The authority of the father

This is the sixteenth in a series of twenty articles drawn from Mgr Delassuss two-volume work, The Problem of the Present Time: Antagonism of two civilisations (1905). The section of his work translated for this series considers the role of the family as the origin and model of society, the disastrous effects of human tampering and the necessity of the restoration of Christian society. This series began in April 2022 with How states are formed”.

The permanence of the family home and the continuation of the commonplace book are, so to speak, only the outer supports of the family. Its soul — the principle of its life — is the authority of the father, the sanctity of the mother and the cult of ancestors. 

We know how absolute the authority of the father of the family was in Athens and Rome. We have said that the father, in his family, was king, he had the dignity and the power of royalty and this power went as far as to include the right of life and death.

In our families, the father has never been able to pronounce capital punishment on his children, but he was their first judge. In the eighteenth century, the father still conserved the right to deprive his son of liberty — even if he had reached the age of majority and was married — and sovereigns did not hesitate to put their power at the service of fatherly justice. This is the story told in the lettres de cachet.1 It was a right recognised by all, even those who suffered by it. Paternal authority was considered essentially superior to others, and this is why it was so profoundly respected. 

In the book in which he expounds the principles of society as a whole,2 Jean Bodin said:

“The prince commands his subjects, the master his disciple, the captain his soldiers… But nature does not give any of them the power to command, but only to the father, who is the true image of the great sovereign God, universal Father of all things.”

Image of God on the earth: this is in all likelihood the idea that children have of their parents. Everywhere, we find similar thoughts to those of Etienne Pasquier:

“We must hold our fathers as gods on the earth, given to us not only to arrange the means of life, but to make us blessed by good food and wise instruction.”

Saint Francis of Sales, writing to one of his nieces, says the same thing:

“So, there you are before your father, whom you regard as an image of the eternal Father; because it is in this capacity that we must honour and reverence those of whom he has made use to create us.”

An authority of such religious character inspired respect and made obedience easy, it stimulated devotion to the family and maintained concord between the children.

Shaken in the eighteenth century by the corruption of morals, paternal authority was almost destroyed by the National Convention.

From the moment when the legislative power was in the hands of men imbued with the spirit of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wanted the individual and not the family to be the social unit, they hastened to abolish paternal power in regard to adults of 21 years old, and to frustrate it vis-à-vis younger children. One of these legislators proclaimed:

“The imperious voice of reason has made itself heard. Paternal power is no more. No man can have direct power over another, even his own son.”3

One century later, we heard equivalent words from the platform during a discussion of the laws on the freedom of education. Socialism, when it comes to power will make laws to these purposes. Benoît Malon, in his book Integral socialism (1891), said:

“The important thing is to radically abolish the authority of the father and its almost royal power in the family. Only on this condition will equality will be effectively perfect. Are not children as great as their parents? Why command them? By what authority? No more obedience, or else no more equality!”

In relation to his children, the father is already in the same situation as a sovereign before his people: deprived of the rights to put down a rebellion. Literature acts in the same way as the law, ceaselessly combatting old age and maturity with assertions which defy reason. Even schools, by their teaching on things of the material order, persuade children that they have a real superiority over their parents and make them assume a sort of superiority in the family.

Furthermore, paternal authority is now only a shadow of what it was before the Revolution. Alexis de Tocqueville expected a good outcome of this for domestic society:

“I think that in the measure that laws and morals become more democratic, relations between father and son will become sweeter and more intimate; rule and authority will show themselves less, confidence and affection will be greater, and it seems to me that the natural bond will become stronger as the social bond is undone.”4

The facts, as well as reason itself, are opposed to these predictions. Everyone today deplores the breaking of family bonds and the results, which are the disappearance of respect and obedience among young people, their emancipation and consequently an extreme moral corruption, deprived of public morality, and finally, the fall of the family and French society put in peril. In the lower classes, the harm is cynically revealed. In his book L’organisation du travail, Pierre Guillaume Frédéric le Play calls to witness the depressing picture drawn by Pénart in his address upon reentry into the court of Douai in 1865, Bougeau in his address to the Senate on 23 March 1861 and Ernest Legouvé in Les Pères et les enfants au XIXe Siècle. How much harm was aggravated further in the last half of the century! In the higher classes, appearances are kept up but the reality is no better. Made strong by its right to inheritance, the youth often revolts against domestic discipline; it presumes to revel in idleness and the debauchery of riches created by the work of its ancestors.

It is therefore supremely urgent to restore paternal authority. No authority has a more legitimate title, no authority is more necessary.

The power of the father is that which, in the natural order, bears the characteristics of divine institution to the highest degree. It is classed above that of the sovereign, whose role is limited to directing a society, over which it can claim no rights which it holds by nature: since the authority attributed to the father is a legitimate consequence of this natural dignity, which is that of continuing the work of creation, in reproducing beings who have the sentiment of the moral order and which can be raised to the knowledge and love of God.

Reclothed in such a high legitimacy, this authority imposes itself by the necessity of assuring the life of the wife and children, powerless to conserve themselves. Paternal love is the most durable and the least selfish of all human affections, because the father knows only too well that, without it, it is impossible for him to educate children who bear the wounds of original sin in their hearts. Finally, it serves society by collecting and transmitting the treasure of moral truths and experiences amassed over the centuries. Moreover, even if not at present, paternal authority has everywhere been considered one of the bases of the social order, necessary to all races and at all times as one of the invariable elements of the social constitution.

Charles de Ribbe said of Pierre Guillaume Frédéric le Play that, in all his research on the social body and all his analyses of the diverse elements which constitute society, this conclusion leapt out at him as being absolutely demonstrated by experience: that if societies are made in the image of the families which compose them, then families are made in the image the paternal authorities.

“By giving authority to the father, we will restore the minister of God in the temporal order”

“The more we advance, the more we will notice that it is necessary to give the family its autonomy. Obviously, today we can constitute only bad governments, composed of men who have abandoned themselves to error. Our salvation can only come from the sole authority which, in this profound state of error remains devoted to its subordinates in virtue of natural law. Paternal authority will accomplish that which is beyond the strength of all other public authority.”

This series will continue next month with The sanctity of the mother and the cult of ancestors”.


1. Translators note: Letters from the king, bearing the royal seal and containing orders, often to accomplish some punitive act of justice.

2. Six books of the commonwealth, ch 4.

3. Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès (23 August 1793).

4. Cf. Mgr Henri Delassus, Le problème de l’heure présente, vol 3, pt 3, ch 8.