14 July 2021, The Tablet

Without the family, the common good ceases to exist

Without the family, the common good ceases to exist

Aristotle said the family is a natural organisation which functions as the bedrock of society.
Photo by Larry Crayton on Unsplash

The common good has its foundation within the family. Indeed, without the social unit of the family which provides the bedrock of society, the common good ceases to exist. 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists three principal aspects of what the common good entails: the respect for the human person and his rights; the social well-being and development of the community; peace and “the stability and security of a just order” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §§1907-1909). 

Aristotle, who wrote extensively on the idea of the common good in his Politics, described the family as the “association established by nature for the supply of men’s everyday wants.” He first made the remark that the family is a natural organisation which functions as the bedrock of society, as “man is by nature a political animal”, and that an individual, if left to his own devices, would struggle to survive, thus needing the family and eventually the state. He goes on to link the natural relationship between the state and the family by saying that eventually, when a family or a group of families are united in working for their daily needs, “the state comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, continuing in existence for the sake of a good life”. 

This link between the family and the state provides great insight on the importance of the common good and what it means for the family and its role in society. One of the roots of Catholic social teaching on the family and its relationship with the community (civitas) is the idea of natural roles within society. This goes back to the teachings of the Catholic theologian and philosopher, St Thomas Aquinas, who said that not only can the family raise children in an effective way, but also that it is proper and natural for the family to do this. For St Thomas, the authority of parents over their children is natural because the parents are the causes of producing their children and bringing them into existence, regarding children as an extension of their parents. And so, if we take the state to be a sort of natural progression from the family, we can see that without the family, the natural bonds of society break and, eventually, society as a whole breaks. 


St Mary’s University Twickenham is organising a series of four events on the Common Good and Society: “The Common Good: what does it mean for families, society and government”, produced in partnership between Together for the Common Good, The Centre for Social Justice, Caritas Social Action Network and the Benedict XVI Centre at St Mary’s. The series is sponsored by CCLA, one of the UK's largest ethical fund managers, home of the Catholic Investment Fund.

Watch the first event, below. The second event, on the Common Good and the Family took place last night and will be available to watch soon. Tickets the third event, in September, and it is hoped to hold the fourth in November with the speakers and audience present in person.



This idea of natural and social bonds between society has been picked up time and time again in Catholic thought. Pope Leo XIII wrote on society being a natural and organic structure: that different groups had different and unique roles to play, like different organs corresponding to different parts of the body (such as the family, the Church, the unions and guilds, and so forth). 

However, if we take the state to be a natural progression from the family, there is some implication that the state could be seen as naturally superior to the family, leading to fears of totalitarianism being justified in these cases. This is where the importance of the Catholic teaching of subsidiarity enters. 

Subsidiarity is the principle that matters ought to be handled by the lowest or least centralised authority, such as the family. We can see these ideas crop up in Aquinas and indeed Aristotle, who both talk of the family as a mediator between individual and State and that the family acts as a natural and integral part of community. Such a philosophy has made its mark through Catholic social teaching, demonstrated in Pope Pius XI’s papal encyclical, Quadragesimo anno, which most clearly espoused the doctrine of subsidiarity: “...things have come to such a pass that, following the overthrow and near extinction of that rich social life which was once highly developed through associations of various kinds, there remain virtually only individuals and the State. This is to the great harm of the State itself; for… the State has been overwhelmed and crushed by almost infinite tasks and duties.” 

The associations Pope Pius refers to here are the local and natural associations of the family, the parish and unions which correspond to integral and unique parts of the body politic. 

The idea that subsidiarity charts a middle way between individualism and collectivism by emphasising the pursuit of the common good among local organisations such as the family is founded in Aquinas and is greatly promulgated by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Rerum Novarum and Pope Pius’ Quadragesimo anno. They say that the larger social bodies, like the state, are permitted and required to intervene only when the smaller ones, like the family, cannot carry out the tasks themselves. Even in this case, the intervention must be temporary and must be to assist the family to be able to carry out such functions on its own (like the rearing of children and the provision of education). 

Such a philosophy is greatly espoused within the ideology of distributism, championed by the  Catholic writers G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, which is based on this Catholic social teaching and emphasises the role of local economies, the family as the prime social unit of society, and a return to some sort of guild system. 

And so, with regard to the common good, both the idea of the family as a natural organisation and the doctrine of subsidiarity demonstrate the integral and natural importance of the family. Because it is the family which has its natural role in rearing children both for their own benefit and for the benefit of society and it is the family who mediates, through moral instruction, between the youth and the adult who is ready to participate in society and the common good.









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