The family in the defence of the Faith

by Joseph Shaw

Just over a century ago, in 1907, the convert priest, Mgr Robert Hugh Benson, published an extraordinary and prophetic book, Lord of the World, which is set more or less today. Like most prophetic books, it is really about Mgr Benson’s own time, and it is interesting to see which of the trends of his day, that he extrapolated into the future, have continued, and which have petered out or gone into reverse. Even where he has turned out to be wrong, it is interesting to see where he thought threats were coming from, and what form of defence he thought would prove effective. 

Mgr Benson’s image of the Church is that of Pope St Pius X: archaic, embattled, unyielding, and ever more centralised. The centralisation of the Church, he explains, is the natural and correct response to an increasingly centralised world. Where the threat is centralised — notably, in Benson’s imagined world, by a united and secularised Europe — so must the defence be.

This part of Benson’s vision has not aged well. We know, with hindsight, that the centralisation of the Church has made her painfully vulnerable to the capture of central institutions by corrupt individuals or misguided ideas. It is no new thing in the history of the Church for there to be corruption in Rome (as I write, the trial of Cardinal Becciu is ongoing). What is new, and disastrous, is the diminishment of alternative sources of influence, initiative, and prestige, from which Roman problems could be addressed without being cut off immediately by the very people causing the problems. I have in mind things like monastic reformers, reforming bishops, fearless preachers, or even the Holy Roman Emperor.

In the secular realm, the invader of a centralised state like the ancient Persian Empire will face a powerful and united army, but if the army is defeated and the central apparatus of control captured, then success — like that of Alexander the Great — could be complete in a bewilderingly short time. By contrast, when England’s King Edward III, and later Henry V, invaded France, they quickly had disaffected French lords as allies, but faced an apparently endless task in tackling one local centre of power after another, while ceaselessly beset by small rebellions and counter-attacks. Their brilliant victories apparently counted for little in dealing with the hydra-like resilience of a state where power was widely diffused.

Benson, for all his prophetic insight, was wrong on this issue: what the Church needs in dealing with a unified threat is not the brittle strength of the centralised control centre, but the flexible resistance of ten thousand little platoons with the self-sufficiency and initiative to carry on guerrilla warfare even when the enemy has won the big battles. What it needs, in fact, is the family.

Why did popes like St Pius X think that centralisation was the way forward? It was because they could not trust local centres of authority. The autonomy of religious orders and the independence of bishops had to be restricted because, under intense political and intellectual pressure from protestantising and secularising influences, they could not be trusted to hold the line otherwise. To prevent the appointment of Modernist bishops, the appointment of bishops had to be centralised. To prevent the teaching of Modernism in seminaries, seminary syllabuses had to be centrally approved. And so it went on, inevitably, perhaps, but ultimately unsuccessfully. 

This isn’t the place to go into exactly how and why things worked out as they did, but just to note that a different approach is needed, if only because the central authority in the Church today has no interest in engaging in a campaign against heresy like that carried on by St Pius X. The final capture of the Church as a human institution by her enemies will not be prevented by clever and zealous men in Rome with their hands on the levers of centralised power. It will be prevented, if it is prevented, by the refusal of ordinary Catholics to go along with it. 

I am not, however, thinking of an atomised collection of individuals. Not only does resistance still have to be coordinated to some extent but, even more importantly, the spirit of resistance, the spirit of truth, must be inculcated in us and in the next generation. In this, magazines (like Calx Mariae), associations of the faithful, parishes, dioceses and religious orders, schools, and so on, all have great importance, but the importance of the family is paramount. Let me explain why.

Firstly, the family is a natural institution. While we have seen all kinds of attempts to weaken and belittle the family, and attempts to create parody-families, it is to the traditional family that people are drawn most strongly by nature. Young men and women, despite many temptations and distractions, are strongly drawn to a life-long monogamous and exclusive relationship ordered towards children. They see this instinctively as fulfilling and wholesome. We have moved into a time where this instinct is often frustrated, and even made to seem impossible, but these dystopian conditions serve to emphasise the fundamental and irreplaceable quality of this yearning. While our approach to relationships and child-rearing owes much to our own upbringing and experiences, they have a foundation which is not learned, but arises from the depths of human nature. 

This means that the family can never be erased. The other things I mentioned — magazines, associations, parishes and so on — can be, and from time to time are, destroyed. For three centuries England had no dioceses or parishes. Every now and then the French state sees fit to abolish religious orders and Catholic schools. The time may come when one can only read Calx Mariae on the “dark web”. But even the Soviet Union could not abolish the family.

The bonds of family life, between spouses, between children and their parents, and between siblings, are not invincible, but they are extremely powerful, and they create and sustain an environment where the whole person can be nourished — emotionally, intellectually, and physically.

Secondly, the family is not only a natural institution. Marriage has been raised to the dignity of a Sacrament by Christ, and the Christian family is a powerful means of grace for its members. Its prayer in common is a microcosm of the Church at prayer. The authority exercised in the family — paradigmatically, by the pater familias — is a reflection of the authority of our Heavenly Father. The effect of the Sacrament is to make the natural bonds of marriage unbreakable, to sanctify the natural love of spouses, and to reinforce their natural efforts in raising their children with divine assistance.

This is familiar stuff which can be found in every orthodox catechism, but reflect for a moment: these things are not given to lay associations, to magazines, or even to parishes. Even religious orders are not sacramentally established, and as noted, even dioceses are not an essential feature of the life of the Church.

Not everyone, at every stage of life, can identify a family of which they are a member, and not all families are open to grace. The family is the building block of society not because everyone is in one, or must fulfil their personal vocation through one, but in a different sense. It is the normal and ideal environment for the raising of children, and for this reason has the vocation of passing on to each new generation religion, culture, and even language. These things can be acquired in other ways, certainly, but only with difficulty. It is the family which is the proper instrument for this task — by nature and in the sacramental economy — and it is the task of other social institutions, and of the Church, to assist the family in its work, and never to displace it.

To return to the question of the resilience of the Church, considered as a society here on earth — the family has a key role because it is extraordinarily robust, and because it is the family which has the task of passing on the spirit of truth to each new generation. By this I mean, not only an intellectual grasp of the truths of the Faith, important as that is, but the practice of the virtues: natural virtues, passed on through example and training, and supernatural virtues, whose giving by God is prepared for and facilitated by the family environment. 

I would like briefly to mention two practical implications of this. Firstly, parents like myself have a very serious burden of responsibility. This should not be felt as a crushing one — we are, after all, promised divine assistance — but it is one that may come as a bit of a shock for those whom popular culture has conditioned to see romantic relationships solely as means to self-fulfilment. The state, the school, and the parish, are not going to do this work for you, especially not today.

Secondly, the family environment in which one can relax and breathe freely, in which one can find solace and pass on wisdom and experience to one’s children, is sustained by sacramental graces, for Christian families, but as always God prefers to work through secondary causes where possible. An environment in which parents and children can truly feel at home is not built exclusively on prayer and the sacraments. The family needs culture. It needs a tradition of cooking, of clothing, of architecture, of home decoration; it needs Christmas carols and fairy stories. In today’s world, not everyone can have a very meaningful connection with the soil, and many are separated from the experiences of their parents and grandparents by space as well as time, but we can still sustain a world of shared reference points, attitudes, and affections. Catholic culture is a natural culture as well as a supernatural one, and it is the family’s task to maintain it, to develop it, and to pass it on.

The family is the ultimate bulwark of Christian society. It is our task to strengthen our own families, and to help to strengthen others’ as well, against this storm which seems to gain greater and greater power. We know, however, something that our opponents do not: that Christ has already gained the victory.