The Family as the Basic Unit of Society

“The family is the original cell of social life. It is the natural society in which husband and wife are called to give themselves in love and in the gift of life. Authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society. The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honor God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society.” (CCC #2207)

The Catechism here re-states a basic truth which was once widely accepted and is still widely repeated. This basic truth is that it is the family—and not the individual person—which is the basic building block of the community and thus of society as a whole. By saying this, I do not discount the importance of each individual person—for each person is of infinite worth—but rather I assert the primacy of the family for the purposes of the community and of the society which incorporates it. Simply put, without the cohesion of the family, there can be no lasting community, and without a lasting community, there cannot be a greater society, to say nothing of civilization itself.

A Renaissance borough. Source.
A Renaissance borough. Source.

The Catechism itself then goes on to note that the family is the community in which children learn morality, faith, and ordered freedom, all of which are necessary for a free and flourishing culture [1]. The family is, in other words, the primary educator of the community: the parents are and have the responsibility to be the primary teachers of their children. The Church is tasked with handing on the true faith of the apostles, but it is the parents who do this first, with the Church acting as aide in this regard. The Church defines the doctrines and ought to provide the resources for passing them on, but the parents are the ones who ultimately are tasked with passing on the Faith and inculcating virtue: it is their witness which either especially underscores or undermines the Church’s teachings [2].

We find, moreover, that without the family, the community cannot perpetuate. It still takes a mother and a father to make children, though the parents’ responsibility to procreation does not end with mere reproduction. As the late Robert Bork once noted [3], during every generation civilization is invaded by hordes of untamed barbarians—by this he meant that babies are born, and that without the influences of the family and then of the community, these babies might overthrow a civilization, having no will to maintain the moral order necessary for both stable society and individual liberty when they come of age.

Parents’ responsibilities towards their children, and toward society as a whole, is to teach their children proper morals and inculcate what virtues they may, to teach their children how best to live in harmony with others, and how to live in full control of themselves. Suffice it to say that the former is easier with multiple children (love of neighbor to say nothing of friendship needs to be learned not only from authorities but from friends), and the latter does not necessarily become harder in a large family.

I have so far outlined why the family is necessary for the continuation of civilization—via the creation and upbringing of children—but I should add that the family is also necessary for the society in the present. We may learn the basic civic duties, even pick up the right moral values and a few virtues as children, which we then develop as adults. Indeed, we can more easily focus on serving the community as single adults (and even as married couples), and the community benefits greatly from the contributions of such people. And of course, every new family is formed first of two individual persons, the husband and the wife.

Community from the cover of "On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs"
Community from the cover of “On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs”

However, the family is not merely the sum of its parts: it is not merely more than the sum of its parts, as it is different. A newly married couple experiences the first taste of this in that each partner is called to make sacrifices for the other. I have written about this before in this space, though largely I have done so from the perspective of the laying down of the husbands’ lives for the sakes of their wives in the context of sexual intercourse, and similarly of the sacrifices of moral leadership. But even the couples which for whatever reason do not make these two sacrifices can surely attest to the fact that the husband and the wife make myriad minor and major sacrifices for each other. These sacrifices are often of a different sort than the sacrifices which a man might make for his friends, or his job, or his community: each of which might still nevertheless serve his own self-interest. And this is before the first child comes along, thus requiring a whole new set of sacrifices, and these often differing not in degree but in kind.

Perhaps paradoxically, it is these sacrifices which we learn to make in family life which are needed to make men ready for the community as a whole. With friends, the sacrifices are often fleeting and few—and though the willingness to make these sacrifices might be what separates friends from acquaintances, we can and sometimes should walk away from those friendships which become too demanding. Marriage is different, in that we make a vow not to break off the relationship in the face of great sacrifices (and thus should not break off the relationship), and again with children we cannot separate the blood bonds which unite us no matter how frustrating their demands may be.

Yet, the very willingness to make at least small sacrifices (sometimes called “compromises”)–to say nothing of the rituals and routines of family life–is the glue which cements a community. Just as the cult which is the basis of the culture involves a form of sacrifice, so too does any community require the sacrifice of the complete autonomy of the individual, though not the complete sacrifice of his autonomy. When we enter into a community, we recognize that our rights must be ordered not only to our own individual good, but to the common good, and that we might give up some “freedoms” to enable the community to be more cohesive [4]. We must make some sacrifices to make a community work.

Not a community, though arguably a cult: though not the kind that we want to base a culture on.
Not a community, though arguably a cult: though not the kind that we want to base a culture on.

Thus we see that the family is the basic unit of society, rather than the individual. In the family, the children first learn to establish relationships—both reverent of the parents’ authority and respectful the the siblings as peers—the tolerance of differences in taste, the morals which are necessary for the enjoyment of ordered liberty, the virtues which are necessary for morality and freedom to thrive, etc. But in that same family, the parents learn not only how to exercise authority wisely, but also how to sacrifice for others without counting the cost, how to consider the good of others as well as their own good, that is, how to work for the common good.

I cannot help but think that many of the problems of the community which we encounter today are themselves due to the breakdown, not just of the community as a whole but of its basic part the family. This is true not only of the “big” things like the high crime rates [5] but in the little things like the coarsening of rhetoric and the lack of true dialogue between opposing sides [6], whether in terms of religion, politics, morals, etc. When a society consists of Randian individuals whose motto is “every man for himself,” no real community is possible; nor are communities possible at the other extreme, the totalitarian destruction of the individual. Rather, communities flourish where the family is strong, because in the family we learn selflessness for the common good, yet at the same time retain our individuality.



[1] As Christopher Dawson notes, there is no culture without the cult, that even language is ultimately linked to religion. Russell Kirk—a sort of disciple of Dawson’s—explains how cult forms the basis of culture by noting that

“From what source did humankind’s many cultures arise? Why, from cults. A cult is a joining together for worship—that is, the attempt of people to commune with a transcendent power. It is from association in the cult, the body of worshippers, that human community grows. This basic truth has been expounded in recent decades by such eminent historians as Christopher Dawson, Eric Voegelin, and Arnold Toynbee.

Once people are joined in a cult, cooperation in many other things becomes possible. Common defense, irrigation, systematic agriculture, architecture, the visual arts, music, the more intricate crafts, economic production and distribution, courts and government—all these aspects of a culture arise gradually from the cult, the religious tie.

Out of little knots of worshippers, in Egypt, the Fertile Crescent, India, or China, there grew up simple cultures; for those joined by religion can dwell together and work together in relative peace.”

[2] And here I do mean “especially,” because there are after all other members of the church community, in particular the priests but also other parishioners, the school teachers and religious ed instructors and other authorities.

[3] Found in his book Slouching Towards Gomorrah.

[4] To choose one simple example: if I live alone and far removed from my neighbors, then I might choose be be as loud or quiet as I desire. A man who likes loud music and a man who wants silence need not make any sacrifices or compromises here if they live miles apart. When they become next-door neighbors, some compromise must be reached. To choose another example, consider the difference between many single Catholics and married Catholics in parish attendance: the former often roam from parish to parish, even against their own best intentions, whereas the latter tend to pick a parish and stay there.

[5] This is worse in areas like Detroit which is itself an excellent example of what happens when a community is first built artificially and then destroyed by mass exodus. Inner Detroit involved “urban planing” on a large scale, along with large immigration into the area when it was a manufacturing boom town. The manufacturing job started to dry up, and so the population moved away.

[6] To pick one example, consider the coarsening of the rhetoric in the bottom half of the internet. My friend Mr. Colin Gormley takes on this point in his own latest column in this space by asking whether dialogue has become impossible: “As a society we no longer feel an obligation to be fair, honest and charitable to those who have opinions different to ours in alarming numbers. We feel free to misrepresent to the point where the actual opinions of those we disagree with are not even considered. In short, we feel free to lie about our neighbor.” For a people who have never learned to listen, the answer is yes, dialogue (and even simple fairness) will be impossible. Yet the first place we are taught to listen is not the schoolroom nor even the church, but in the family.