I received an email a few weeks ago asking that I lay out my views on the origin of social authority in the family as opposed to contract or consent. I am not sure if they are fully formed…. but here goes.
The basic difference between Catholic and Modern views on the origin of political authority lies in the gulf between realism and nominalism. The rejection of the reality of universals necessarily entails the rejection of the social nature of man. Man’s social nature therefore cannot be the basis of civil authority. Nevertheless, there are Catholic authorities (albeit Jesuits) who hold that even though the authority of the state comes from nature and so from God it is mediated through the people because, in the event that the state were dissolved by some cataclysm, social authority would revert to a pure democracy. This pure democracy would then function as a constitutional convention bestowing legitimacy on the form of government its constituents elect to impose upon themselves and their descendants. What is the alternative to this account?
The family is the alternative. Man’s social nature is most obviously displayed in his dependant condition at birth, his need for sustenance, protection, socialisation and education, the frame of the male and female bodies and the need of the latter for protection and sustenance from the former while she provides their offspring with sustenance, protection, socialisation and education. The end of man in the-most-excellent-reciprocal-willing-of-the-good-of-the-best-possible-other demands the exemplary friendship of the child’s parents in the indissoluble bond of matrimony. The family and not the individual is the fundamental unit of civil society. Indeed, only two factors obstruct the simple identity of the family with civil society: a) the impossibility of marriage within the family b) the supernatural end of man. Because human beings cannot marry their kin without escalating disastrous consequences the family cannot perpetuate itself without forming a wider society that transcends itself. St Thomas points out in the De Regno that because the actual end of man in this order of providence is supernatural the true King can only be He Who unites man to the Divine Nature in Beatitude – Jesus Christ. Thus all the Kings of the Christian People must be subject to Christ’s Vicar, the Roman Pontiff, as to Himself.
How does this logic impact upon the question of the state of society at its actual beginning in time and in some hypothetical moment of destruction and re-constitution? Revelation has some very interesting light to shed upon these questions. It is clear from Genesis that the effects of the Fall have a progressive element. With each successive generation between the Fall and the Flood the life span of the antediluvian patriarchs diminished. According to Augustine’s interpretation our first parents possessed complete control of all their bodily functions. On this principle it ought to have been possible for them to beget pairs of children who, through a judicious distribution of chromosomes, were scarcely related to each other at all. If, as Genesis seems to imply, the loss of the praeternatural gifts was in some sense progressive then the key natural factor which prevents the family from being an unqualifiedly perfect society is removed. What of the supernatural factor? This too is resolved by revelation. For originally Adam would have transmitted sanctifying grace by generation to all of his descendants so this Adamic familial commonwealth would have truly fulfilled St Thomas’s requirements to qualify as a perfect community.
The Fall, of course, dramatically alters this but it does not abolish it altogether. Adam was still the recipient of revelation capable of conveying saving truth. The distinction between the family and the state was established by the Fall but (if we are right about the delayed removal of the praeternatural gifts) it was not yet applied. Likewise, the fact that the perfect exercise of the evangelical counsels is rendered by the Fall incompatible with property, marriage and autonomy establishes the distinction between priesthood and kingship (because, in fallen man, the state of perfection required by priesthood is incompatible with the requirements of kingship) but the delayed effect of the Fall postpones the necessity of investing these offices in separate persons. Adam passes the plenipotentiary sovereignty of the human race to Seth, Seth to Noah, Noah to Shem (who I am assuming is Melchizedek), Melchizedek to Abraham, Abraham to Isaac, Isaac to Jacob and Jacob to the people of Israel as a whole. In the Exodus the full distinction between family and commonwealth, priesthood and magistracy is established. These successions pass down through the Levites and the scribes, the judges and the Davidic line until they converge once more in the Messiah Who reigns for ever and administers the Church militant through St Peter and the Apostles and their successors down to the end of time (ideally assisted by a suitably docile temporal power).
This resolves the question of a hypothetical moment of social destruction and re-constitution. The unqualifiedly perfect society in this world – the City of God – The Catholic Church – is indestructible and will endure until the end of time. The hypothesis of social destruction and re-constitution can never be realised. The question of the nature and prerogatives of the family in the abstract is best answered in the eloquent words of the Irish constitution, “The State recognises the Family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.” The contingency upon the Divine Will of man’s actual end in any order of providence means that the sovereign authority in the perfect society can necessarily only be established by positive revelation – even were man’s end merely proportionate to his nature. As it is, God made us for Himself and the sovereignty is taken by the Divine King Jesus Christ Himself and wielded on earth through the power of the keys.