Pope Leo XIII: “Rerum Novarum” – Paternal Authority, Part II

Last week, following Pope Leo XIII in “Rerum Novarum” I affirmed that the authority of the father in the family is the fundamental principle of right social order. It is necessary now to clarify a bit what that does and does not mean.

It is one thing to uphold the authority of the father, in principle, but another to discover the best way of proceeding when, in particular cases, a father becomes abusive or tyrannical. Likewise, upholding the authority of the father, in principle, does not exclude particular cases in which, for example, a mother has to step in because of the incapacity or absence of the father. These matters involve adaptation, in particular circumstances, because of a wound, even a grievous wound. This adaptation is easier and more possible when the larger social order is healthy and supportive; it is ultimately made possible because at the root of all social order is God, the Father and Ruler of all.

It is one thing to adapt the application of paternal authority in particular circumstances, but it is another thing to reject the very principle of paternal authority altogether, as does feminism and the actual feminist legal system.

Ironically, one of the feminist arguments in favor of abortion is a ‘right to privacy’ which holds that the government should not enter the intimacy of the bedroom. Nevertheless, the feminist rejection of paternal authority required radical government intervention into the very structure of family life. More and more, the family becomes a mere creature of the State, allowed and tolerated only insofar as the State permits. Feminism, in fact, has chosen to make women dependent on an impersonal bureaucratic State, rather than on a husband. That was the message of the 2012 Obama Campaign’s “Life of Julia” informercial, in which no man appeared and the government had taken over the traditional roles first of father, then of husband.

The authority of the father establishes the family as an ordered society. It is not a matter of better or worse, superior or inferior, but, as we like to say these days, it is a matter of complementarity. We could put the matter this way: it belongs to the husband and father to build the house, either literally or through his work; only the wife and mother can make the house to be a home. That also means that the man normally should be the leader in the public realm outside of the home, but inside the woman is the queen.
Pope Pius XI wrote: “Domestic society being confirmed, therefore, by this bond of love, there should flourish in it that ‘order of love,’ as St. Augustine calls it. This order includes both the primacy of the husband with regard to the wife and children, the ready subjection of the wife and her willing obedience, which the Apostle commends … This subjection, however, does not deny or take away the liberty which fully belongs to the woman both in view of her dignity as a human person, and in view of her most noble office as wife and mother and companion; nor does it bid her obey her husband’s every request if not in harmony with right reason or with the dignity due to wife; nor, in fine, does it imply that the wife should be put on a level with those persons who in law are called minors, to whom it is not customary to allow free exercise of their rights on account of their lack of mature judgment, or of their ignorance of human affairs. But it forbids that exaggerated liberty which cares not for the good of the family; it forbids that in this body which is the family, the heart be separated from the head to the great detriment of the whole body and the proximate danger of ruin. For if the man is the head, the woman is the heart, and as he occupies the chief place in ruling, so she may and ought to claim for herself the chief place in love.” (Castii Conubii 26-27)
Our homes in this world are but temporary, but if we are left homeless from our birth we are poor and miserable, no matter what else we have.

When we see people living out on the street and call them ‘homeless’ and when we speak about the lack of housing and the crisis of homelessness, we are actually seeing only a small part of the picture. There are an increasing number of people who, even though they live in houses or apartments, really have no idea any longer what a ‘home’ really is. Very often people loosely related, maybe even a true family, live in a house where they sleep, but scarcely spend any other time there, while each goes his separate way during the day.

So while recognizing the present economic reality that can make it very difficult for a woman to dedicate herself to fashioning a real home, perhaps it is time for married couples to find ways for the wife to spend time fulfilling her unique maternal homemaking role. It would help also, if we also begin to show real esteem for motherhood and the maternal gift of woman, if we stop teaching little girls that real ‘success’ comes in pursuing a career, and if we stop glorifying examples of career women as ‘what a woman can be and do’. (To be continued)



Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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