In this society, the most vibrant of all the elements was the family. Indeed, although the State and other lower social groups are born from the very natural order of things; no society is more compelling and, so to speak, urgently created by nature as the family. We can conceive a human society living embryonically in a family structure prior to the existence of the State. However, we cannot conceive the State existing before or without the family.
At the same time, there is no other society to which we are so naturally prone. All the dispositions necessary for the smooth functioning of the family exist in us (at least somewhat) spontaneously: respect of children for parents, understanding, love, and mutual aid among members. Compared with the family, any other society seems stiff, rigid, and in some sense artificial.
One of the characteristic features of Christian civilization built in the West after the barbarian invasions was that it turned the family, not only into an institution of purely domestic and private life as it is today, but into the driving force of all or almost all political, social and professional activities.
Real estate, for example, more often than not belonged to the family rather than to the individual. A house, land, or feudal estate was considered much more as the patrimony of the family than the individual. The same happened in crafts and trades, as there was a tendency to pass on the profession from father to son over several generations. If we examine the fields of science and the arts, we also see how family members often followed the same line.
We find this same tendency at all administrative levels: feudal, municipal or royal. In all areas, whether in finance, diplomacy, or warfare, we note that the family, as it existed back then, was a great unit of action and impetus, to the fullest possible extent. Nothing escaped the penetration of the family’s influence; it is found in feudal estates, guilds, universities and municipalities. As a result, the State — a kingdom, for example — was actually a family of families ruled by a family: the royal family.
While we must use organic metaphors with caution, we can say that the family penetrated all parts of social body just like veins penetrate and supply all limbs of the human body. In this way, the family communicated something particularly lively, supple and organic to all political, social and economic institutions.1
Considering the structure and life of these institutions — whether guilds, universities or municipalities — we cannot but be impressed by their “naturalness.” The way these institutions were organized was not predetermined by some fanciful academic theoretician. On the contrary, these institutions were gradually born from a daily adjustment to the needs and problems of each moment. For this reason, there was in them something profoundly authentic; there was something at once lively and agile, stable and solid.
And what about the State? It, too, was something much less rigid, impersonal and mechanical than the modern State that came after 1789. For example, through the intertwinings of the feudal system, a king — as the incarnation of the State — could own feudal lands in foreign territory. Thus sovereignties were entangled with one another, nations interpenetrated. There were certain border areas where it was especially difficult to tell clearly where one country began and another ended. This is something similar to the complexity of the tissues of a body and, by no means, as simple as the lines of a mechanical blueprint.
The impression of organic life becomes even more pronounced if we consider the relationship between the whole and the parts, as can be seen in the State and the governing bodies that constituted an organic Christian society. Each social organ constituted a small whole like a miniature kingdom endowed with certain governmental, legislative, executive or judicial functions within its own sphere. In the family, for example, the father was truly a miniature king by the power he wielded over his wife (a miniature queen) and their children. Thus came a characteristic axiom of those times: The father is the king of his children, and the king is the father of fathers.
We see this autonomy of social units everywhere. In some families, even inheritance laws were unique and different from others. On feudal estates, the feudal lord was like a miniature of the king with the role of legislator, governor and judge within his own orbit of competence.
As for the trade guilds, these artisans and craftsmen exercise the functions of the “workers” (to use the modern word) but they did so autonomously. Unlike the labor practices of modern “workers,” they did not rely upon the regulations and rules of the legislative, executive or judicial bodies of the State.
Greatly simplifying matters, the role of the king was only the supplementary function of doing what the various social units under him were unable to do by themselves. That is to say, he protected the common and supreme interests that went beyond the scope proper to those lower social organs. He maintained an appropriate balance among them; and he exercised vigilance to prevent any social unit from violating the fundamental principles of Christian morality and civilization.
Considering this very sketchy picture as a whole, we see how organic this society really was. Each cellular element had unique functions. Each had the necessary attributes to carry out its functions on its own. All subsidiary social units were moved by an energy and intelligence that worked from the inside out, not from the outside in. The smooth running of the whole depended much more on the smooth conduct of each part than on the mere action of the centralized organ.
This historic example gives a very elementary idea of what is meant by an organic Christian society.
- The comparison of society with the organism of the human body must be applied with caution. However, it is still very instructive. Like all analogies, it is not perfect and has some defects. By the fact that cells have definite and unalterable roles in the body or its organs, we cannot conclude that man’s place is likewise unalterable in society. We must therefore recognize that any such models must have as a premise the fact that, by our free will and our attitude towards responsibility, we can better or worsen our conditions.