The Long War Against the Family (Part I)

The progressive cultural elite has long perpetuated prejudices against the family that, unchallenged, lead to its ruin. Among several I cite three: (1) the assertion that marriage makes men and women less free; (2) the assumption that children are a burden; and (3) the insistence that sexual differentiation is a fiction. These three ideas represent, as it were, three waves of the anti-family movement of the past 150 years. The first is the Marxist contribution; the second is the eugenicist; the third is the fruit of recent gender theorists.

Social conservatives too often play a battle of catch-up with the progressive left.  We marvel at abortion; we worry over divorce; we wonder at the rise of the homosexual lobby. It is right that alarm is sounded.  But even before lobbying, if the family is ever to regain its natural position of prominence, conservatives need to recover the memory of how the “traditional family” lost its way.  In this and the next two articles I would like uncover the three stages of the long war against the family, and then note briefly some helpful lines of response to them.  We’ll begin first with the Marxist contribution.

Common to both Marx and Engels is the belief that social relations not characterized by strict material equality are unjust. In his influential study, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), Karl Marx’s collaborator Friedrich Engels attacked the family as the original cell of inequality and slavery. As an extension of man’s first desire for property—Marxism’s equivalent of the fall—man also wished to secure the transmission of property to his posterity. In Engels’ account this drive is what gives rise to monogamy. Men with land want heirs with a legitimate title. Hence, in marriage women belong to men simply “as an instrument for the production of children.” In Engel’s view the enslavement of women, naturally, like all inequalities, will cease once the means of production are transferred from private ownership to the state. With no right to property and no possibility of handing on an inheritance, men will no longer care to identify their offspring. An upshot is that once the economic conditions that gave rise to marriage cease, so also will marriage. At the end of history, sex will again be unfettered.

RebuildingCultureEngels predicted that the coming revolution would strike a blow to both family and the bourgeois sexual morality that sustained it. In the socialist future, “the single family ceases to be the economic unit of society,” which will result in “the gradual growth of unconstrained sexual intercourse.” Evidently, Freud was not the first to suggest that sex is what people are really after.

Whatever the defects of his theory, Engels was prescient at least about its ramifications: as socialism advances, family recedes. As the tasks of raising children, caring for the old, and making money are absorbed by the state, fewer and fewer reasons will remain for a man and a woman to form a lasting bond.

In my travels in former communist countries I have been struck by how closely our attitude towards the education of children match communist methods. There is this difference, however: under communism millions of mothers were forced to work out of the home and send their children to state institutions.

In the free world many of us do this of our own choice. When children from the age of three years spend two or more meals with strangers, it is not surprising that parents find it difficult to command the level of loyalty that was once taken for granted. More than “quality time” young children need quantities of time, and when the home is vacant, children transfer their allegiances elsewhere, usually to their peers.

Boys and girls exposed early to state institutions become easy prey to what has been called “youth culture”—that sum of the popular music, expensive clothing, and crass entertainments devised by corporations to provide an easy market. When Mom is at work, parenting becomes more difficult too. In fact, the demands of work can come to look fun when set beside parenthood. For more and more parents, the sacrifices at home appear to offer a meager return. Certainly some young mothers have no choice but to work outside the home; but the need is hardly the norm. The household has to be more than just a bus terminal where connections to other destinations are made. It has to return to being a center for meaningful activity. Education, work, prayer, nurture, and play are all essential functions belonging to the household properly ordered. Restoring the strength of the single-unit family turns on its ability, then, to recover ground from outside agencies to which its activities have been transferred.

Writing a generation after Marx and Engels, Pope Leo XIII understood well what was at stake in the fight against socialism. Rerum Novarum (1891) had in view not only the rights of the worker but also the survival of his family. Both have rights that are grounded in nature and disclosed by revelation: “Behold, therefore, the family, or rather the society of the household, a very small society indeed, but a true one, and older than any polity!” The indignation of couples needs to be aroused at the present danger that confronts their happiness. Equality and complementarity can in fact coexist in happy union. The Christian simply does not need to accept that equality must (as in Marxist terms) be reduced to wage parity and equal opportunity for sexual license. In this first wave of attack on the family, any sign of mutual interdependence was viewed as a threat to freedom. Those working against the family have insisted that submission to an exclusive contract is a sacrifice of autonomy. As Simone de Beauvoir claimed, in marriage, “man and wife together undergo the oppression of an institution they did not create.”

Needless to say, the oppression under which men and women suffer most is not the result of marriage but of broken promises. Even by such pedestrian indexes as wealth, health, and reported happiness, a mountain of social-scientific research has long overturned the popular wisdom of such 1960s thrillers as The Second Sex and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Like men, women simply thrive better in marriage. They suffer less depression, are more financially secure, and experience more fulfilling intimacy (for copious evidence see Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher’s The Case for Marriage, Broadway Books). Even today, after decades of assault on the ideal of the nuclear family, a mere 8 percent of women say they hope to remain unwed.  So much for the first wave.

The second wave also accepted the Marxist premise that justice demands strict material equality.  But next, the wagging finger turned from men to children.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from Dr. Topping’s new book Rebuilding Catholic Culture: How the Catechism Can Shape our Common Life (Sophia Institute Press). This excerpt will be published in three parts over the next three days.

Ryan N. S. Topping


Ryan N. S. Topping is a Fellow of Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. A native of Saskatoon, Canada, he earned his M.Phil. and D.Phil. in theology from Oxford University. His latest book is Rebuilding Catholic Culture: How the Catechism Can Shape Our Common Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2012). He and his wife have six children.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    What lent plausibility to Engel’s analysis was that the structure and rôle of the family really was changing. The old model had been that of the peasant family, centred on a patriarch and expanding from hearth to hearth, with children being raised in an extended family network.

    Industrialisation meant that the family, whether the peasant family or the independent craftsman ceased to be the unit of production and home and work became geographically separated. Women have always worked but, now, people “went out to work.” Meanwhile, urbanisation and increased mobility fractured the extended family.

    What emerged increasingly, especially in the middle class, was the nuclear family, father, mother and children, with the father as breadwinner and the mother as housewife. In the working class, women (and children, too) also worked in the mills, the factories and, even, in the mines.

    Where I live, there are many small family farms, usually with three-generation households and with both husbands and wives working on them. There are also family-owned shops, with the owners living above them. I confess to finding it a more humane model.

  • publiusnj

    I don’t disagree with the author’s review of the intellectual underpinnings of the anti-family movement, but there is also a very simple economic reason for that assault. Cui bono? when the family is weakened? First, the market benefits because “services” provided by one or the other of the spouses can be provided by the marketplace instead. For example, handyman and lawn mowing and incidental baby sitting services provided by the husband (as well as financial support in many cases) can be opened up to competition if the husband is no longer around to provide those services for love instead of money. Likewise, the wife’s many services to the family would otherewise have to be contracted out in the market if she were no longer around. And there are other benefits to the market when the family is destroyed: divorce legal representation + contraception + abortions can all be peddled to the no longer married “individuals.” So the market sees the state of holy matrimony as a competitror with an unnatural advantage: people in a marriage provide services for love no money. A curious and now perhaps anachronistic way of phrasing that is that “two can live as cheaply as one.”

    Second, one group of politicians can benefit greatly if the family is weakened: those that offer “entitlements” to “single mothers” when no husband is involved in the family. That, of course, is the more left wing politicians, who see an unmarried woman/mother as someone whose vote can be bought relatively cheaply (with child and child care credits, head of household filing status and earned income credits which are defined to encourage poorer women NOT to marry. The EIC is particularly pernicious because a single mother can get the EIC even if she is earning well into the $35,000 range, but if she is married and her husband and she earn more than $5000 more, then the EIC goes away. By encouraging negative views on marriage and promising support if the woman doesn’t “choose” to have an abortion, those politicians can keep a vulnerable and needy group of voters well within their corral.

    And the proof is in the pudding: married women are a lot less likely to vote Democrat than single women. Is that political philosophy speaking or the triumph of love over money?

  • Karen

    Please describe how it is possible for equality and complemntarity to coexist?

    • Ford Oxaal

      We all share equally in responsibility for the next generation. Complementarity means we each do this in ways according to our gifts and our state in life. A person without children might take up the cause of inter-generational theft at the political level. A person with children might take up the focused task of insuring a love of truth and proper education and upbringing of those children.

    • Mom2amob

      Karen, I don’t believe they can coexist. Human beings are much too multi-faceted and complex to fall into only two categories. How dull life would be if that were so! The only answer I’ve ever had to the same question has been the very condescending assurance that I should not worry about equality because “we’re all ontologically equal; it’s just that, well, you can’t really be equal because you’re only a woman, but don’t worry about it because we’re all ontologically equal.” Well, if we’re ontologically equal, than we can be equal in other ways too. I’m on of those who firmly believes that giftedness has nothing to do with gender.

      • Being complimentary and equal are not 2 single categories- many qualities fall under them. I would find life dull if we were all equal- equal in looks, personalities, abilities, intelligence. Yet, that is what you appear to be striving for.

    • Why is this so difficult to understand? Men and women are obviously different from each other, it is not some societal construct. And men and women compliment each other in obvious ways-men and women bring different qualities to a relationship and a family, men cannot be Mom and women cannot be Dad.

      We are equal in so far as our humanity, our inherent dignity and inalienable rights given to us by God. Are we equal in all things? No! 2 men are not even equal- one is tall, one is short, one is athletic, the other artistic, etc. Geesh!

  • Bailey

    It’s Betty Friedan (not Friedman) who wrote The Feminine Mystique.

  • hombre111

    No system has done more damage agains the family than the capitalist system. Low wages, both parents working, no money for child care, poor living conditions, no medical care. This yap about anti-family is a smokescreen to keep people from seeing where the real damage comes from.

    • Ford Oxaal

      Are you saying Karl Marx was a family man, whereas Adam Smith was not?

      • hombre111

        Capitalism is based on “creative destruction.” It leaves demolished social structures behind, including families. Take the most recent fiasco. The world lost half its wealth in weeks. What happened to those families? How many marriages survived such a thing? And what about the millions who still have no job, or work for much less? What has that done to family life?

        • Ford Oxaal

          I would have a hard time trying to argue that private property ownership and ability to trade with others is somehow bad for families. I have an easy time arguing that the centralized state/corp kleptocracy is bad for families. But that is a mere shadow of capitalism.

        • sajetreh

          In a capitalist society where one can practice his religion freely and one does so, the recent fiasco strengthens the family. I have been unemployed or under employed for the last three years. I have two daughters whose families only have one income. These hard times have caused us to come together to overcome. We shop together and eat more meals together. We share the burdens together. In a time when we should have fallen apart and cried out “Why me!!” We didn’t. We kept our faith and love for one another and just today I started a new job. Capitalism and faith at work.

          The reason our public and private institutions are failing is the destruction of the family and the morals that guided it. The family is nuclear to science and the major religions. This article is right on the money.

          • hombre111

            Do a Google search on the impact of capitalism on the family.

  • To Karen below: see 1 Cor. 12-14. Human beings are not numbers.

    • Karen

      No conservative has ever answered my question: what should women be allowed to do? The chapters you list concern spiritual gifts. Do you believe that God withholds some gifts to women?

      • sibyl

        Dear Karen: I am a conservative, so let me attempt a partial answer to your question. (A full answer would entail your full question, which certainly is larger.)

        The real issue behind your question is that you seem to perceive conservatives as trying to bind people with rules (thus the word “allowed”) that they themselves make and which may or may not be worthy. This perception is not true to what we are trying to say. Rather, if I might speak for conservatives as a group, our firm conviction is that certain behaviors, practices, and formations simply are BETTER, not only for society as a whole but for the individuals within them. And they are better on every level except perhaps the one that most liberals use as the sole criterion of good: personal satisfaction. (And even on this level I would assert that doing what is better — what is right — eventually leads to satisfaction, even if it involves great personal hardship.)

        So for example, Mr Topping discusses the destruction of the family as we have known it forever, and in doing so talks about mothers working outside the home and the harm that has caused. He is asserting that it is BETTER for women to stay home to raise their little children, and on every level, even if an individual woman’s satisfaction in this occupation is low. This is not about making rules. It’s akin to saying that a car runs better with oil in the engine, rather than syrup.

        Conservatives aren’t trying to make or enforce rules. We’re saying that human beings are made to be a certain way, and everything is worse when we freely choose to live some other way. And as for God giving and withholding gifts, of course He withholds some gifts from women, just as he withholds some gifts from men. (Women cannot be fathers, and men cannot be mothers, for example.) But spiritual gifts — gifts of the Holy Spirit — are available to any soul who desires them and does what is necessary to receive them.

        • mom2amob

          Sibyl, I greatly appreciate your courteous tone, but I don’t see why everything would be worse because different people make different choices — choices that can make them and their families happier. Some families are just happier when mom and dad follow non-traditional roles. We weren’t created all black and all white. We were created in wonderfully vivid, vibrant colors — all of us a little different. My husband and I have a wonderful, close, loving, and supportive relationship. We work together to help one another live creative and fulfilling lives. We’re very lucky to have high-paying careers. He stayed home with our kids for a while why I was at grad school. We’re very fortunate that we were able to do this. I was able to work from home for a while doing some writing and research during the next few pregnancies and babyhoods and toddlerhoods. Then we switched places again. We’ve had one of us work, while one stays home. We’ve both worked part time. We’ve both not worked. Now that our youngest is old enough, we took six months to show the kids the world. Please don’t think it would have been a good idea — in our case, at least — to have confined me to the home and my husband to the workplace. That would have crushed both of us and robbed our children of so much!

          • sibyl

            Mom2amob: First, my observations were necessarily general, since what Mr. Topping is talking about has to do with broad social realities. I would be the last person to deny that when you look at a micro level, there will be all sorts of creative variations on a general theme.

            What the author refers to above as detrimental to family life is the institutionalization — day care and early childhood programs, I thought he was saying — of children at a very young age, with moms and dads whose main aim in life is something other than their early nurturing and formation. Despite the less ordinary way of approaching it, your aim clearly seems to have been to be truly connected parents to your little ones. You fit the “quantity time” model.

            Being a full-time mother does not at all preclude the possibility of other pursuits; in fact, it would be wrong to reduce a person’s life to one aspect of her vocation while neglecting all the others. Sometimes my suspicion is that feminists, hating to see women happy as “only” mothers and wives, created the straw woman of the lady in pearls who does nothing at all all day but wipe little noses, bake cookies, crochet doilies, and fold the underwear. When has being a full-time mother been so narrow? Not in my life, for sure, and not in the lives of any of the women I know who are engaged in the same occupation. The women I know often do paying work odd hours, or from home, and many of them have intellectual, artistic, or political pursuits. But… What they are DOING is raising children, and that is the difference.

            Last thought. Most families aren’t as lucky as you are in terms of income. A full-time working mother of young children whose income is small cannot shield her children from the inferior day-care workers (and let’s not kid ourselves — those people are some of the least educated people around) or the difficulties of being away from their parents so much. It’s so well researched as to be a truism that kids raised in day care are more aggressive, sicker, more poorly socialized, less securely attached, etc. It is for the vast majority that having little access to a mom poses such a problem. That is why having most women working outside the home becomes part of the war against the family. Women sustain culture, and if we are too busy earning money to do that, culture dies. We see it happening all around us.

      • Ford Oxaal

        Simple — just apply the principle of reciprocity. Example: a mother should be allowed to procure the end of the life of an unborn child without permission of the father. So, you would say yes or no to that based on the reciprocal, which in this case would be: a father should be allowed to procure the end of life of an unborn child without the permission of the mother.

      • Marlin

        It’s more a question of what a woman should be *encouraged* to do. To start of with, it’s the same things that a man should be encouraged to do: put God and others (especially his family) before himself, act morally and responsibly, etc. Based on that, between the man and the woman, they should divide the family responsibilities to make sure the needs of the family are met. Traditional roles mean the couple does not start from scratch, and receive training in the roles when they are young. I think that in a wealthy society like ours there can be more flexibility with the roles, but I wonder if we’ll return to the traditional roles after this country spends itself into poverty. I would also make the observation that it’s been a lot harder task to put my family before myself than it has been to come to an agreement with my wife on our roles, and I don’t think I’m alone in this.

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  • Mom2amob

    “Among several I cite three: (1) the assertion that marriage makes men and women less free; (2) the assumption that children are a burden; and (3) the insistence that sexual differentiation is a fiction. ”

    Mr. Topping appears to be thinking of some specific form of communism, rather than what he refers to as “the progressive cultural elite.” This “elite” (why do these people use the term “elite” when they clearly mean it as a pejorative) in fact has nothing against marriage. It may want to expand the concept of marriage, as do most Americans these days, but to “make men and women less free”??? Mr. Topping, perhaps you could elaborate? The assumption that children are a burden? Why would progressives be fighting for better education, better opportunities, and better health care for all our children, even the poor ones, if they believed that? Why would they be trying to reduce abortion rates in so many ways? Sexual differentiation? I think the complexity of sexuality — the full spectrum of individual masculine and feminine traits in individual people — is better understood today. Progressives are trying to protect women from violence? Could that be what Mr. Topping means? Frankly, I don’t understand why he would make these claims.

    • Ford Oxaal

      (1) no-fault divorce (2) abortion on demand (3) same sex ‘marriage’ — these progressive projects are Karl Marx personified. I think your disbelief may be a bit feigned 🙂

  • RMW

    On a different note, I was struck by the use of the phrase “bus terminal” to describe family life. It is quite apt. Too many young people only ‘visit’ their homes for on their way to something else – sports, off with friends, hang out at the mall or just pass through the kitchen on their way to their own rooms, their own computers, their own TV’s. Their destinations are often unknown (literally and figuratively) to their parents until damage is done and sin has occurred.

    Parents need to take back their children’s lives and become active participants beyond chauffeur or ATM. Conversations, inquiries, instruction and demonstration of real love and virtue.

    It isn’t easy, as is also mentioned in the article “For more and more parents, the sacrifices at home appear to offer a meager return.” But the hope of eternity with our children at our sides should be reward enough!

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  • Robert

    While Marxism was always a threat to the family few think that capitalism and consumerism may be a continuing threat to the family.

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  • caesarjbsquitti

    Anything can be corrupted.

    From corrupt socialism, communism, capitalism….add the corruption in ‘cult-feminism’, that is based on the observation of American born Canadian feminist Judy Rebick, ‘Yeah lesbians were at the heart of the feminist movement, even though they did not pursue their issues…”

    Take a good look. The differences between the salaries of women and men ?

    Where is the mutual benefit of SHARED INCOMES, shared incomes to raise family. TOTALLY MISSING FROM THE EQUATIONS, and logical frameworks ?

    Seems an obvious female verses male focus.

    Seems a third party with no positive connection to men ?

    Seems a cult…the work of the devil using ‘devils truths’, ie truths that lie, because they are half-of-the-truth…

    Remember like SOME OF THE ANGELS, anything, anyone, can be corrupted….even TRUTH.

    based on the book, “The LIGHT; The Rainbow of truths…”

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