The reform must begin with the reconstruction of the family (2)
By Mgr Henri Delassus | 16 November 2022
This is the seventh in a series of fifteen articles, drawn from Mgr Delassus’s two-volume work, The Problem of the Present Time: Antagonism of two civilisations (1905), in which he examines the conditions for the restoration of Christian society and the return to social truth. The section of this work that is translated for this series considers the role of the family as the origin and model of all society and the disastrous effects of human tampering with this institution so manifestly wanted by God and nature.
The first part of this series, entitled “How states are formed”, appeared in the Digest in April 2022.
The Gospel gives us two versions of the genealogy of the Holy Family of Nazareth — one descending generation by generation and the other going back. Mary and Joseph — like all the Hebrews, for that matter — knew themselves to form one and the same family with their ancestors, which went back to David, just as David went back to Judah, one of the sons of Jacob; and Jacob went back to Noah, the reformer of the human race. From Noah came three great branches which, with each generation, produced new lineages, and each one of these lineages religiously kept their genealogies, by which they were joined to a common trunk.
So it was, for a long time, in France. Let us cite, for example, the family trees taken from the book of the family of André d’Ormesson, state councillor in the seventeenth century:
“Let our children know from whom they are descended by their mother and father, let them be incited to pray to God for their souls and to bless the memory of them who, by the grace of God, have done honour to their house and acquired the goods which they enjoy.”
Pierre de C. wrote, as late as 1807:
“My children, you will find a succession of ancestors who were esteemed, valued and honoured by their country and by all their fellow citizens. An honest living, an average fortune, but a spotless reputation: this is the capital that was handed down for four hundred years; eleven good fathers of families, who, for four hundred years, never forsook the name that they received or the country of their birth.”
By this word family was understood not only the mother and the children, as today, but the whole lineage of ancestors and that of the children to come.
To be one in this way, and to continue through the centuries, required not only a community of blood but, one might say, a perpetual body and soul. The body was the family’s goods, received by each generation from its ancestors, like a deposit, which it conserved religiously, endeavoured to increase, and faithfully transmitted to subsequent generations. The soul was its traditions; that is, ancestral ideas, sentiments, morals and customs which flowed from it. This comprehensive understanding of the family was held in France, as it was everywhere else previously, until the Revolution.
A law written in the hearts of the French, consecrated by (often secular) custom, assured heritage from one generation to the next, whilst a triple teaching given by the conduct of the parents whom the children saw, by the exhortations, councils and admonitions that they received from them, and by the writings called “commonplace” or “family” books, updated by each generation, assuring the transmission of family traditions.
Commonplace books no longer exist today — even as a memory, except among the erudite; the inheritance is no longer valued by children, except as a quarry to be shared out. How many of us can name our great grandparents?
The family no longer exists in France. And that, by the bye, is what explains the lack of results from fifty years of priests and religious responsible for the primary and secondary education of over half the population. Their lessons, which must be laid in the souls of children by family traditions, found no solid foundation on which to build.
Not only does the family no longer exist in France, but nothing remains of the social constitution which came from the family in the history of all civilised peoples. The royal family was decapitated; the aristocratic families were decimated, and it was made impossible for those who escaped massacre and ruin to act, or even to hold their rank. Finally, the same laws continuously made it impossible for bourgeois and proletarian families to distinguish themselves.
Neither in Athens nor in Rome did society ever get up again once it had collapsed in this way. Christianity gives us the means of regeneration which pagan societies did not know. Do we know how to employ them?
For one century, all our efforts have failed. Why? Because under the oppression of laws and customs drawn from the sophisms of Rousseau, we have only seen and been concerned with the individual, instead of considering the family and applying our efforts to reconstruct it. The family reconstructed will once again produce men. It is the common cry: “we have no more men!” If we have no more men, it is because there are no more families to produce them; and we have no more families because society has lost sight of the goal of its own existence; not to procure for the individual the greatest possible number of benefits but to protect the germination of families and to help them to stand ever higher.
The family, we have said, had two supports: the family home and the commonplace book (called in France le livre de raison). Both of these supports have been broken by law: the first directly and the second by way of consequence. The transmission of the family home and the estate in which it is included forms the material line which links successive generations to one another. To this first line is joined another: the genealogy and the lessons of ancestors consigned to the book in which the genealogy was drawn up. The civil code is opposed to the transmission of the family home; as such, it has decreed equal shares of moveable and immoveable property, isolating every generation, rendering each of them independent from those which preceded it and those to come; and for all of them, it has modified little by little the manner of thinking relative to paternal inheritance. We now see in it only a source of personal gain; previously, it was a deposit, like the deposit of the faith, that one had an obligation to pass on as one had received it.
The commonplace book of the family of Antoine de Courtois, which has been published by Charles de Ribbe, was preceded by these lines, addressed to the children:
“My dear ones, we have the benefit of our goods, but we can only consume their fruits. Our goods are placed in our hands so that we will work without cease to improve them, and then so that we leave them after us to those who will follow us in the career of life. He who dissipates his heritage commits a horrible theft: he betrays the confidence of his fathers, he dishonours his children; better for him and for all his race that he was never born. Tremble therefore to devour the goods of your children and to cover your name with disgrace.”
These sentiments naturally flow from the thought in everyone’s mind — that is, that the family home and estate were the perpetual object of trust, which it was not permitted to dissipate, which everyone had to endeavour to increase.
Pierre de Fresse de Morival wrote in his commonplace book:
“I flatter myself that my children remember with gratitude and will never forget that, for myself and for my personal needs, I have always exercised the most rigorous economy, that my dear and beloved spouse and I have worked constantly and without respite during the whole course of our life to conserve their little fortune, and that, by our example — in recognition of what we have done for them and to second our desires — they live in peace, cooperating mutually to their reciprocal wellbeing.”
“Each family living in Judah and in Israel,” says holy Scripture, “lived in peace beneath its own grape vines and fig trees” (3 Kings 4:25). So was it in France, and for it to be so, children were raised with the thought that after the death of the parents, the inheritance could not be divided, and the paternal home, the refuge of peace, consecrated by so many memories and virtues, could not be sold without sin. What could be shared was the net value of common labour, which diverse members of the active domestic society had worked together to produce; but the work of ancestors had to be conserved intact, in order to be remitted faithfully to those who, tomorrow and in the following centuries, would continue to maintain the family that the first leaders had founded. If one of their descendants violated the pact and dissipated the common good, he carried before his posterity the shame of having let down the family.
Pierre-César de Cadenet de Charleval said:
“Our family’s few goods have been accrued little by little by the good management of its heads. One must also admit that luxury was not as widespread as it is at present. The first to withdraw from this usage was my grandfather. He decided to go to Paris and, in one year, he spent 14,000 pounds … Little by little, luxury took its toll and we had no more capital; we have a great deal of trouble to maintain ourselves today with what remains.”
And Antoine de Courtois, whom we have already cited, said:
“As long as this estate is in the family, we will always have an honourable living. I do not entertain the idea that my descendants might be obliged to sell it. To sell paternal fields is to disavow one’s name and disinherit one’s children.”
Charles de Ribbe, who has studied a number of the old families through the books that they have left, and particularly through their commonplace books, says:
“Humble, for the most part, in their origin, they raise themselves step by step; each generation adds another stone to the edifice of their fortune. They work energetically, they do their best to think and act well, they make a good house (that is the consecrated term): a house which is paternal, honoured and the seat of dignity respected by all.”
With its stability, its spirit of union, its traditions of work and of austere life, the paternal house of bygone times, which formed a long succession of honest people, has been an eminently social and truly Christian institution. It was also the object of veneration.
Today, the paternal house is no longer worthy of this name, because it is no longer paternity’s permanent and enduring seat. On the death of the parents, it is sold, so that its price can be shared, although it belonged to the family, although it has been more than a hotel momentarily rented. The family’s heritage is sold with it. However little it may be, it is the object of claims which are attacked down to its smallest particles; its scraps are scattered like a sterile dust. The more children there are — that is, generally speaking, the more moral the family is — the more impossible it is to escape the consequences of this unstoppable liquidation. The family is condemned to a nomadic state; it inevitably perishes. Every thirty years, on average, a forced liquidation is effected. As Charles de Ribbe said:
“Working like a chaff-cutter, it cuts through the centre of the domestic stock.”
This series will continue next month with “Founding families”.