No Family, No Society

I begin by asserting a principle that, if one troubles to read Scripture, the encyclicals of the popes, and the decrees of ecumenical councils, is simply unassailable. It is this: There is an inner identity between Catholic teaching on sex and Catholic teaching on the society.

Pope Leo XIII is quite clear on these matters. “The family,” he writes in Sapientiae christianae, “may be regarded as the cradle of civil society, and it is in great measure within the circle of family life that the destiny of the State is fostered.” Why should this be so? It is not, in Catholic thought, simply because families produce children. It is rather dependent upon the nature and meaning of the marital act itself.

When a man and a woman give their bodies to one another, their very nakedness testifies that it is a total gift. It is strange, this inherent meaning of the bodily relation. It is of no use to say, “The act means what we take it to mean.” That cannot be. If we do not intend the total gift, nevertheless we have to pretend that we intend it, if but for a few minutes, merely to perform the act itself. And we do pretend it. We reveal ourselves to one another in our nakedness, which proclaims, “This is what I am,” and, in the very vulnerability of the act, in our release, we declare, “This is all that I have, I hold nothing back.” No doubt, we can imagine ourselves into passion, or we can pretend, while in the throes of a genuine passion, that it means only what it means for the fleeting moment — as if we were creatures without memory, and as if the act itself were of the moment.

But it is not, and we know it. It is the principal action whereby a man and a woman cooperate in the providential design of God for the human race. When the man and the woman, or a boy and a girl, commit their bodies to one another in this fashion, they make “one flesh,” and not only for the moment. They know, regardless of how hard they may try to forget it, that they are doing what their own parents did, and their parents before them. They are doing what brought them into being. And they are doing what, by its nature, is meant to bring new generations into being. Yes, they may try to thwart that result, just as they may try to feign passion while secretly pondering ways to extricate themselves from the entanglement, or as they may try to separate the pleasure of the act and its emotional intensity from the biological meaning of the act. None of that matters. The liar knows, somewhere in his heart, that he is lying. So do the unmarried people playing house with one another. They are doing something that unites human beings across the sexes and across the generations. It is social and not merely private.

To pretend otherwise is to introduce into the relations between men and women, into family life, and ultimately into all social relations a corrosive and enslaving notion of autonomy. Those who are apt to shrug at fornication, which is a kind of false marriage with inbuilt divorce, should consider what Pope Leo, in Arcanum Divinae, has to say about something we take even more lightly, divorce itself: “When the Christian religion is rejected and repudiated, marriage sinks of necessity into the slavery of man’s vicious nature and vile passions, and finds but little protection in the help of natural goodness. A very torrent of evil has flowed from this source, not only into private families, but also into States.”

The lie, that sexual intercourse is a private matter between two people, and that fornication and divorce, with their approval of dissolution in both senses of the word — loose living, and the dissolving of a bond — is of no social consequence, is based upon an antipathy toward those now unfashionable virtues that make society possible in the first place. So Pope Leo: “Very many, imbued with the maxims of a false philosophy and corrupted in morals, judge nothing so unbearable as submission and obedience; and strive with all their might to bring about that not only individual men, but families also, nay indeed, human society itself, may in haughty pride despise the sovereignty of God.” Lest we think that such a society can survive, the pope, heir to millennia of history of pagan and Christian civilizations, says most forthrightly, “Nothing has power to lay waste families and destroy the mainstay of kingdoms as the corruption of morals.”


That, for Pope Leo, is no broad generalization, but a conclusion based upon a shrewd reading of history and insight into the heart of man. Sexual sin is essentially disruptive. People who cannot form those societies called families will either end up living in chaos or will have to be managed by an ambitious and totalitarian state. Decades before Aldous Huxley satirized the soulless pursuit of infertile sexual pleasure, Pope Leo in Humanum Genus wrote that, since “no one is accustomed to obey crafty and clever men so submissively as those whose soul is weakened and broken down by the domination of the passions,” the statists of his time determined that “the multitude should be satiated with a boundless licence of vice,” so that they “would easily come under their power and authority for any acts of daring.”

In his brilliant analysis of family-hating academicians, Utopia Against the Family, Bryce Christensen says essentially the same thing: “Claiming that they are merely freeing people from an outmoded morality, modern political activists often use the rhetoric of liberation as a solvent for weakening personal commitment to families, so creating a mass of rootless individuals unable to resist the absolute claims of the utopian state.”

The implication is that to uphold sexual virtue is to uphold the possibility of a coherent society, and not as the result of a long and tenuous train of causes. Rather, there can no more be a genuine society without strong and stable families than there can be a human body without bones. And those strong families cannot be built upon the quicksand of individual passions, shifting from time to time, nor upon the serpentine meanderings of the lie. I cannot make a habit of uttering, with my body, the lie that I give my all, now and forever, without that lie becoming also a habit of being: without my becoming the sort of person who may not be telling lies at the moment, but who reserves to himself the right to tell them again when it becomes convenient.

Even the right to hold property, in Pope Leo’s thinking, is to be upheld not principally because it conduces to the pleasure or the autonomy of the individual holding it, but because, without it, the family could not exist. If we choose, we may remain virgins and hold property as individuals; but all the more is it our right to hold property if we are the heads of families. To read Pope Leo’s groundbreaking encyclical on the social movements of his day, Rerum Novarum, is to be in the presence of someone who does not reduce all human questions to those of partisan politics, and who emphatically does not believe in the ultimacy of the State. Consider this passage:

No human law can abolish the natural and original right of marriage, nor in any way limit the chief and principal purpose of marriage, ordained by God’s authority from the beginning, Increase and multiply. Hence we have the family; the “society” of a man’s house — a society limited indeed in numbers, but no less a true “society,” anterior to every kind of State or nation, invested with rights and duties of its own, totally independent of the civil community.

By that last phrase, the pope does not, as I read him, mean to suggest that families are islands of solipsism. Instead he is insisting that the family enjoys a priority over the state; that the state, in a sense, is the creation of the family, and not the other way around. Hence the family possesses rights that the state does not confer upon it but must recognize and defer to: “The contention, then, that the civil government should at its option intrude into and exercise intimate control over the family and the household, is a great and pernicious error,” for “paternal authority can neither be abolished nor absorbed by the State; for it has the same source as human life itself.”

Once we see the inner coherence of Catholic teaching on sex and the proper ordering of goods in society, we begin to suspect that the incoherence recommended by some among us — that we can have any kind of real society, just or otherwise, based upon sexual license — rests upon a mass of confusion and lies. Everything, we see, is related. So, if you are talking to me about the economy, which is in Greek the “law of the household,” and you are not talking about mother and father and children; or if you are talking to me about poverty of income, but not about moral destitution; or if you are talking to me about sexual ethics, and not about marriage and time and eternity; then you are not talking to me as a Catholic, but as someone who has forgotten that God’s laws are not so easily separable one from another. You may try out your nostrums with the simpleminded, or with members of Congress, but not to anyone who has actually read what our authorities have to say.

Anthony Esolen


Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • Gian

    Americans and conservatives in particular believe in the social contract theory of state that it is formed by the consent of free individuals.
    This they believe in their bones. Thus the family theory of State that the State has its origin in the primordial patriarchy i.e. the rule of Adam over his sons and the deference they paid him is alien to modern American conservatives. But this theory comports better with the idea presented here that State is the creation of families and not of individuals.

    • Cord Hamrick

      I’m okay with the state being a creation of families, provided one acknowledges that the members of the family are themselves individuals capable of forming families.

      This is all subsidiarity, or in American parlance, federalism.

      You and I have disagreed about the role of the state, Gian, but in this case, I don’t see anything for us to debate.

  • Chris in Maryland

    There are the 3 main political theories of social contract: absolute monarchy (Hobbes), natural rights (Locke), and collective sovereignty (Rousseau). America was founded on the 2nd form, opposing the first. The political crisis in America is caused by the conflict/incursion of the 3rd form versus the 2nd.

    The Judeo/Christian theory of society, discussed here by Esolen, is that the family has the highest priority in the genus of things falling under the umbrella of “society,” and that every other purpose is ultimately ordered to (i.e., subordinate) to its purposes. The essay argues that “people who cannot form those societies called families” will default to the 1st or 3rd form of the social contract. For Catholics, either the 1st or the 3rd is a regression, i.e., they both subordinate the family to another power.

    So for any Catholic, conservative or liberal, to assert the priority of the individual, over that of the family, such person’s thinking is disordered. “Self-actualization” is a false pursuit.

    • Gian

      Atheists have another conception of State as the territory owner. In purely atheist terms, I think this conception is superior to the social contract conceptions. It explains more.
      The social contract fails to explain the observed hierarchy. The State seems to function more as an overlord rather than a mere employee.
      Everywhere and over the ages the State sees its task has keeping the society in its tracks and as a guardian its morals.

      • Chris in Maryland

        Yet in Judeo-Christian terms, the state is subordinate to families, because families were prior to the state.

        The fact that organized entities overstep their bounds is evidence of their disfunction, not proof of their superiority, or of surrender to unlawful authority. A common disfunction in school administration serves to illustrate: a disordered school principal takes a substantive action with a student and fails to engage the child’s parents, and they do so misperceiving the institution of the school as pre-eminent, instead of clearly seeing that the school is the servant.

        I’m not sure whether you are speaking as an atheist, or merely observing something you believe some atheists hold to.

        In any case, there is no doubt that at the American foundation, the choice was to reject the typical European “enlightenment” model of the state as overlord.

        For the Wilsonians, the Rockefellers et al, the “progressive political project” has been to assert the “state” and/or “the collective” in America, erasing the American foundation, and then re-asserting control over families.

        Surely more than a few atheistic Americans observe the actions of the progressive project and interpret them as usurpations, a-la Ayn Rand.

  • Gail Finke

    Radical individualism — the idea that the individual, not the family, is the basis of society — is very popular in America. It fits the Protestant mind-set that most of us have, whether or not we are actually Protestants. It fits right in with the idea of SSM — do whatever you want! Everything will be great! It has also led to the breakdown of the family, as people are increasingly willing to sacrifice even the most intimate familial bonds to secure what they believe is their own happiness. From abortion to divorce and deliberate single parenthood, radical individualism rules. The social consequences have been dire, but people are not willing to look at them objectively.

    • Phil

      I personally don’t see the problem of “doing whatever you want” as long as what you want is beneficial to your peers. From what I can tell, supporters of SSM have pointedly said they want to raise good children and strengthen their society; I haven’t heard a peep about indulging in bacchanals.

      • Chris in Maryland


        Your point that the of raising children is an indicator that SSM is “beneficial to peers,” really seems to miss the mark here.

        Since this is a Catholic forum, I believe that the discussion should be framed by the Catholic teaching that applies to this matter, which I understand is as follows:

        Adults don’t have a right to “have” children. It’s the other way around. Children have the right to be cared for by a father and a mother (since children originate from God, only through the union man and woman, and the two together more completely image God, which image is the objective destiny of the person. That right is complimented by the corresponding responsibility of fathers and mothers to care for their children. The right of the children, and the responsibility of the parents is superior to all other rights and responsibilities in society (i.e., the family is superior to any form of the state, because it is prior to it).

        The SSM campaign is a distortion serving the self-actualization of the same sex couple. The rights of the children are subordinated to the satisfaction of the adults in the SSM, and also subordinated to the political return earned by those in power who cobble together a social construct that defies reality.

        There is a lot that’s wrong there.

    • Gian

      I view State as a development of the ancient patriarchy, ultimately to the authority of Adam over his sons. So the State develops from the families but retains an aura or miasma of the ancient patriarchal authority over the individuals.

      The American and European enlightenment views are merely different branches of the same tree. A social contract or compact between individuals
      and delegation of their natural authorities to the State,

      • Chris in Maryland


        I see where you’re coming from.

        My view is that in the “enlightenment” model, the state (Hobbes) and the collective (Rousseau) have formed an alliance/merged against natural rights (Locke). After those defending natural rights are subdued/eliminated, the progressive/collective will go full bore to dissolve the separate states, to achieve the progressive utopia, where those who have framed the utopia (the Sangers, Wilsons, Kinseys, Rockefellers, Rawls, Gores) will have attained their self-actualization.

        It would be interesting to know what your view of an ideal societal hierarchy is.

  • Carl

    Professor Esolen makes excellent natural law arguments (and so does the Church). I’ll try to incorporate them when appropriate opportunities arise. I try to avoid the damnation to hell arguments because they will never convince the hardened disbeliever or dissenter (in fact this usually encourages them).

  • Carl

    Gian says “I view State as a development of the ancient patriarchy, ultimately to the authority of Adam over his sons.”

    This is a disordered view. We honor our parents and love our neighbors. The antiquities of our parents we incorporate into our lives because it’s the truth. False novelties of our neighbors we should admonish with patience and charity.

    No, this doesn’t mean society can’t develop, that our neighbors can’t have new insights for modern society, or that our parents shall rule over us in a dictatorship/monarchy style fashion.

    In seeking a better understanding of the truth we sometimes fall.

    Serenity Prayer:
    God grant me the serenity
    to accept the things I cannot change;
    courage to change the things I can;
    and wisdom to know the difference.

    • Gian

      I do not claim that the State should rule despotically over us.
      I only claim that viewing the State as a development of ancient patriarchy
      appears to fit the behavior patterns of ancient and modern states
      and of the people themselves better than the social contract conception of
      state where state is viewed as an employee of the people.

      One needs to get out of the habit of viewing the ancient regimes as illegitimate.
      Was Czardom illegitimate even if 150 million Russians believed it to be a permanent and
      ancient institution of their land?
      Was British monarchy illegitimate?.

      Consider a primitive tribe with its elders. How do they derive their authority. Now note that the primitive bands
      consist of closely related family groups. In fact one extended family. And a family naturally possess Father as
      an authority figure. Even grown-up sons have their father as an authority over them.

  • Tony Esolen

    Folks — I would be happy if the discussion here returned to the main point, and that is that there is a deep harmony between what the Church teaches about sex and the family, and what it teaches about social justice. I’m a-waitin’ for somebody to try contradicting me on that point.