One of the most essential virtues in a stable society is gratitude. As the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero once allegedly remarked, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues but the parent of all others.” And one of the things which we should most be grateful for in life is that constantly attacked and misunderstood social institution; the family. Between Mother’s and Father’s Day, reflecting on the blessings of good parents and a good family would be appropriate.
As in most things in life, when thinking and embarking on an exercise of reflection, we must first define our concepts. For example, Catholic social teaching says that a family is “a group of persons who are related by marriage or blood and typically include a father, mother, and children.” Additionally, the Church teaches that the first society, the first foundation in a society, is the family. In other words, without families, the connections and networks which give life meaning and substance cannot be. This is what the conservative statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke meant when he said, “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections.” From the family, we learn, and from there, the rest of our loyalties develop.
Human beings do not come into the world in a vacuum. As the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, “A person can have no memories more precious than those of his earliest childhood in his parental home, and this is nearly always so if there is in the family even the slightest degree of love and union.” We enter a precise moment and a precise family unit that, hopefully, can provide shelter, love, education, growth, support, and happiness. Human persons also enter with family history and national history.
We inherit that which came before, and it is to continue to borrow from Burke, a trusteeship. We are not the sole owners of the Earth, and there is a responsibility to build towards the future, to improve and reform what can be improved and reformed. This is what Burke meant by an “eternal society” among the dead, living, and unborn. And, inside the Christian faith, these principles acquire an even deeper, richer, and more beautiful meaning. This is an area of thought and discourse in which conservatives have much to say. It cannot be abandoned. A conservatism that forgets the family is an incomplete one. Man is more than economics.
Within a stable family, a child learns to love and, ideally, how to behave in a civilized manner. As such, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church elaborates, “Authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society.” Without families and civil institutions, the individual is unmoored and lost in a fallen world. The state alone cannot create those virtues necessary for engaged and virtuous citizenship. That is the role of moral education, which is achieved through families and civil society. Of course, this means that, as the Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen has declared,
The duty of parents to children is to rule while avoiding exasperating severity on the one hand and excessive indulgence on the other. God gives parents a child as so much plastic material that can be molded for good or evil. What if God placed a precious diamond in the hands of parents and told them to inscribe on it a sentence which would be read on the Last Day and shown an index of their thoughts and ideals? What caution they would exercise in their selection!
And so, with that incredible power and great responsibility in mind, I remain in gratitude and awe of my parents. How did they do it? I often wonder. I never lacked anything; I was given love, support, discipline, and education. From both, I developed faith, critical thinking, an insatiable intellectual curiosity, fortitude, temperance, diligence, respect for others, and to make sure I follow my conscience. Above all, they taught me that the critical things in life are not abstract principles, material things, politics, or money but God, family, and friends. Everything else, though not unimportant, is secondary. And though both taught me a bit of every virtue, I believe each taught me more of certain ones than others.
From my fantastic mother, I learned the virtues of not taking yourself too seriously (humility), expecting the unexpected, charity, hope, literature, art, to try new things. That part of life is enjoying it. I learned that life is a gift, and it must be celebrated. Virtuously, of course, but celebrated, nonetheless. My incredible father taught me prudence, patience, endurance, loyalty, patriotism, courage, history, and responsibility. To quote Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, “I started life with two great advantages: no money and good parents.” And though one can never hope to meet all the virtues perfectly or all the time, I am beyond grateful for their rearing and example.
And so, in this space between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, I thank them for everything. I exhort others to look around, see what they are grateful for, and thank God for their families.