Progressive Inhumanity, Part One: The State against the Family

When they were casting for the old western The Rifleman, one small boy was brought into the room after another, to meet the star Chuck Connors and the director.  Then young Johnny Crawford came in, a little gangly in the arms and legs, with tousled hair and large brown eyes.  “That’s the son of Lucas McCain,” they said at once.  Connors remarked years later that the best thing about the show was the relationship between the widowed father and the son, because that was genuine; shooting bad guys in Hollywood style was strictly secondary.  He was right about that.  The elder McCain didn’t give the law so much as embody it, make it human and real, as fallible as he could sometimes be.  The warmth the man and the boy expressed for one another was also real, and Johnny Crawford remained very close to his pretended father, until Connors passed away some years ago.

Great artists too have seen what these homely purveyors of popular culture once saw.  The heroine of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, a passionate and headstrong and self-willed young girl, rejects her father’s solid and sensible choice for a husband, and takes to her bed the dashing but irresponsible swordsman Erlend.  Yet Kristin cannot escape the authority, and the generous goodness, of her father Lavrans.  It is not so much the local priest who embodies for her the Christian faith, and how people are to be treated, and what must be done and what must not be done, as that once handsome and burly father, who loved her so dearly, and whom she disappointed so deeply.  Many years after her ill-advised marriage, after Lavrans has long been reconciled with his son-in-law, the old man lies on his bed of death, welcoming and thanking all the servants and the neighboring folk who visit to bid him farewell.  He breathes his last with a sudden surge of will, looking upon the cross that his old friend the priest holds before his closing eyes.  I too, even in these days of spiritual aridity, returned to my home in Pennsylvania to be at my father’s side, in our living room, as he died, his eyes looking upon us all.  I had no idea at the time that he would be present to me more fully in the years to come than he had when I was young and foolish.  For when I think of the law, I think of him, standing upright on the aisle-end of the pew, next to my mother, and glancing with half-mischievous reproof should my brother momentarily forget where he was.

Thus is the law made human; thus does it become for us not only a restraint but a potency, not only an object to obey with fear, but a person to heed with love.

Pope Leo XIII saw this.  The beauty and the divine order of the family is the very soul of his social teaching, because it is there, within the walls of the home, that society begins.  Thus we hear him declare, against the statists of his time, that by the command of God “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.”  This is the doctrine of subsidiarity at its core.  The Pope does not justify the family on utilitarian grounds.  He does not affirm (what is true in any case) that there are many things the family can do that the State cannot do as well, or cannot do at all.  Instead he founds the rights of the family in nature, and the God of nature.  It is a society both human and divine.  It is within those bonds of love or duty that children and parents both put faces upon law that would otherwise remain abstract, distant, sometimes threatening, sometimes impotent, but always extrinsic, and therefore not quite real.  It is there, and only there, that law and love may be found growing together.

And it is there that we first, when we are children, and most effectually, when we are grown, exercise our practical reason in attaining the common good.  It combines the best of monarchy and aristocracy and democracy and even at times a merry anarchy, and, if it does not transgress against its own natural purposes, the family “has at least equal rights with the State in the choice and pursuit of the things needful to its preservation and its just liberty.”  There we dicker in council, make strategic alliances, adjust the punishment to fit the crime, correct the sinner, commend the patriot, sing with the comrade, struggle on the field and laugh thereafter, make obedience into gifts and gifts into praise, remember those who have gone before us and follow in their wisdom, and fall to our knees in worship of the common Father of all.  We occupy space in a city or county, those geographical fictions, but there in the family we dwell.  Nations and parties pass away, but not the souls of those whose faces we never forget.

At this point it seems to me coarse to turn to the political; but fittingly coarse.  As jarring as it feels now to refer to so petty a thing as the leviathan, so unnatural it is for the leviathan to attempt to destroy or enfeeble or absorb the family.  So says the Pope: “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.”  True, a destitute family without friends must be assisted by public aid, and parents who pervert the true ends of the family, by gross neglect or abuse, should be brought to justice, “for this is not to deprive citizens of their rights, but justly to safeguard and strengthen them.”  Yet we tread here upon hallowed ground.  “The rulers of the State,” says Leo, “must go no further: here nature bids them stop.  Paternal authority can be neither abolished nor absorbed by the State; for it has the same source as human life itself.”  Just as each one of us is an unrepeatable instance of the goodness of the Father, so too each child “takes its place in civil society, not of its own right, but in its quality as member of the family in which it is born.”

The family, then, is that natural society where individual liberty and the common good are most nearly reconciled.  To deprive it of its rights is to rob people of a great part of what it is to be human.  It is repressive.  The judgment of Pope Leo could hardly be more sternly expressed: “The Socialists, therefore, in setting aside the parent and setting up a State supervision, act against natural justice, and break into pieces the stability of all family life.”

With what indignation, and even nausea, must we then regard the never-ceasing intrusions of the State!  In Alberta, the “conservative” government has forbidden even homeschooling parents to teach their children that homosexual acts are unnatural.  It does not occur to the lawmakers that their own edict is itself unnatural.  In no school district in my area do parents have the least authority in determining what their children will learn; they are thwarted by buffers of bureaucrats, those within the schools and their friends on school committees, not to mention by the deliberately inculcated arrogance of teachers, who take it as their sacred mission to separate children as best they can from those beliefs of the parents that they do not share.  Planned Parenthood, that money pit for the production of porno-twaddle and the destruction of life, peddles salacious “educational tools” to children, and never says, “You had better talk these things over with your father and mother,” or, “You should honor the laws of your faith,” or, “You might wish to take counsel from a wise clergyman.”  No, that would be the advice of people who actually understood the harmony between law and love, and the just claims of the society into which we are born.

Mass entertainment, that drivel that trickles from the jowls of leviathan while it snores, has the same end in mind: to render us less human, by separating us from family and faith.  After all, just as a strong family is a bulwark against the predations of the State, so too, as the entertainers have finally learned, is it a bulwark against the predations of the media.  At least it can be a bulwark; its members can turn aside from the glaring screen and, rubbing their eyes, glance at one another.  Its members can ask, after a long muddle, why they should attend to idols so stupid and ugly and impotent, and not to the God who made heaven and earth.

There has never been a calamity that someone or other has not profited from.  So I will be asking, in this series, cui bono?  Who profits from the dehumanization?  More on this to come.

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).

  • Vishal Mehra

    Right now in India, the case of a Hindu family that was resident in Norway is agitating people, even the Federal Govt. The Norwegian Social Service seized the two children, one a 3 year boy and another a six month old girl on grounds the Social Service is not revealing because of ‘confidentiality” . But the newspapers say the problem was the boy was not taught to eat with fork and spoon and the baby was not getting changed on a diaper board.

    See how ‘confidentiality” now protects bureaucracy from accountability. Now the Indian Govt has intervened, there are talks about releasing the children to their uncle’s custody. But the Norwegians  want full undertaking by Indian Govt that (1) The boy would be provided treatment for “attachment disorder” and funds provided. (2) the material standard of living would be maintained. This has be done to the satisfaction of the Norwegian judges.

    I am not very hopeful that the children would be reunited to their family soon but your prayers would be appreciated.

    The Indian Govt is taking the stand, not for the family exactly, but that the children are being deprived of their language and culture. That is, they are being robbed from the Indian Nation. That they have been robbed of their parents and their family disrupted, the Indian Govt does not primarily care for.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Aristotle, the philosopher of common sense, says in the Eudemian Ethics “διὸ ἐν οἰκίᾳ
    πρῶτον ἀρχαὶ καὶ πηγαὶ φιλίας καὶ πολιτείας καὶ δικαίου [Hence in the household
    are first found the origins and springs of friendship, of political organization and of justice.]”

  • publiusnj

    The state wants to purvey its wares, as does Hollywood, as does the marketplace in general.  The state also wants to collect its taxes whether it has dispensed any services on a transaction or not.   Families provide things for one another without charge–dare one say: out of love.  Parents care for children wthout charge to the other parent when a perfectly acceptable Childcare service could be doing so and generating commerce and taxes.  The market and the Government both abhor that conduct because it cuts down on what the individual human unit who is a member of the family needs from the market or the state and could be forced to contribute to the same.

    Take for example that key relationship called “Marriage.”  There are whole cable stations dedicated to nothing but glorifying the day of the wedding (as in: The Wedding Channel”).  It is treated as the ultimate day of any “girl’s” life.  Entire industries feast off that concept: caterers, wedding planners, florists, dress designers, jewelers, hair stylists, wedding cake artists (i.e.,  bakers), etc.   Anf the state of course gets its cut through taxes.  BUT THEN, the glorious day is over and once the couple furnish their house and clothe their kids, the market/Government start seeing opportunities for sales go away.  The mothers take care of the kids and childcare suffers; the father does handyman jobs around the house and construction trades suffer. 

    And the state suffers most of all because none of that intrafamily commerce is taxed by the state.  What is worse, the couples look to one another rather than to an all powerful and somewhat giving state for their needs.  Some women may even see themselves as wedded for life to a person with whom she has continuing interests.  A government that promises relief from spousal abuse and easy divorces clearly may be of little interest to someone who sees herself married for life, and she might vote the wrong way.  So, the War on Marriage has kicked in and new tax plans that penalize intact marriages come to the fore (compare the wedding penalty to the “Head of Household” filing status that give two divorced parents sharing the kids for tax purposes an even larger standard deduction than the married couple would get filing Married Jointly). 

    So, I agree with the author that the State is at war with the Family.

  • Regina

    I had no idea at the time that he would be present to me more fully in the years to come than he had when I was young and foolish.
    Wonderful, Tony!  When I read that, I thought of good Fr. Louis, whose admonitions I remember more today, because they mean more, saying “Never forget who really loves you.”  Of course he meant Our Blessed Lord, but he could have meant my mother and father, too.  Love as a motivation doesn’t always produce perfect results–I’m subject to just criticism as a parent–but it probably attains it’s end (good adults) more often than the state could.  Besides, even if the state COULD take the place of the family, it’s not the state’s role to do so!

  • Sue

    This is so true about Pope Leo XIII – he powerfully defended the family against the state.  He also  pushed the “family wage” concept, which could have been a sustaining force for the family, had it not been for the massive influx of married women to the workforce, making those families “double-dippers” and thus rendering the “family wage” a meaningless abstraction.  I fear we are experiencing even more distortion with so many men crowded out of work, on unemployment, and women favored into jobs and away from their families by affirmative action.

  • I am grateful to my kind interlocutors.  You give me encouragement, and of course there’s no such thing as an army of one.  We march together, and we kneel together.

    I’m reminded of a conversation I had last summer with a very wise man, an emeritus professor of economics (and a devout Catholic).  He pointed out that if America were to be hit hard by hurricanes, the gross domestic product would rise: it would have to, because of all the new construction.  But of course that would not actually reflect a genuine increase in wealth.  It would reflect rather a severe hurt for certain areas.  He distinguished between economic activity that promotes wealth (and the common weal) and economic activity that does not, or that even destroys wealth (and the common weal).  We can come up with all sorts of examples right away.  If all the mothers on a street take care of one another’s children, Anna taking care of Barbara’s and Barbara taking care of Carla’s and Carla taking care of Doris’, and so on, then again the GDP of that street would go up — and the true wealth would drop like a stone.  Casinos, lotteries, layers of adipose bureaucracy, middlemen in school districts …

    I am also deeply grateful to Sue for pointing out exactly what Leo intended by the “family wage.”  That does seem to get lost in such discussions; it’s as if, in our episcopal enclaves, the concept had ONLY to do with income and not to do, first and last, with the actual material AND spiritual welfare of a family.  Double dippers — that is an interesting way to put it.  I wonder if anybody has begun to analyze what happens to housing markets in general, and to this or that neighborhood in particular, when professionals marry professionals.  In my town, when I was a boy, there were very few professionals: one doctor, two pharmacists, one or two lawyers, some teachers, a few accountants, and that was about it.  They had somewhat nicer houses than the rest of us had, but not by a whole lot, and they lived where we lived.  Not anymore.

  • Niemann

    I especially second Prof. Esolen’s point about the incursions of mass media culture into the family. It seems to me that if families just experimented with getting rid of all non-work-related screens for one month, they would see their home happier, their children peppier, their ability to meet challenges sharpened. Ordinary people got along for centuries without the deluge of filth and idiocy that they now willingly allow into their homes, even into their young kids’ minds.

  • Pingback: First Links — 3.15.12 » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog()

  • Amy2boys

    As a Protestant Freshman at Franciscan University, just trying to keep my head down get a political science degree and get out,  I was required to read Pope Leo XIII on family and the principle of subsidiarity. I’d never given any consideration to the Catholic faith but I so clearly remember reading this material, stopping and flipping to the front of the book to remind myself of the author and the date it was written, marveling at this teaching. The depth and richness of Catholic teaching on every subject would continue to stun and delight me right into the Church. It is a gift to read  this essay and be reminded with such eloquence of one of the first things that made me look up.

  • Pingback: Progressive Inhumanity: The State against the Family — Crisis Magazine « thereformedmind()

  • Pingback: “Mass entertainment, that drivel that trickles from the jowls of leviathan while it snores” | Septizodium()

  • Pingback: Progressive Inhumanity, Part Two: The State against the Churches — Crisis Magazine()

  • Pingback: Convert Journal — Obama’s war on religion (update #5)()