A War on Family

family 2The masters of social media have long perpetuated prejudices against the family that, unchallenged, lead to its ruin. Among several I cite three: (1) the assertion that marriage makes men and women less free; (2) the assumption that children are a burden; and (3) the insistence that sexual differentiation is a fiction. These three ideas represent, as it were, three waves of the anti-family movement of the past 150 years. The first is the Marxist contribution; the second is the eugenicist; the third is the fruit of recent gender theorists.

Social conservatives too often play a battle of catch-up with the progressive left.  We marvel at abortion; we worry over divorce; we wonder at the rise of the homosexual lobby. It is right that alarm is sounded.  But even before lobbying, if the family is ever to regain its natural position of prominence, conservatives need to recover the memory of how the “traditional family” lost its way.  In this and the next two articles I would like uncover the three stages of the long war against the family, and then note briefly some helpful lines of response to them.  We’ll begin first with the Marxist contribution.

Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx

Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx

Common to both Marx and Engels is the belief that social relations not characterized by strict material equality are unjust. In his influential study, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), Karl Marx’s collaborator Friedrich Engels attacked the family as the original cell of inequality and slavery. As an extension of man’s first desire for property — Marxism’s equivalent of the fall — man also wished to secure the transmission of property to his posterity. In Engels’ account this drive is what gives rise to monogamy. Men with land want heirs with a legitimate title. Hence, in marriage women belong to men simply “as an instrument for the production of children.” In Engel’s view the enslavement of women, naturally, like all inequalities, will cease once the means of production are transferred from private ownership to the state. With no right to property and no possibility of handing on an inheritance, men will no longer care to identify their offspring. An upshot is that once the economic conditions that gave rise to marriage cease, so also will marriage. At the end of history, sex will again be unfettered.

Engels predicted that the coming revolution would strike a blow to both family and the bourgeois sexual morality that sustained it. In the socialist future, “the single family ceases to be the economic unit of society,” which will result in “the gradual growth of unconstrained sexual intercourse.” Evidently, Freud was not the first to suggest that sex is what people are really after.

Whatever the defects of his theory, Engels was prescient at least about its ramifications: as socialism advances, family recedes. As the tasks of raising children, caring for the old, and making money are absorbed by the state, fewer and fewer reasons will remain for a man and a woman to form a lasting bond.


Rebuilding Catholic Culture: How the Catechism Can Shape Our Common Life, (2012)

In my travels in former communist countries I have been struck by how closely our attitude towards the education of children match communist methods. There is this difference, however: under communism millions of mothers were forced to work out of the home and send their children to state institutions.

In the free world many of us do this of our own choice. When children from the age of three years spend two or more meals with strangers, it is not surprising that parents find it difficult to command the level of loyalty that was once taken for granted. More than “quality time” young children need quantities of time, and when the home is vacant, children transfer their allegiances elsewhere, usually to their peers.

Boys and girls exposed early to state institutions become easy prey to what has been called “youth culture” — that sum of the popular music, expensive clothing, and crass entertainments devised by corporations to provide an easy market. When Mom is at work, parenting becomes more difficult too. In fact, the demands of work can come to look fun when set beside parenthood. For more and more parents, the sacrifices at home appear to offer a meager return. Certainly some young mothers have no choice but to work outside the home; but the need is hardly the norm. The household has to be more than just a bus terminal where connections to other destinations are made. It has to return to being a center for meaningful activity. Education, work, prayer, nurture, and play are all essential functions belonging to the household properly ordered. Restoring the strength of the single-unit family turns on its ability, then, to recover ground from outside agencies to which its activities have been transferred.

Writing a generation after Marx and Engels, Pope Leo XIII understood well what was at stake in the fight against socialism. Rerum Novarum (1891) had in view not only the rights of the worker but also the survival of his family. Both have rights that are grounded in nature and disclosed by revelation: “Behold, therefore, the family, or rather the society of the household, a very small society indeed, but a true one, and older than any polity!” The indignation of couples needs to be aroused at the present danger that confronts their happiness. Equality and complementarity can in fact coexist in happy union. The Christian simply does not need to accept that equality must (as in Marixist terms) be reduced to wage parity and equal opportunity for sexual license. In this first wave of attack on the family, any sign of mutual interdependence was viewed as a threat to freedom. Those working against the family have insisted that submission to an exclusive contract is a sacrifice of autonomy. As Simone de Beauvoir claimed, in marriage, “man and wife together undergo the oppression of an institution they did not create.”

Needless to say, the oppression under which men and women suffer most is not the result of marriage but of broken promises. Even by such pedestrian indexes as wealth, health, and reported happiness, a mountain of social-scientific research has long overturned the popular wisdom of such 1960s thrillers as The Second Sex and Betty Friedman’s The Feminine Mystique. Like men, women simply thrive better in marriage. They suffer less depression, are more financially secure, and experience more fulfilling intimacy (for copious evidence see Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher’s The Case for Marriage, Broadway Books). Even today, after decades of assault on the ideal of the nuclear family, a mere 8 percent of women say they hope to remain unwed.

So much for the first wave.

Return next week for Dr. Topping’s look at the second of the three waves of attack upon the family, adapted from his recently published book Rebuilding Catholic Culture: How the Catechism Can Shape our Common Life (Sophia Institute Press).

Dr. Ryan N.S. Topping


Dr. Ryan Topping teaches at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts.  His most recent books are The Case for Catholic Education (Angelico Press) and Renewing the Mind: A Reader in the Philosophy of Catholic Education (CUA Press).

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  • Wayne G. Fischer

    Isn’t it about time we recognize that “progressive left” is an oxymoron and come up with a more nearly accurate phrase? …like, for instance, *destructive* left?

    And I doubt many social conservatives “marvel” at abortion…more like “shudder.”

  • JMC

    That’s probably the root of today’s misconception that compromise of any kind represents a loss. My best friend and I never married; we were never lucky enough to find the right man, so obviously God did not intend that path for us. We have shared a home for over twenty-five years, and simply because of the fact of our different upbringings (she is a product of suburbia, and I grew up in a poor immigrant neighborhood in the city), we have different outlooks on life that frequently clash. One example is the simple matter of laundry. I prefer to use a clothesline; she abhors the sight of the things. We compromised: The clothesline is in an area of our yard that is out of sight from the main living area. It’s a little inconvenient for me to get to, but at least it’s there. Others would say that I lost; I see that we both won: I still get to have it, but she doesn’t have to look at it. And we save a little bit of money on our electric bill, to boot.
    People don’t realize that someone who has never been married really can understand what it’s like for married couples. Anyone who has ever shared living quarters with another person, be it a college dorm, a military barracks, or whatever, understands all too well. I often find myself hesitating to offer advice when people are having problems with their “significant others,” simply because I know darn well what the gossip out there says about us. Some have asked us outright if we’re gay, then don’t believe us when we tell them we’re not. (See the article about gossip elsewhere on this site. ;D) Some are flabbergasted to come into our house and discover that we have separate bedrooms, both obviously in use…then STILL insist we’re gay! Go fig.

  • Peter Nyikos

    It wasn’t so awfully long ago (40 years, more or less) that two college girls could share the same double bed to save money and space, and not be thought gay. Those days are forever gone, it seems.

    Here is another little sign of how the Gay Power movement has shaped society: the word “gay” is owned by them now, and unless one recognizes the song ending in “We’ll have a gay old time” as coming from the Flintstones, one will likely be left with a completely false impression of what it is about.

  • David

    Dr. Topping, I think you’re forgetting that we are not made in the “image and likeness of God” and life is certainly not “everlasting” in any sense. We are simply animals.