Fall 2007

Recognizing the Roots of Society in the Family, Foundation of Justice

David S. Crawford

"My precise criticism of liberalism is that it remakes the person and the 'family' in the image of its voluntarist and procedural concept of justice and the basic anthropology this entails."

Honor your father and mother so that you might live out your days at length in the land the Lord your God has given you —Exodus 20:12

I. Introduction: Posing the Question

1. The title given here1 makes a claim: viz. that the family is or should be conceived as the “root” or “foundation” of society and justice. In doing so, it evokes the teaching of Familiaris consortio that “the family is ‘the first and vital cell of society’” (FC, 42).2 Far from being an obscure reference, this teaching of the 1981 Apostolic Exhortation is echoed by numerous other references in the Church’s magisterium to the idea that society is in some sense rooted in the family.3 The title also makes reference to the Fourth Commandment, “Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you” (Ex 20:12). Of course this reference directs us to the question of the place of “honor” in the family and therefore its role in establishing the root or foundation of society and justice.

I suppose that most people would almost instinctively agree with the general statement that society is rooted in the family. However, what this affirmation means might involve greater difficulty. Setting aside for a moment the reference to justice, the claim that family is the foundation of society could indicate only that the procreative unity of the male-female couple is necessary for the perpetuation of the human race, and therefore of the broader society, from generation to generation. At first glance, this simple meaning would seem so obvious as to be almost pointless as a grand statement or teaching of the Church. There are, however, a host of challenges that seem to call even this most obvious meaning into question. These challenges range from the social and cultural destabilization of marriage and family to the advent of biotechnologies that would bypass the need for them altogether.

In addition, however, the claim could mean that the family offers the matrix not only for the physical beings but also the primary formation of their personalities and moral character. Here is where the question of justice might come in. The family is where justice (considered as a “virtue” in the classical sense, or considered as a “value” in the modern sense) is taught. But also the family is where we learn to love our neighbor. Here the family is seen as a paradigm for how people should view others in society and for the fact that we come from a common source in God and have a shared dignity.

Finally, the idea of family as root and foundation could mean that society owes something to the family, that the family is more fundamentally human than civil society, and that while there is a real mutuality of function and end, the family has priority over civil society, and that one of civil society’s roles is to provide the stability of conditions and resources necessary for the family to flourish. This last sense, of course, would find support in the Church’s doctrine of subsidiarity.4


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1. This paper was presented at “The Christian Family for the Life of the World: Second International Study Week,” at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family at the Lateran University in Rome, 20–24 August 2007.

2. Quoting Apostolicam actuositatem, 11: “prima et vitalis cellula societatis.”

3. E.g., Letter to Families, nos. 2, 4, 6, 7, 13, and 17; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2207; Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2004), 123.

4. Cf. John Paul II, Centesimus annus, 48 (1991); Pius XI, Quadragesimo anno, 79 (1931).