The State Exists to Serve, Not Usurp, the Family

We are approaching, in this series, Pope Leo XIII’s great encyclical Rerum Novarum, on the condition of the working classes.  I’ve been maintaining that it is impossible to discuss Catholic Social Teaching without specifying what Catholics understand as a society.  I’ve also insisted upon the wise dictum of Saint Thomas, that grace perfects nature, which alone suffices to instruct the attentive Catholic that to sever faith from civic life is artificial and unnatural.  Now it’s time to look at two societies which the Pope holds up for our affection and admiration: the Christian family, and the Church.

Catholic Social Thought Pt VIFar from seeing religion as a pleasant decoration superadded to civil society, the Pope affirms that “religion, and religion only, can create the social bond” (Au Milieu des Sollicitudes, 1892).  History—and Leo is an historian with a long and broad vista—teaches us as much.  The key word in his sentence is bond.  This bond is more profound than the phantom “contracts” dreamed by Hobbes, Locke, and their followers.  For Leo sees another dimension, the moral and spiritual depth of man—what makes it impossible for us to reduce him to his material wealth and appetites.  I enter a contract, for self-serving and limited purposes; but I forge a bond.  The bond is personal, engaging the whole of my being.  And the social bond aims at the good of that whole human being.  “When different families,” Leo writes to French Catholics during a period of severe secular agitation against the Church, “unite under the inspiration of nature, in order to constitute themselves members of another larger family circle called civil society, their object is not only to find therein the means of providing for their material welfare, but, above all, to draw thence the boon of moral improvement.”

Let’s pause there.  Time and again, Pope Leo, his keen mind making use of nineteen centuries of Christian history and thought, not to mention the sacred word of God, takes up the surgeon’s probe and finds the diseased tissue.  We hear people say that law cannot impose morality.  That’s nonsense, because that is what laws mainly do.  But Leo says more.  It is precisely for our moral improvement above all that we form societies in the first place.  “Otherwise,” he says—and did he enter a time-machine to inspect the United States in 2012?—“society would rise but little above the level of an aggregation of beings devoid of reason, and whose whole life would consist in the satisfaction of sensual instincts.”  If that’s what “society” has become, a highly organized anti-society, why join it at all?  “Without this moral improvement it would be difficult to demonstrate,” says Leo, “that civil society was an advantage rather than a detriment to man, as man.”  We would be savages in suits (or less), without the compensation of a sky above and the joy of the hunt.

Yet he says even more.  The Church is herself the consummate society.  That is why she does not cast her lot with any particular form of government, but regards them all as valid so long as they promote the common good.  It is also why she does not subject herself to the political form of the day.  Nations rise and fall, but “only the Church of Jesus Christ has been able to preserve, and surely will preserve unto the consummation of time, her form of government.”  She has received from Christ, “who was, who is, and who will be forever,” everything she needs for carrying out her mission in the midst of historical chances and changes.  If we ask what makes the Church this perfect society, marred by sin but glorious, black but beautiful, the answer, I believe, must be found in Christ’s twin commandment.  We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourself.  The second commandment, says Jesus, is like unto the first; it is the application of the first to our action in the world.  He who does not love his brother does not love God, says Saint John, for God is love.  The converse is also true.  He who does not love God cannot love his neighbor as himself.  He may feel affection for those of his neighbors who please his temperament, but that is no real bond.  The grace-enabled heroism demanded by Christian charity will not be his.

What will a society look like, if it is informed by the virtues of the Church?  Leo addresses that question in his encyclical on the relationship between the Church and civil constitutions, Immortale Dei (1885).  Here he cites Augustine at length.  The Church tailors her instruction to the child and the youth and the old man, according to the needs of each.  She raises the dignity of woman to parity with man, and the headship of the husband is but the work of sincere affection, as Christ loves the Church.  Parents rule their children with kindness, and children freely obey them.  Kings look to the welfare of their people, and people honor their kings.  The Church joins together “not in society only, but in a sort of brotherhood, citizen with citizen, nation with nation, and the whole race of men, by reminding them of their common parentage.”  Whether a man deserves our honor or our admonishment, our praise or reproach, in all cases and at all times we must act with charity, and wrong no one.

That is a society.  That addresses itself to man’s soul.  But if a civil government “is wont to put God aside, and show no solicitude for the upholding of moral law, it deflects woefully from its right course and form the injunctions of nature: nor should such a gathering together and association of men be accounted as a commonwealth, but only as a deceitful imitation and make-believe of civil organization” (Sapientiae Christianae, 1890).

But there’s something prior to civil society that addresses man’s soul.  Jesus founded the Church; and God, creating man in the beginning, male and female, for “it is not good for the man to be alone,” founded the family.  This is the domestic society.  If the Church is the soaring pillars and the spire of civil society, holding it together and giving it direction, the family is its foundation.

Here finally I come to Rerum Novarum (1891), on which I’ll be spending much time.  One of the most noticeable things about this encyclical is that Leo does not launch into a series of recommendations regarding the working classes.  He does not begin with politics and national economics; he does not build upon sand.  He begins with a metaphysical meditation on what man is—more on this to come—and then he turns, not to the state, but to that foundational society.  “Hence,” he says, thinking of God’s first command to Adam and Eve, to be fruitful and multiply, “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” (emphasis mine).

What does he mean by that word independent?  Do families owe nothing to the community?  May they break laws at will?  Not at all.  We conceive of independence as the ruthless autonomy of the individual will.  Pope Leo is using the word in a different and more radical sense.  The family does not hang from the civil community.  It is not the community that defines the family, but the family that constitutes the community.  We are talking here about an order of being.  The family is anterior to every kind of State, not temporally, though that is certainly true, but in being.  Families are not justified by the good they bring to the State; the State is justified by the good it brings to families.  The State can bring good to families, though, only if it recognizes their anterior status, and their legitimate sphere of authority.

Catholic Social Teaching condemns the statist usurpation of the family, whether that usurpation is openly hostile or is cloaked in beneficence.  Extreme necessities should be met by public aid, and gravely criminal actions by a member of the family against the family must be punished.  “This is not to deprive citizens of their rights,” says Leo, “but justly and properly to safeguard and preserve them.  But the rulers of the State 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.”

Thus far, and no further.  But we now have States that allow free license to all vices lethal to the family.  Pope Leo would have understood that demonic strategy.

Anthony Esolen


Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).

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