Progressive Inhumanity, Part One: The State against the Family

Picnic of a middle class family, 1820

by Anthony Esolen
From Crisis Magazine

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.

Professor Esolen teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College. A senior editor for Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, he writes regularly for Touchstone, First Things, Catholic World Report, Magnificat, This Rock, and Latin Mass. His most recent books are The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008) and Ironies of Faith (ISI Press, 2007) and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Press, 2010). Professor Esolen is the translator of a Dante.

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3 Responses to Progressive Inhumanity, Part One: The State against the Family

  1. toadspittle says:


    Odd that the writer should castigate “Mass entertainment, that drivel that trickles from the jowls of leviathan while it snores,” after opening the article with a highly-approving reference to a textbook example of it.
    Mysterious, really.


  2. toadspittle says:


    (A family’s) members can turn aside from the glaring screen and, rubbing their eyes, glance at one another.

    Or they can pick up the damn thing and throw it out of the window. Where is it written that having a TV is compulsory?


  3. rebrites says:

    The author has no first-hand experience with Planned Parenthood, and apparently did not bother to do any research on what it is and what it does.


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