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In Defense of Familyism

Is Family Love Selfish and Sinful Amanda Tipton Photography

Amanda Tipton Photography

John Zmirak - published on 06/04/14 - updated on 06/07/17

Did an archbishop really suggest that we ought not to look out for our family?

Last week I got an email from a brilliant priest, a beloved author and an old friend of mine. In it, he lamented the clotted rhetoric used by Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, in speaking to the United Nations. And the paragraph he quoted was truly alarming — and not so much for the ugliness of the language.

I’ve studied Italian, and I know how gnarled a literal translation from it can be (Giuseppe Cardinal Siri’s brilliant book Gethesmane is translated into a kind of baroque “Itanglish” that made it very challenging to read — though it’s well worth the effort). No, what frightened me were some of the implications I thought I saw in the bishop’s statement, especially when read in isolation:


On the other hand, we cannot overlook the risk of “familyism,” that is, the inability to think of a larger group and the tendency to favor, even in matters not affecting the family, the members of the family nucleus. This tendency has been the cause of numerous “amoral” abuses, where the good of the smaller family group prevails over that of the larger community. Maintaining intra familial warmth and affection without compromising the public good and the “universalism” necessary in an advanced society has been and still today is, at least in certain areas, a difficult challenge. Proof of this is found in the oscillation between persistent forms of regressive “familyism” on the one hand and the affirmation of a radical individualism on the other that, by destroying the family reverses the progress of humanization, heedless of the long-term consequences of so doing.

Reading this from an important Italian bishop set off all sorts of alarm bells in my head. Was the head of the Church’s Council for the Family really suggesting that we ought not to look out first for the best interests of our spouses, parents, siblings, and children? Are Christians obliged, like good Kantians or followers of Rousseau, to strive for an inhuman objectivity that sets aside bonds of blood? Must we strive to view the fruits of our own loins as little “citizens,” whose well-being really ought not to be more important to us than that of strangers’ kids — even those in foreign countries?

Well, no. When I read the rest of Abp. Paglia’s speech, I saw that this statement was heavily counterbalanced by solid and nuanced (if awkwardly translated) assertions of the primacy of the family and its rights, and the reality that the family — not the individual — is the basic unit of society. The whole speech is worth a read.

The main reason I feared the worst is that attacks on the family are coming so thick and fast from our best and brightest — from our courts and universities, our legislatures and experts. Why should it surprise me that one more clergyman had succumbed to the thuggish pressure of polite opinion? I am relieved that Abp. Paglia, in fact, did not — though I fear that his concessions to critics of “familyism” will be quoted out of context by the enemies of the family. Really, it’s hard to see how excessive concern for spouses and children, at the expense of the commonweal, is a burgeoning danger today. Quite the contrary.

The view I thought I sniffed out in the archbishop’s statement is not so crackpot and outrageous as you might think. Leftists who oppose the church’s teachings on nearly every issue use the word “familyism” as an all-purpose perjorative, and promote real-world initiatives that do in fact undermine the rights and unity of families. The worst and most recent that comes to mind is the nationwide drive to conscript America’s children into preschool. Typically, such plans are presented as a chance to jump-start a child’s education and raise his reading scores.  

Because, you know, parents are utterly unqualified to do that. Most of them don’t even have education degrees! Far better to take the children away at the youngest possible age from the people who care about them the most, and corral them in large groups to be instructed by total strangers enrolled in leftist, public sector labor unions. Mayor Bill De Blasio of my native New York City has a plan for doing just that — but similar programs have passed in such unlikely places as deeply conservative Oklahoma.

It’s worth remembering that public schools were pioneered in the first place by progressives like Horace Mann in the nineteenth century, as a tool for homogenizing the children of Catholic immigrants (among others) and instilling in them the socially productive, secular attitudes favored by philosophers like John Stuart Mill. The anti-Catholic intent of public education’s pioneers was one of the key reasons why bishops whose churches were flooded with impoverished immigrants embarked on the heroic effort to build an entire alternative education system for Catholics. That system that is sadly collapsing before our very eyes, at the very moment when Catholic families need it the most. Efforts to claw back some of the taxes paid by parochial school parents have largely flagged, as we fight even bigger battles in defense of marriage itself and of the sanctity of life.

Much of the rise of home-schooling among Catholics is a response to the tragic contraction of Catholic schools, which can no longer rely on the free labor of tens of thousands of self-sacrificing religious sisters and brothers. At the same time, public schools have long ago abandoned the off-brand Protestant patriotism that used to characterize them, and now are organized around a very different principle: Utilitarian hedonism. The lowest-common-denominator moral code imaginable, this creed asserts that what matters in life is maximizing one’s physical health, and the number of happy moments you enjoy before you die. The only sins are not against nature or God, but against one’s neighbor’s rightful claim to his own share of happy moments. It is the job of the government — and its proxies who will be educating you from the age of four or so — to achieve the most happy moments for the greatest number of people.  

Given that this worldview has replaced Christianity as the state religion throughout most of the West, it is not surprising that children whose parents wish to teach them another creed find themselves at odds with the government and its teachers. Adherents of any other religion today are fighting a dogged, uphill battle to pass along their “weird” minority views. They must push back against the education administrators, social workers, family court judges, and other professionals to resist such “obvious,” “sensible” measures designed to “promote public health” as explicit sex education, classes in “alternative forms of family,” and the handout of contraceptives to children who are legally below the age of consent.   

Given that they reject the dominant “happy moments” ethos, Christian parents will find it almost impossible to argue with government-sponsored experts to whom such words as “virtue,” “innocence” and “chastity” are as foreign as Magisterium. If we try to fight on the enemy’s ground, and argue that our moral preferences will somehow yield more happy moments, we will simply lose. Our notion of goodness and happiness cannot be quantified that way.

The only legal protection that parents (and hence, their children) have against state-sponsored indoctrination in the new, official religion and its lifestyles comes in the form of parental rights, which haven’t yet all been annulled. Christians should be fighting like mad Tasmanian devils to defend their families first, and then the rights of other families, against the creeping encroachment of a hostile secular state. There is zero realistic prospect of sanctifying the public square, so the best we can hope for is to hold it at bay or even shrink it — to reduce the percentage of our time, life, and income that are disposed of by strangers through the state’s coercive power. The larger the public sector, the smaller the Christian’s freedom.

So we need to fight the state in defense of our kin. If that be “regressive familyism,” then let us make the most of it.

John Zmirakis co-author of the upcoming book,The Race to Save Our Century.

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