we would preach moral relativism, the rot that destroys the soul. If I have money, if I’ve graduated from Yale, if I teach at a nice college, I can indulge myself in intellectual nonsense, and perhaps my children will be eager enough for material comforts and worldly prestige that they too will go on to graduate from Yale. I can dump battery acid into the river with a carefree heart, knowing that I get my own water from somewhere else. But the virtues are sometimes the only thing a poor family has. The boy sent to America from Ireland had a few coins in his pocket but a great deal more in his soul. He had courage, perseverance, self-control, obedience to authority, and willingness to learn. My uncles had those same virtues. They were sufficient.
That, readers, is what Catholic social teaching builds upon. Outside of an integrated Catholic vision of life — outside of the virtues, and of family — it makes no sense. If we want to help the poor, we can begin by restoring some of the moral capital we have robbed.