Families, Schools, and Churches: The Building Blocks of a Healthy Social Ecology

January 18, 2017 | Published first in The Witherspoon Institute

Yesterday I explored the concepts of human and social ecology as fitting analogues to natural ecology. Today, I offer three practical suggestions for reviving our social ecology.

Like threats to our natural habitat, threats to our moral environment are multifarious. And because we are dealing with even more complexity in human beings who possess both free will and concupiscence, we are most often left with a complex picture without obvious solutions, at least at the level of law and policy. So I offer the following in the spirit of Mary Ann Glendon’s characteristically ecological approach that we first do no harm, and then by our actions seek, as Glendon puts it, to “create conditions and shift probabilities” in favor of the full flourishing of the human person.

To create such conditions in our current circumstances, we ought to prioritize our support of three important segments of society: first, child-rearing families, which are in themselves an education in virtue, both for children and for their parents; second, schools that intentionally cultivate the intellectual and moral virtues; and third, local churches as centers of ecological revitalization.

Families: Raising Children, Instilling Virtue

In a lengthy 1998 article on “moral ecology,” political scientist Allen Hertzke insightfully writes,

Family lies at the center of the moral ecological nexus, both shaping and being shaped . . . both a cause and effect of ecological disruptions. The extent to which children resist moral toxins from the outside environment depends largely on how well their families have inoculated them. In turn, the ability of families to do so can be undermined by larger ecological forces. The interactions are dynamic and interactive—in a word, ecological.

The work of the formation of children in the home—that work that is so essential for both the children who receive formation and their parents who, in taking seriously their parental duties, are transformed by them—is deeply devalued in our culture today. With the movement of women en masse into the workforce over the last half century, the staggering unemployment and underemployment among working class men, the growing dependence on two incomes for middle and working class families, the sheer number of single mothers rearing children alone, and the valuable and often distinctive contributions women make beyond the private sphere, we can no longer simply point to the traditional breadwinner-husband and homemaker-wife as the obvious fix for our current ecological crisis, as much as some of us may like to. We can no longer take for granted the family and community sustenance that women provided as a matter of course—and gratis—for centuries. If the work of the family, that essential work of caring for the dependent and vulnerable, of forming the minds and hearts of both child and parent, was once regarded as among the most essential of all labors, it no longer is.

Today we need to take strong, affirmative steps to manifest far more cultural regard for the family’s essential work: to inspire and incentivize fathers to devote themselves to their families; to counter the financial and professional pressures mothers especially feel as many now seek to work while prioritizing caregiving; and to think creatively about how technology and business ingenuity can help create an economy that is on the side of child-rearing families, especially those that are struggling.

Religious believers understand better than most that both children and the work of the family are indispensable public goods. Thus it is religious believers and others of good will in the business world and in politics who must be the ones thinking creatively about how to publicly support, endorse, affirm, and celebrate the work of care and formation that takes place in the home. By seeking ways to offset the real financial sacrifices parents make to rear their children well, we recognize that the service parents render is not just to their children or themselves but to the whole of society. Political thinkers such as Ramesh Ponnuru and Yuval Levin have promoted reform agendas that place support for child-rearing families at the very center; let us hope they get a better hearing in the new Trump administration.

While we yet await a new opening for public policy solutions, businesses and other private institutions must be on the cutting edge of finding ways to encourage and support family life. As Glendon reminds us, “The market, like our democratic experiment, requires a certain kind of citizen, with certain skills and certain virtues . . . it depends on culture, which in turn depends on nurture and education, which in turn depends on families.” Familial support includes ensuring that working parents, and especially mothers who continue to take on a disproportionate share of the caregiving, are not penalized professionally for dedicating some portion of their energies to the culturally essential care of children, and increasingly elderly parents. As John Paul II writes in Laborem Exercens, “The true advancement of women requires that labour should be structured in such a way that women do not have to pay for their advancement . . . at the expense of the family, in which women as mothers have an irreplaceable role.”

Finding innovative ways to accommodate the needs of the family would not only serve children and marriages well but would also benefit the workplace and the culture at large. It could serve to rewire the world of work so that persons were attended to as a matter of priority, both as the subjects of their work, but also in the broader decision-making of an enterprise, ensuring that the drive for efficiency and profits does not supersede the more human quest to serve the person above all. More practically, greater flexibility and respect for the demands of the family could translate into decreased rates of burnout, higher morale, and, some studies have shown, greater profits over the long run.

The Renaissance of Classical Education

But family-encouraging policies on the part of the government and the business sector are certainly not all that is needed to restore our social ecology. Mothers and fathers need other support institutions—vibrant schools, churches, and other cells of civil society—to help them form their children in the virtues they need to use their freedom well. So, my second challenge is that we get behind the renaissance of classical education that is now taking place across our country. By steeping children in the very best Western civilization has to offer and by intentionally inculcating in them the moral and intellectual virtues children need to flourish, classical schools are, one by one, recreating the ecosystem of moral support parents need for their children and for themselves.

These schools, like the one I helped to found in 2013 in Natick, Massachusetts, are self-conscious in their awareness that self-government requires self-government. In an age increasingly bound to the idea that man can enjoy technological control over nature, over even his own body, these schools instead teach children that it is they who must be the masters of their own passions, and that they need God’s grace to achieve such mastery. These communities strive together for the common good and encourage each other to think more about their social duties and less about their rights. They rekindle the habits of mind and heart needed for good citizenship both in our country and, one hopes, in the hereafter. Classical schools have eager students and parents, they provide an unrivaled curriculum, and the best of them teach character education that instructs children in both the language and the practice of virtue. They often even possess buildings left abandoned by failed parochial schools. But they need more funding—and they need an entree into poorer communities.

If the work of social theorists such as Charles Murray and Robert Putnam and the ascendancy of political leaders like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have taught us anything about what ails our country today, it is that the turmoil wrought by the deterioration of social ecology is so deep in some communities that it threatens the very fiber of our republic. The causes of this ecological deterioration are complex, yet they clearly include eruptions that are both economic (e.g., globalization) and cultural (e.g., the sexual revolution). It is now indisputable that the poor and working classes have been the hardest hit by both.

Revitalizing Local Churches

Local churches and other places of worship have long been the social organisms to which people turn in times of need and that once served as anchoring institutions, integrating individuals from diverse backgrounds. It is high time to rediscover in our churches the unique capacity they have to create, in Glendon’s phrase, communities of “mutual aid and memory,” upon which our republic depends for its liberty and vitality, and upon which we all may well depend for our eternal salvation.

Of course, churches must always and primarily be vehicles of spiritual and moral formation and sacramental grace; as such, churches have the capacity to restore communities through revitalizing the individuals within them. Brad Wilcox and Nicholas Wolfinger have shown, for instance, how churchgoing African American and Latino men are significantly more likely to flourish personally and professionally than their non-religious peers. But even beyond this, Jonathan Reyes at the USCCB believes that churches could serve as centers of ecological revitalization through more effectively matching those in need with those who need to give, from the parishes themselves and wealthier sister parishes, but also through a more effective and intentional engagement with private, public, and business resources throughout the broader community.

Our social ecology is ailing right now. Those of us living in wealthier communities have a grave responsibility toward those languishing in our poorest not only to give of our funds but also our lives—to discover “mutuality at the margins,” as David Lapp has put it. And to be quite clear: this is not just to assist and accompany the poor and marginalized. It is also for the good of the souls of the rich, tempted as we may be to resign ourselves to the decadence of our age. If we are to shore up the social conditions for human flourishing—our own and those around us—it will take each of us setting about that interior struggle, day by day, teaching our children how to live lives of generosity, and eschewing our own comfort to help others.

Erika Bachiochi is a Visiting Fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center. This essay was adapted from the luncheon presentation she gave at the Human Ecology Conference at the Busch School of Business and Economics at CUA last spring. Her remarks were recently aired on EWTN.