Family before Government: Subsidiarity, Education, and Natural Law

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By Hannah Jordan, University of Texas at Austin

The atomizing zeitgeist of the Enlightenment sought to free mankind from oppressive associations; but rather than freeing man from burdensome obligations, this philosophy detached man from his very being. The design of man is such that he strives toward communion, association with another, total belonging to something beyond oneself. Such a need for community is why God viewed Adam’s isolation on the 7th day as the one thing that was “not good”. Aristotle echoes this in saying that “an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human.” This essay will examine the necessity of intermediary associations for individual and political flourishing, the nature and fittingness of the family unit for the upbringing and educating of new life, and threats posed against these structures by violations of the principle of subsidiarity.

Man as a Being of Associations

The rise of individualism has hastily ushered into the modern world a rise in unprecedented statism. A prominent manifestation of this principle can be seen in the French Revolution, when man sought to free himself from the shackles of intermediate institutions—such as the family, guilds, parishes, monasteries, manors, villages, and other local associations. The outcome of this experiment in radical liberalism was equally devastating for individual flourishing as well as for society. American sociologist Robert Nisbet points out how the leaders of the French Revolution insisted that the family be considered a democratic republic in which each member had liberty and equality; the revolutionaries made sure that the marriage bond was consciously weakened by their declaring the doctrine of its indissolubility contrary to reason. In these hostile sentiments held by the legislators toward traditional family and marriage, one can see the mentality of the Enlightenment stand in direct contradiction to the philosophical tradition that had carried mankind thus far. Further, the Enlightenment primacy of the individual stands in a deeper conflict with the very communal essence of mankind. Isolated from nearly all sources of meaningful human community, modern man was compelled to join the only community still available: the mythical “national community” offered by the central state. But man was not made for this limitation of association: Aquinas takes Aristotle’s argument that man is a uniquely political animal and further asserts that man is by nature a “civic and social animal.” Overreaching state power does not bring any meaningful fulfillment to man’s political nature, and it wholly disregards man’s social nature.

Such is how the Stockholm’s Syndrome love story began between the individual and the state: with intermediate associations thrown to the wayside, man had nowhere to turn for structural support except for the ever-growing state government. With less security in the family but also in the community and the Church, man found himself following the siren-call of distant corporations and governmental agencies to fill the gaps once occupied by meaningful associations. Even though these impersonal institutions may be more “efficient” or convenient in carrying out certain tasks, the quest for community “will not be denied, for it springs from some of the powerful needs of human nature—needs for a clear sense of cultural purpose, membership, status, and continuity.”

The issues which spring from this modern philosophical error are twofold: the dissolution of the foundation of society, that is the family, and the overreaching of the state. These two issues are distinct yet intimately woven together.

1. Violation of Subsidiarity

To address attacks on the family structure, one must have recourse to the principle of Subsidiarity,  a prominent organizing principle in Catholic social teaching. Broadly speaking, subsidiarity is an organizing principle which stipulates that matters should be handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralized form of competent authority. For example, if you are able to go give a sandwich to the homeless man down the street, that is infinitely easier and more prudent than calling seven different government agencies to eventually find a way to get him a sandwich by next Tuesday. It must be noted, though, that subsidiarity does not simply entail avoiding bureaucracy: subsidiarity is not quite a principle of efficiency, but a principle of sovereignty. There are rights to carry out actions that are bestowed to members or associations within society, rights which they cannot be deprived of unless proved incompetent or incondusive to the common good. 

Within subsidiarity, it is good that man has a plurality of associations, and that these associations are ordered toward a higher end. For example, an individual belongs to a family, a guild, a village, a parish: all of these associations inhabit and accentuate different parts of man’s communal nature. The parish is clearly conducive to the religious development of the individual; the family is the kingdom in which an individual is reared and educated and is implicated by blood and natural law; the guild sees that man can provide for himself and maintain an honest work in the context of other individuals similarly pursuing good work. When man has a plurality of healthy associations, and these associations all fill their niche, “the State emerges as but one of the associations of man’s existence,” rather than the only association. Robert Nisbet famously argued that what precipitated the twentieth century “quest for community” was precisely this transfer of functions from the family, the parish, the guild, etc. to increasingly collectivized economic and governmental spheres–a clear violation of the principle of subsidiarity. 

2. Loss of Family as the Foremost Association in Civil Society

Modern philosophers such as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes erred deeply when placing the individual as the building block of society, rather than the family. And so, to counter the deep impersonality of modern associations (or lack thereof), one must return to the most foundational piece of society: the family. What is the nature of the family so that it is constituted as the prime temporal association around which to organize society? Johannes Althusius, a 16th century political philosopher, understood the goal of political philosophy to emphasize the primacy of local, more “natural” associations, beginning with the most local and natural association: the family. Althusius is very clear that the government of a commonwealth must respect the authority and jurisdiction of the smaller, more local and natural associations out of which it is constituted. On the primacy of the family as educators within a child’s life, 20th century Pope John Paul II said the following:

“Parents are the first and most important educators of their own children, and they also possess a fundamental competence in this area: they are educators because they are parents.”

The modern family, as an entity, is recognizable by its readiness to shift from what was once a dependence on its own resources and those of closely related local associations, to a dependence on unfamiliar institutions and unnecessarily distant forces. For the performance of many of their basic functions, families are now dependent on very removed “associations”.

Educational Rights and Obligations

One of the prime areas of concern regarding familial jurisdiction is that of educational rights. In keeping with Althusius’ prioritization of local, natural associations, it is fitting that the family be considered the first entity endowed with not only the right but the obligation to educate children. Yet as the federal government expands, it seeks to take on a larger role in child education. 

Educational tension between the family and the state is not an issue particular to modernity. In Sparta, education was a tool created for the benefit of the city-state, not necessarily for the benefit of the individual. The government largely controlled family life. Young boys would be taken from their homes at age seven in order to be educated and trained as a Spartan soldier so as to grow up to defend the city; he followed the orders of his commanders and lived in common with strangers. This pulled the child out of the home and replaced his family with the state. In Plato’s Republic, the philosopher advocated for children to be held in common by the city-state, so as to be raised and educated by elite “Guardians” who would engender powerful bonds of loyalty between individuals and the state. In Plato’s ideal polis, the family and other natural associations present potential hindrance to the state due to the potential for discord. Therefore, for Plato, the family must be eliminated in some sense. Aristotle’s Politics has a similar tone to that of Plato, but Aristotle holds that intermediate associations are perfectly acceptable so long as the common good, the good of the state, was met.

These ancient Greco-understandings of the family and state functions in education still hold standing in modern Western thought. Twentieth-century totalitarianism sought to destroy the family since it represented an identity and meaning apart from the state. Totalitarianism seeks to “govern all of life; to allow for only one public identity; to destroy private life; and most of all; to require that individuals never allow their commitments to specific others—family, friends, comrades—to weaken their commitment to the state.”

Within the United States, Horace Mann, the Superintendent of Education in Massachusetts from 1837 to 1849, was a strong advocate for public schools and compulsory education. He saw public schools as the sole means of stamping out vice and civil strife. For Mann, the public school system would foster patriotism and would assimilate foreigners by transforming them into “virtuous, productive American citizens.” Thomas Jefferson, too, saw public schooling as a great opportunity to assimilate those typically outside of mainstream civil society as well as engender virtue within a broad class of citizens.

The question, however, is not whether or not the state may provide schooling. The question is to what extent the state may educate children, and whether that entails usurping the rights of the parents. To answer this question, it is prudent to turn to the words of 19th century Pope Leo XIII in his papal encyclical on Subsidiarity:

“It is not right, as we have said, for either the citizen or the family to be absorbed by the state; it is proper that the individual and the family should be permitted to retain their freedom of action, so far as this is possible without jeopardizing the common good and without injuring anyone.”

The nature of man testifies that the family has the primary responsibility of rearing and educating children: education in this sense primarily applies to a child’s moral and spiritual development, but also ought to be extended to such things as logic and reasoning, writing, the sciences, etc. Those who choose to homeschool their children acknowledge this familial obligation; yet, most individuals who choose to homeschool their children recognize that the family is incapable of fulfilling every role in the education of a child. For example, the family cannot create a little league team (some Catholic families are so large that they are definitely near this possibility, though). When the family is incapable of fulfilling this educational need, a sports team, they reach out to the next lowest run on the ladder of subsidiarity: the local community. And so another local association is formed to fill an educational need without appeal to the state. Consider families that cannot homeschool–perhaps the family is low-income and cannot afford to have one parent stay at home, or perhaps it is a single parent family. When the family is unable to be the immediate educator with regards to mathematics, arithmetic, etc., neighborhoods and cities work together to create educational environments for children. When neighborhoods and cities create schools, there are private schools which charge tuition, and tax-funded schools at which students can attend free of cost. Private schools cost money, money which does not come from the state, so the schools charge families tuition for their child’s attendance. Many families cannot afford this financial burden, so it could be argued that higher levels of government may subsidize “private” education in order to make it more affordable. The other option outside of immediate familial education (namely, homeschooling) and private schooling, are state-funded public schools. These schools are largely subsidized by federal funds to help the states keep them running. 

In how I have described the various spheres of schooling, all options proceed out from the family, which must be maintained as the core instructor within a child’s education by the very nature of parenthood as the primacy of association. Thus, private and public schools must always maintain a deference to the instruction of the family, lest they violate subsidiarity. When subsidiarity is ignored, the state begins to make decisions not only about how schools ought to be funded, but also what schools should teach. It begins to determine in vacuo decisions about the telos of education, the quality of education, and even the moral and spiritual formation that comes with education away from parents. To take the right to educate away from the parent actively and fundamentally redefines what it means to be a parent and what it means to be a child. The parent-child relationship, and the nature of the family as a whole, is oriented toward the transmission of truth through the bonds of love: if you reject the obligation to pass down truth or if you reject the bonds which bind family through love, you reject the essence of the family.

So as to treat the subject with an even hand, it is important to acknowledge subsidiarity as a two way street: subsidiarity is not a means of encouraging individualism or unchecked-libertarianism under the guise of community. Rather, subsidiarity asks higher institutions to support lower institutions in case of legitimate need and help “to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.” When one respects the sovereignty of the family to educate children, it is not a blind revering but a practical understanding of the common good. The family must always educate with the common good in mind, lest it seek to be an education in the thickest sense. In Catechesi tradendae, Pope John Paul II says that education must not neglect education of a flourishing society: “the search for a society with greater solidarity and fraternity, the fight for justice and the building of peace.” Parents who educate their children at home have the strong obligation to teach principles of justice and promotion of the common good. It is not possible to truly educate without an ordering toward the common good of society. Thus, families must remain primary, active, and connected to society in a meaningful way, always keeping in mind the true common good.


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Darrell Falconburg, “Revisiting Robert Nisbet’s Conservative Classic”. The 

Imaginative Conservative. 2020.

Erickson, Debra, and Michael Le Chevallier. Jean Bethke Elshtain Politics, 

Ethics, and Society. University of Notre Dame Press, 2018.

Hochschild, Joshua. “The Principle of Subsidiarity and the Agrarian Ideal.” 

Faith & Reason Vol. XXVII, No. 2, 3, 4. 2002

 Mann, Horace. American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1873.

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Plato. Republic. Translated by Chris Emlyn-Jones and William Preddy, IV, 

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 Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum. 1891.

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