The Natural Family in
the Modern World
By Allan C. Carlson,
*Adapted from the keynote address to the inaugural conference of The
John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family–Melbourne. Held July 21,
2001, in East Melbourne, Australia, it was co-sponsored by the
Pontifical Council for the Family.
It is my great honor to take part in the inauguration of this new academic
institution devoted to the renewal of Christian family life. The John Paul II
Institute for Marriage and Family of Melbourne springs to life at a critical
moment, for the signs of family turmoil are mounting.
In material terms, we can define the modern world through the triumph of
industrial organization, a process most evident during the last one hundred
years. This rise of industry has produced a cornucopia of material goods, rising
average incomes, and longer life spans. Moreover, capitalist industrial
economies based on competition, profit, and the quest for efficiency have proven
far superior to socialist industrial economies based on central planning.
Indeed, the capitalistic marketplace has, over the last four decades, even
kicked into a kind of hyperdrive: local markets have vanished in favor of global
markets in virtually all commodities; advertising has grown more sophisticated
in its appeal to the emotions; even culture has become a commodity through the
international trade in film, television, and recorded music.
The past one hundred years have also offered an unprecedented spectacle of
family decline, a decline accelerating over the last 40 years as well. Using a
definition crafted by The World Congress of Families, I understand the natural
family to be a man and a woman bound in a lifelong socially approved covenant
called marriage, for purposes of the propogation of children, sexual communion,
mutual protection, the construction of a small home economy, and the
preservation of bonds between the generations. At the dawn of the Third
Christian Millennium, this natural family has faded as a cultural presence in
much of the Western world. Declining rates of first marriage, high divorce
rates, low and declining numbers of births within marriages, mounting
sole-parenting, frequent abortion, and the sexualization of daily life have been
especially pronounced in the very nations where industrialization has been most
Questions logically follow: Are these two developments related? Does the rise
of industry cause family disruption? Tf so, is it possible to find a way to have
both material abundance and family virtue? Can we craft a virtuous economy?
I believe the answer to the first question is "yes":
industrialization tends, by its very nature, to undermine the material and
psychological foundations of the family. To understand why, we need turn to the
very essence of modern industry and to what it replaced.
The pre-industrial economy is a household-centered economy, where each family
is largely self-sufficient in food production, shelter, and clothing: that is,
in the essentials of material life. This self-sufficiency delivers to the family
a certain economic independence. Husbands, wives, children, and extended family
members specialize to some degree in tasks, a natural division of labor that
does generate material gain. The natural family household serves as a unit of
both production and consumption, one built on altruism and love, where the
principle of selfless sharing actually works. The family household holds egoism
or individualism in balance with the claims of the family and the near
community, and this household thrives best where the industrial model and its
principles of competition, consumerism, and restless change are excluded.
That is why the natural family finds a favored setting on the subsistence
farm: using a European term, among the free peasantry; or in American language,
among the Jeffersonian yeomanry. As the English anthropologist Hugh Brody writes
in the new book, Town and Country: "A family is busy in the
countryside. Mother is baking bread, churning butter, attending to hens and
ducks..., preparing food for everyone. Father is in the fields, plowing the
soil, cutting wood, fixing walks, providing sustenance. Children explore and
play and help and sit at the family table. Grandma or Grandpa sits in a chair by
the fire. Every day is long [and rich] and filled with the activities of this
family." Brody concludes: "The family in its farm is the family where
it belongs." The small shop of the craftsman, also organized around the
family household, has served as the village or urban counterpart to this rural
In essence, to industrialize means breaking apart these human-scale
productive households and distributing both the tasks and the human parts to
factories: to material factories such as textile mills, industrial canneries,
and offices; and to social and educational factories such as mass state schools
and nursing homes. In the industrial production of physical goods, wealth
expands again through this exaggerated division of labor. However, these real
material gains come at the price of family solidarity and independence.
This is why it is fair to say that both modern corporations and modern states
have a certain real interest in family disintegration. The independent family
unit represents a drag on the gross national product. Family bonds interfere
with the efficient allocation of human labor, and household production limits
the sway of a money-based economy. What we call "economic growth"
rests, in some significant part, on the steady transfer of ever-more productive
functions from the household to industrially organized entities, whether
corporate or state. In the 19th century, these transferred functions included
spinning, weaving, shoemaking, and basic education. By the early 20th century,
they included food production and preservation, transportation, and child
protection. In our time, the home surrenders to industry: food preparation
(going instead to McDonalds or Taco Bell), the rearing of infants and toddlers
(known as day care), and the care of the elderly.
The treatment of women under the regime of industry offers a useful case
study. In the unregulated labor market of industrial capitalism, as in the
formal program of industrial socialism, women–particularly young women–are
desired as workers. They are desired for their nimble fingers and relative
obedience, and for their valuable role in expanding the labor pool and holding
wages down. In 19th century Europe, Australia, and America, the new factories
hired wives, mothers, and daughters to undercut the skilled craftsmen: the
husbands and fathers of these same women. It was only the long and difficult
organization of labor, focused in those years to a surprising degree on family
restoration, that rebuilt boundaries around the household against industrial
intrusion. Under the "living family wage" systems built by organized
labor in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the factory could claim only one
family member per household–normally the father–who would in turn be paid a
wage sufficient to support his family in decency. Women could then return home
to bear, rear, and educate offspring. Children, too, were protected from
premature immersion into the industrial environment.
Some industrialists came to see the moral wisdom of this "family
wage" and the virtue of preserving a degree of family autonomy within the
modern industrial order. In France, for example, Catholic priests organized the
industrialists in their parishes intostudy circles devoted to Church social
teachings on labor and family. These factory owners went on to craft a vast,
voluntary family allowance system, which supplemented the wages paid to heads of
households with generous bonuses determined by their number of children.
Here in Australia, reports of the "scandalous exploitation" of
women and children in factories led Victoria’s Parliament to approve "The
Factories and Shops Act of 1896." It created elective boards in six
industries empowered to set minimum wage rates. The famed "Harvester
Judgment" of 1907 fixed wages for fathers at a level sufficient to maintain
a family of five. Australia’s system reflected the "discrediting of the
principle of equal pay for equal work" in order to achieve a "living
family wage." By 1922, according to one leading jurist, the system was
"universally accepted" by employers, workers, and their families
"as just and proper."
Yet the more common, and more economically logical, response by industrial
leaders was a steady campaign to tear the family into its constituent parts. In
the United States, for example, the National Association of Manufacturers
battled throughout the 20th century to destroy the American "family
wage" system and to gain access again to the labor pools of married women
and children. Secretly, it appears, the employers’ organization funded the
National Women’s Party, the extreme feminist group founded after World War I.
The manufacturers group, arm in arm with the feminist movement, openly battled
for decades to end the special legal protections given to women and children. In
the 1960’s the same forces cheered together as the U.S. Civil Rights Act of
1964 was twisted, from an effort to achieve racial economic justice, into a
battering ram that destroyed the "family wage" system in America.
Industry immediately tapped into the vast pool of "married women’s
labor." By 1990, the real wages of men had fallen 30 percent. Moreover, by
century’s end, young women had the highest rate of employment in the country.
Overall, more family members worked longer hours, and American marriage and
marital birth rates tumbled to new lows.
The rise of mass state education offers another specific example of
industrialism’s effects on family. Current research on fertility decline shows
that parents reduce their family size from a natural average of seven children
only when there is a disruption in economic relations within the family.
Australian demographer John Caldwell argues that it is, in fact, mass state
education of the young, organized on industrial principles, that largely drives
the shift in preference from a large to a small family, and so encourages the
deterioration of the family as an institution. Children learn that their future
lies through the school, not through their fathers and mothers. And government
schools in turn eagerly claim the loyalty of the young.
As Princeton University demographer Norman Ryder has summarized the case,
"[state] education of the junior generation is a subversive
influence." When the family weakens as a small economy, children become
less welcome, and the logic for entering a marriage dissolves, and sexual
But is there another way? Is it possible to have both material abundance and
strong social bonds? Is it possible to craft a virtuous economy?
There have been some notable attempts. The great economic heresy of communism
can be viewed as an effort to apply the altruism or family
principle–"from each according to his or her ability, to each according
to his or her need"–across the whole of society. The 20th century showed
this to be a huge and tragic error, something that cannot be done. For once we
move beyond the household, the clan, the religious community, or the
village–where everyone knows the character strengths and weaknesses of each
other and where inherited rules impose a tolerable discipline–this form of
altruism fails, and coercion rises in its place.
A second response to the plight of the family in the industrial milieu has
been the quest for the "Middle Way," the path of social democracy that
supposedly led between industrial capitalism and industrial communism. The
phrase came from the title of a 1938 book by Marquis Childs which celebrated the
developing model of Sweden. Childs and other enthusiasts argued that the
disruptive effects of industrialism could be balanced by intense state
regulation of the factory system and construction of a full welfare state, where
the burdens of rearing children would be borne by government.
For about a generation, 1945 to 1970, Sweden did seem an attractive model. It
has since succumbed to its own internal contradictions, however, all linked in a
way to the family problem:
–Government old-age benefits transferring from families the ancient
tasks of caring for their own in adversity, so disrupting the natural security
bonds between generations and discouraging the birth of children in numbers
sufficient to maintain the system.
–State welfare policies, by protecting people from the consequences
of immoral choices, created incentives that made easy–or actually
encouraged–divorce, cohabitation, and out-of-wedlock births as substitutes for
–The altruistic vision of a rational welfare state, inspired by the
family, necessarily gave way to penalties on altruism and a reliance on
irrationality. Specifically, the system survived financially only as citizens
restricted their claims, as when families cared for their ailing members at
home, rather than sending them to a state-supported nursing center. But the very
logic of an entitlement system financially penalized that altruistic choice.
Today, the classic "Middle Way" states of Sweden and Denmark are in
their own forms of crisis, facing financial, spiritual, social, and demographic
decay. In short, there proved to be no real Middle Way.
In the 20th century, however, there were also hints of a truer Third Way of
social organization, one that might represent a better path. The common
denominator has been a recognition and defense of a family-centered economy.
These approaches accept the unchanging nature of the true family and seek to
build barriers that would protect the altruistic home economy from corrosive
individualism and consumerism. They encourage families to reclaim functions
lost, in the past, to the industrial order.
The best-known advocates for a Third Way were the English Catholic essayists
G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Chesterton argued openly and boldly for the
building of a "property state" based on family farms and small shops.
Belloc wrote that "[t]he family is ideally free when it fully controls all
the means necessary for the production of such wealth as it should consume for
Another writer active in the 1920’s, the American economist Ralph Borsodi,
gave special attention to the economic contribution of the mother in the home.
Where both Marxist and liberal economic theories dismissed the homemaker as
economically useless, or even a parasite, Borsodi calculated and praised the
considerable economic value of gardening, butter-making, and the keeping of
fowl; of cooking, baking, and serving food; of canning and preserving; of
cleaning, washing, and sewing; of bearing and nursing babies; and of protecting
and teaching children. He called "the maintenance of an adequate balance of
family production absolutely essential to the preservation of individual
economic independence and freedom."
These models of an economic Third Way shared a focus on family well-being.
Family renewal would come only as certain tasks or functions were protected from
immersion into industry and somehow returned to the household. Under these
models, the measure of economic success would not be "growth" of the
official, industrial economy. Rather, success would be measured through the
formation of marriages, the birth of children, and the solidarity of the
household. This would turn economic analysis back toward its authentic roots, in
the Greek/Latin word, oeconomia, meaning the "management of the
household." So rather than dwelling on a Middle Way or a Third Way, it
might be better to talk of a "Family Way" as the path to the virtuous
How do the social teachings of the Catholic Church fit into this question?
Does the Church endorse a particular economic path?
On the one hand, the answer to this latter question is "no." The
1987 encyclical Solicitudo Rei Socialis states that "the church does
not propose economic and political systems or programmes, nor does she show
preference for one or the other, provided that human dignity is properly
respected and promoted, and provided she herself is allowed the room she needs
to exercise her ministry in the world." The same document denies that the
Church’s social doctrine is "a ‘third way’ between liberal capitalism
and Marxist collectivism."
On the other hand, the Catholic Church has created standards by which to
judge economic systems–the aforementioned "human dignity" and
"freedom for the Church to do its work." Moreover, of similar
importance, it seems, is the measure of family health.
In a profound 1951 commentary, Pope Pius XII identified "one of the
fundamental errors of materialism, whether liberal or Marxist," to be its
denial of "the life of the family" as the source of "the life,
health, energy, and activity of the whole society." In placing the family
at the center of analysis, the Catholic Church does offer principles by which to
judge modern social-economic systems. As explained in Solicitudo, God
calls on the Church "to interpret these realities, determining their
conformity with or divergence from the lines of the Gospel teaching on man and
his vocation....[I]ts aim is thus to guide Christian behavior."–and, I
suggest, to guide lives toward the Family Way.
Regarding family farms, for example, Pius XII declared: "Today it can be
said that the destiny of all mankind is at stake. Will men be successful or not
in balancing this influence [of industrialism] in such a way as to preserve for
the spiritual, social, and economic life of the rural world its specific
Regarding property and the family, Pius XII emphasized how "private
property" secures "for the father of the family that healthy freedom,
of which he has need, of being able to fulfill the duties assigned to him by the
Creator, with respect to the physical, spiritual, and religious well-being of
the family." In a subsequent sermon, he said: "Only that stability
which is rooted in one’s holding makes of the family the vital and most
perfect and fecund cell of society, joining up in a brilliant manner in
progressive cohesion the present and future generations."
Regarding employers, labor, and the family, Leo XIII, in his great social
encyclical Rerum Novarum, laid a moral obligation on employers to pay a
family wage. This duty was "greater and more ancient than the free consent
of contracting parties," he said. Pius XI added in Quadragjesimo Anno
that "Every effort must...be made [to insure] that fathers of families
receive a wage large enough to meet ordinary family needs adequately." The
encyclical Laborem Exercem reinforced this bond of work and family
formation. Terming the creation of a family "a natural right," John
Paul II here defined the just wage for an adult as that "which will suffice
for establishing and maintaining a family and for providing security for its
future." However created, he concluded in a key phrase, the existence of a
family wage serves as "a concrete means of verifying the justice of the
whole socioeconomic system."
Regarding family, state, and economy, John Paul II has further stated:
"We are all called to promote an environment favorable to the family and,
therefore, to motherhood and fatherhood, an environment where, increasingly, the
optimal conditions can be found...[so] that the family can develop its own
riches: fidelity, fecundity, and intimacy enriched by an openness to
others." Continuing in Centesimus Annus, he rejected as unjust both
unbridled capitalism and socialism, calling instead for "a society of free
work, of enterprise and of participation," inspirited by "a concrete
commitment to solidarity and charity, beginning in the family."
These references do not constitute an economic theory. However, they do, I
believe, encourage us to reconsider the work of theorists for the Family Way and
to help build environments friendly to household life where, in the Holy
Father’s words, "the family can develop its own riches: fidelity,
fecundity, and intimacy."
What might this mean for parish priests and lay leaders? In closing, allow me
to suggest how they could help advance the Family Way.
First, look back to the early 20th century example of France, and organize
employers and managers in parishes to study the principles of Catholic social
teaching regarding the dignity of labor, the just wage, and the sanctity of the
Second, focus the "buying power" of the parish on local,
family-based suppliers. Encourage parish families as well to use their consumer
sovereignty to sustain local businesses.
Third, encourage home education. Growing most quickly in America, home
schooling should be seen primarily as a form of family reconstruction. It
represents the return of children from schooling crafted on industrial
principles to schooling built around the family. About two million American
children are now schooled at home, including a rapidly rising number of Catholic
children (an estimated 700,000 this year). There is also evidence linking home
education to higher fertility (home school families are nearly twice as large as
the national average): an authentic sign of family integrity and renewal.
Priests and parish leaders might guide traditional parish schools to serve as
resource centers for Catholic home educators, as places for some common classes,
and as sites for improving the teaching skills of all parents.
Fourth, dedicate themselves to specific rural ministries and to the
restoration of the distinctive rural life. In America, under the inspired
leadership of Father Luigi Ligutti, the National Catholic Rural Life Conference
once did vital work in this area.
Fifth, help renew the spirit of St. Benedict in our time and place. Borrowing
words from M. Francis Mannion in the journal Communio, create
"particular communities of exemplary Christian existence" which
"teach us how to live authentically." Renewal of the traditional
monastic model would be part of this. But our time may call as well for modified
application of the monastic rule to small communities of families: a life of
shared residence, work, charity, and worship, resting on vows of obedience, holy
poverty, and marriage. In America, at least, I see a great hunger for this, one
cutting across denominational lines. Christian Communities of this sort–some
Catholic and some Protestant–have recently taken form in the American states
of Tennessee, Massachusetts, Texas, Wisconsin, and Montana.
If society-wide conditions worsen, more of these islands of Christian living
will follow, as families confront the mounting social crises of our age, with
lives conducted in faithfulness to the natural order and to the divine commands,
holding to the promise of salvation.
By Fr. Anthony Zimmerman, STD*
* Father Zimmerman resides in Nagoda, Japan. Born in Iowa, he is an
Emeritus Professor of Moral Theology at The Divine Word Seminary, affiliated
with Nanzan University.
So far as I know, Otto Von Hapsburg is the originator of the proposal that
parents should have the right to cast a vote for each of their children who are
below voting age (see 30 Days Sept.-Oct. 1990, p. 47). To flesh out the
proposal we might add that unborn children should also qualify for a vote
through their parents; that adopted children would qualify similarly; that only
legitimately married couples now living together would be so empowered; that
spouses allocate the newly acquired voting power evenly as far as possible. In
summary: parents and guardians get one vote, in addition to their own, for every
child for whom they are providing care and education.
If voting power is thus weighted in favor of families with children–the
more young children, the more votes for their parents–political clout would
shift significantly. Large families especially might caucus to map out common
policies and to make them known to political candidates who would benefit from
their inflated voting power.
A candidate who opposes parental notification before abortions are performed
on their children would likely lose the local election. A candidate who favors
the distribution of condoms and birth control drugs in school-based clinics
would fare likewise. One who favors abstinence programs in schools would likely
appeal strongly to family constituencies.
Do families have a special right and duty to take in hand the government of
the area in which they and the children live? The justification for this
development is easily found in the special concern parents have to shape the
environment in which their children will grow to adulthood and to shape the
future world in which their children will live.
A jubilee year for newlyweds is a humane policy noted in the Old Testament:
When a man is newly married, he is not to be drafted into
military–service or–any other public duty; he is to be excused from duty
for one year, so that he can stay at home and make his wife happy (Deut.
In view of the fact that one of three children is now born out of wedlock, we
should devise monetary and social policies which encourage couples to marry
properly and to stay married. One suggestion is to provide a tax-free jubilee
year to duly married newlyweds. When the county issues the marriage license to a
couple who are qualified, it might issue to them a credit card which exempts
them from taxes absolutely for twelve months after the wedding day. They could
then flash the credit card at the supermarket gate, when purchasing hunting and
fishing licenses, when buying a car, a house, when buying anything. But divorced
persons should not be entitled to benefits at re-marriage. The policy should be
designed to attract young people to marry, to marry properly, and to remain
married to their partner. Shall we levy taxes on divorce proceedings? Maybe so.
States might levy prohibitive taxes on income received for abortions by
providers of this macabre "service" and at the same make abortion an
economically foolish choice for an unwed pregnant girl and for her parents. Her
parents might be entitled to receive benefits which apply retroactively after
the child is delivered, benefits which cover the costs the parents of the girl
already paid during pregnancy and delivery, plus one year of support of the baby
and mother after delivery. This would be an incentive for the daughter to
receive care and love from her parents after she made a mistake and to make a
new start in life after the child is born.
A somewhat similar policy was announced on June 6, 2000, by the
administration of the Italian city of Niscemi, an important agricultural center
in Sicily. The local government will offer special aid to expectant mothers in
economic difficulties. The city budget allocates a total of $6,000 to every
woman who refuses to have an abortion. Perhaps other local areas will begin to
see the wisdom of such an arrangement when the baby-crunch threatens the
demographic future of towns and villages.
Parallel to the proposed tax jubilee year for newlyweds, duly married parents
might receive entitlement for tax exemption for one year after a child is born
into the family. Some might favor that it be formulated to reward birth spacing
at two-year intervals. In the long run, babies are the future of the nation, and
the public should recognize this by sharing the burden of rearing children with
When laws gently pressure the citizens and lawmakers with incentives and
disincentives in the right places, our currently distorted family life should
take on its more natural and beautiful shape again.