Aristotle says that good citizens are the ones who are able and willing to be ruled, and by this definition, few American Catholics are “good citizens” of the Church on matters of marriage and the family. Still, there are plenty—those who express the Gospel chiefly through politics—who think that a relationship with the Church should be primarily like that between a good citizen and an absolute sovereign.
This is a much more serious problem than the mistake of those who simply refuse to be governed. The first means ignorance of what’s best; but the latter involves the danger of actually becoming a tyrant, and specifically a tyrant in the world in which we’ve been given the authority to rule. Anyone invested in rehabilitating the family politically can be undone by that interest—even someone as otherwise harmless as you and me.
Being fathers and mothers can seem useless when so much in the world needs to be fixed. Knowing and speaking about the importance of family is a seductive alternative to acting like one. That failure is a sort of domestic tyranny, in which our political interests and actions take the place of our calling as parents. There are many among us who rule as tyrants.
Although he might arguably be a tyrant in other ways, when it comes to social sovereignty—i.e., being a parent—Pope Francis is a model of good political rule. The realest of real things in society, and the refrain of Francis’s latest endeavors, are marriage and the family. How frustrating it is to witness accolade for the political importance of the family by columnists and culture warriors alike, and yet at the same time to notice the dearth of attention paid to its social—and primary—character.
The family is also a monarchy—parents, Aristotle says, have a type of royal authority over their children. This sovereignty is first of all social, but it gives an example that good political rule must abide by. Even in families, there are good monarchs and there are bad monarchs. Good monarchs serve their subjects. Tyrannical monarchs are most concerned with their own good, which can include the pleasures of political activism, rather than the good of their subjects. And domestic tyrants, because they neglect their families directly as well as the role that well-ordered families play in society more broadly, have the double curse of being both socially and politically harmful.
Audra Nakas wrote well and personally about the toll that partisan papal gaming takes on the faith of the average Catholic. I’d only like to add that the short-term prospects for the American Church as a whole are dimmest when those who are most capable of making good distinctions about the importance of family life fail to make them, treating the primarily social as if it were primarily political, and when those of us who know that the family is primarily social fail abjectly to live the truths we know.
I often wonder how many American Catholics who are visibly and deeply invested in the political role of the family also take time to educate their own children in the family’s social benefit. Not necessarily to teach them about its importance, but quite simply how to turn off the television, how to spend quiet mornings reading books, how to leave laptops packed in briefcases over the weekend, how to take walks, and how to think deeply rather than to reply loudly. Here, I can only speak personally, and I know that each of these things requires an heroic effort I am often not willing to make—which is to say that for the most part I am a tyrant.
In his words about the family, and in his public works, Francis gives an example of fatherhood that is not tyrannical. And his disinterest in political success is the sort of “uselessness” that good monarchs—who are also lovers of wisdom—need to maintain. When those in positions of authority are uninterested in the "really real,” it is the undoing of truth and the death of goodness. Political self-interest at the expense of one’s basic duties is perverse; it is also, in the grander scheme, both politically and personally sterile.
As far as we’re actually good fathers and mothers, pastors and teachers, we’re likely to be politically useless. We are, on the other hand, likelier to instill virtue, and to learn virtue ourselves, and virtue is the end and purpose of the state. In that sense only can we also expect to be politically powerful.