I take my title from a passage in Christopher Lasch’s still-seminal 1977 book Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged . When it appeared, it challenged both the Left – which thought that perfect love somehow cast out the need for family authority – and the Right, which believed we could combat cultural decay by simply returning to a family form under assault by modern culture, politics, and economics.
Lasch argued that separating the natural affection within the family from the necessary authority of parents, encouraged personality traits in children “more compatible with totalitarian regimes than with democracy.”
Among these were:
- an excessive attachment to the peer group
- fear of being alone
- “more or less complete alienation from the past”
- belief that there is no permanence in human relationships except the peer group
- a drive towards personal “authenticity” with no concern for politeness or respect towards others
- a lack of introspection and a “highly developed inner life.”
There’s more, but even these few “personality traits” already suggest a depth and breadth of analysis that, alas, we rarely see today, whether from religious or secular sources – perhaps one reason why our efforts to bolster the family seem insubstantial.
Lasch was a man of the Left, but understood how many on the Left were then destroying the institution. And he was not the only one. He quoted a report by the Saul Alinsky Training Institute [!], which argued in those distant days that “a strong, healthy family is essential to personal, individual development.” It rejected the “romantic dream that liberation lies in individualism, isolation, and separation from entanglements.” And it called for families and voluntary associations to fill the vacuum that had rapidly been occupied by “huge corporations, mass media, and walrus-like government.” (Current Alinskyites, please note.)
In those days, the thoughtful Left was reacting against the Vietnam debacle of two Democratic presidents (Kennedy and Johnson), the paranoia and bumbling of two Republicans (Nixon and Ford). The Right, Lasch complained, believed he was promoting cultural reaction under the guise of socialism. But I’m just old enough to remember some of the debate – and I recall rather a general sense that here, finally, was someone who spoke truth and was willing to let the ideological chips fall where they may.
Rarely, for someone with “collectivist” tendencies (a word that often crops up in well-meaning opponents of radical individualism who are unfamiliar with classical notions of the “common” good), Lasch was no friend of the kind of solidarity pushed by the “helping professions.” The unprecedented migrations from country to city life had disrupted traditional arrangements, particularly the safety nets provided by extended families. Indeed, extended families and popular traditions came to be seen as obstacles to social harmony.
Various “experts” arose who claimed to be able to fix things based on scientific “fact,” beginning with state-run schools, which started to do less teaching and more “social” work. What used to be regarded as deep moral and political questions were transformed into shallow technical problems – bordering on illness – to be subjected to psychiatric, medical, and social therapies. Sadly, parents themselves started to accept the authority of experts over whole swaths of intimate family matters.
Lasch documented how, already at the start of the twentieth century, divorce had increased fifteen-fold and contraception was depressing fertility rates and encouraging extramarital sex. Elite opinion chose less to combat these trends than to accept them by making marriage itself more about male/female companionship, and less about children and child-rearing. We usually think of the 1950s as the calm before the storm of the 1960s sexual revolution, but it was really more of a postwar pause of longer trends in developed societies.
“Therapeutic” approaches clearly haven’t reversed those trends. Lasch is particularly insightful about the paradoxical intentions by which the professional helpers think they are empowering families, but which in fact make them more dependent than ever. Authoritarianism now comes less from the state and the economy, which young people are led by our culture to think of as alien realms, than from culture. But that culture – with its beliefs that shallow rebellion and romantic fantasies provide an alternative – only reinforces alienation.
So what might be a real alternative? Lasch was weaker on remedies – if we have to wait for a radical reordering of economics and politics, we may be waiting a very long time. But he noticed that parental affection and authority are essential to families. Parental authority cannot be recovered solely via rugged individuals – essential as those are – because they are too few to change large institutions. We need renewed countervailing institutions – churches, voluntary associations, independent schools among them – to combat the domination of the modern state, crony capitalism, and popular culture.
Religion provides a key counterweight. But there’s been relatively little attention paid to concrete means. The various renewal movements within the Church – which are a sort of Catholic equivalent to the evangelical and Pentecostal movements in the Protestant world – are hopeful signs.
But let me propose another alternative. It’s curious that almost no one actually thinks much about parishes anymore. In the Catholic Church, at least, parishes form a global network, already in place, which once effectively supported families and could again.
Only one paragraph  in the Final Report of the Synod on the Family mentioned parishes, and then only to say that older couples in parishes might help younger ones understand and deal with difficulties. A useful function, and some of the laypeople invited to participate in the Synod described their very valuable work of precisely this kind.
But anything that will truly help the modern family has to play on a bigger ball-field and has to be capable, however long it may take, to respond to large public challenges. The parishes already exist. And while many aren’t very good, in our day, what other large network of civil society institutions can the Church deploy to heal the family and the culture?