In that 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 society living as an embryo, as it were, within the 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 to some extent spontaneously: children’s respect for parents, understanding, love and mutual aid among members. Compared with the family, any other society seems stiff, rigid and in some respects, artificial.
One of the characteristic features created by Christian civilization in the West after the barbarian invasions, was to turn the family into more than the mere institution of domestic and private life as it is today, but into the driving force of 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 rather than the individual. The same occurred in crafts and trades, as there was a strong tendency to pass on a 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 in the feudal, municipal and 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 extent possible. 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 feed 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 bureaucratic, academic theoretician. On the contrary, these institutions were gradually born from a daily adjustment to the needs and problems that arose. 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 intertwining of the feudal system, a king — as the incarnation of the State — could own feudal lands in foreign territory. Thus sovereignties were intermeshed 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. This can be seen clearly 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.
This autonomy of social units can be seen 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 realm 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.
To greatly simplify 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.