A Political Economy for the Family

This essay is a contribution from our symposium Toward a Just Political Economy. To receive a print copy and read the other essays, order here.

When the conversation turns toward the economic or political order in contemporary American Catholic discourse, the first thing one often hears is the term “subsidiarity” used according to its popularized meaning. Unfortunately, this term is often quite misunderstood. As commonly stated, the principle of subsidiarity is that a “higher” order of society ought not to usurp what is proper to a “lower” order—but there’s more to unpack here.

To be sure, the use of “higher” or “lower” here to describe the units that form and participate in human community indicate a hierarchy. But they also describe an order’s horizontal relationship to the community at large. When we speak of higher and lower orders, we are most often referring to the relationships between the family, intermediate associations, and the state. The family, the “first natural society,” is a lower order vis-à-vis more encompassing orders in relation to the intermediate institutions that incorporate larger portions of the community. The highest orders are the state or Church—the former comprising the largest jurisdiction in the temporal order, while the latter claims universal jurisdiction in the spiritual.1 To further clarify, despite its connotation to vertical ranking, higher and lower order terminology isn’t necessarily a prescription of absolute authority: for instance, while the family is considered a lower order, the Church teaches “the priority of the family over society and over the State must be affirmed.”2

This can be confused to mean that the state’s role ought to be constrained against incursion into the affairs of lower orders—as it is often deployed. But one only needs to look closer at what Pope Pius XI taught regarding the individual and society to see this isn’t the blank check to devolution that it is often portrayed to be, nor a prescription for isolated localism. Pius XI wrote that it is a “disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. . . [because] every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.”3 In Divini redemptoris, Pius XI added that “it is impossible to care for the social organism and the good of a society as a unit unless each single part and each individual member. . . Is supplied with all that is necessary for the exercise of his social functions.”4

Breaking it down further, “subsidiarity” comes from the Latin subsidium, meaning to “help” or “support.” In light of this, it becomes clear that subsidiarity properly understood extends to when the higher order acts to support the internal life of the lower orders, helping the lower orders to most effectively attain their own ends.

The purpose here, however, is not to get lost in misappropriations of the principle of subsidiarity. Instead, it is to bring to special attention to subsidiarity’s sibling and corollary, the principle of solidarity, and further investigate how the principles can come together in today’s political economy.

The relationship between these two principles is too often neglected, preventing an understanding of economics that harmonizes solidarity and subsidiarity for the good of the family. For one political tribe, political economy is often considered primarily through its commitment to subsidiarity; for others, through its commitment to solidarity. To present the two principles as contradictory—on partisan grounds, no less—is to introduce a falsehood.

For many conservatives, an economics of the family has been approached solely from the perspective of subsidiarity, an approach that has increasingly left much to be desired. A quick survey of the contemporary social landscape makes this disturbingly clear, with fertility and marriage rates hitting record lows in the United States, as young adults face increasing social and economic pressures against family formation.

Political conservatives have spent the past several decades of rapid technological, industrial and social evolution hyper focused on the subsidiarity side of the equation—expecting the institution of the family to hold its own as its been swept up in a current and left drifting out to sea. Political liberals and progressives, on the other hand, have frequently undermined the integrity of the family and sought to supplant the family instead of empowering it.

The degree to which the two principles have become associated with partisan sentiments is a great injustice and barrier, preventing both from a more complete understanding and application of Catholic social teaching. Solidarity, too, has similarly had its share of misappropriations—but it remains an indispensable principle. To correctly and faithfully approach questions of politics and economics in terms of the virtue of solidarity, one must first begin on sure anthropological footing.

Solidarity, properly understood, is neither revolutionary agitation nor the kind of false fraternity promoted within liberal societies. In Centesimus annus, Pope Saint John Paul II taught that the principle of solidarity “is clearly seen to be one of the fundamental principles of the Christian view of social and political organization.”5 Juan Donoso Cortés, known for his passionate denunciations of both liberal and socialist ideology, beautifully wrote on the Catholicity of this principle:

That responsibility in common, which is called solidarity, is one of the most beautiful and august revelations of Catholic dogma. By solidarity, man, elevated to a superior dignity and a more sublime sphere, living before and surviving himself, is prolonged as long as time, and extended as far as space. It consolidates, and to a certain degree creates, humanity, a word which was void of meaning in ancient societies, but now signifies the substantial unity of human nature, and the close relationship all men have with each other.6

This focus rose to a new prominence during the pontificate of John Paul II and, along with Pope Francis’s magisterium, solidifies the centrality of solidarity in social doctrine. In his encyclical issued on the one hundredth anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum, John Paul II described the interdependence between subsidiarity and solidarity. To form an authentically humane culture of work,

[The State must act] both directly and indirectly. Indirectly and according to the principle of subsidiarity, by creating favourable conditions for the free exercise of economic activity. . . Directly and according to the principle of solidarity, by defending the weakest, by placing certain limits on the autonomy of the parties who determine working conditions, and by ensuring in every case the necessary minimum support for the unemployed worker.7

Here, John Paul II shows the symbiotic character of the two principles, both acting in tandem to further a genuine Catholic economics. In Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis recently reinforced this notion in the most simple terms, teaching that “the principle of subsidiarity. . . is inseparable from the principle of solidarity.”8 In light of this, one begins to grasp that true subsidiarity is not the complete independence of lower orders, but rather the actualization of solidarity between the lower and higher orders. Subsidiarity cannot function in a healthy and proper manner without the exercise of solidarity.9

To begin forming a renewed political-economic vision, one authority to turn to is the German priest Heinrich Pesch, S.J. Unfortunately, Pesch has been neglected both in scholarship and popular recognition, despite his outsized influence on Catholic social thought. Following the publication of Rerum novarum, Pesch took up the mantle of the social question, turning toward an investigation of economics in his already mature age. Pesch’s scholarship would culminate in what has been called the longest economics textbook ever written, the Lehrbuch der Nationalökonomie (Textbook of National Economy). In that text, Pesch outlined his vision for a system he called Solidarismus, or solidarism.

Pesch’s solidarism stands in opposition to collectivist socialism and individualistic capitalism. In socialism, Pesch saw the unlawful abolishment of private property, the domination of materialism, and the violation of the dignity of the person. In individualistic capitalism, Pesch saw the excesses of the individual unmoored from his or her social obligations combined with excess materialism and metaphysical perversion. Proceeding from an individualistic framework, “capitalism replaced the dominion of man over the world with the dominion of capital over people.”10Pesch writes, “we became accustomed to treat ‘capital’ and ‘labor’ as though both were material things,” when human labor was “of its nature something personal. . . reduced to the service of capital which was something impersonal.”11 According to Pesch, this inversion is at the center of where the modern economy went astray, eroding truly social bonds through dehumanizing mechanics. The solution, however, wasn’t found in mass expropriations or abolishing private ownership, but recovering the social character of property and humanizing the economy at large.

According to Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, Pesch is “the man who has done more than any other” for the idea of a corporative state, and his scholarship has “few equals.”12 American priest Richard E. Mulcahy, S.J., writing nearly three decades after Pius XI’s Quadragesimo anno, called the Lehrbuch the “sourcebook” for the 1931 encyclical, an observation echoed by other scholars.13 Even a cursory inquiry into the language of Church documents bringing solidarity into greater focus in the latter half of the 20th century, such as Laborem exercens, Sollicitudo rei socialis, or the Compendium, suggests Pesch as a precursor to the Catholic Church’s social doctrine of the past century. Despite Rupert J. Ederer’s dedicated study of Pesch’s legacy and completion of the monumental task of translating Pesch’s work into English in the early 2000s, Pesch’s work is still largely inaccessible and outside scholarly attention in the Anglophone world.

We look to Heinrich Pesch’s solidaristic thought to begin envisioning an approach to political economy animated by solidarity and amenable to the Catholic tradition. First, we seek to differentiate Peschian solidarism from other strains contemporary to him. After grounding solidarity properly, a survey of solidarist political economy presents several central tenets of the Peschian system, illustrating a middle way between individualistic capitalism and collectivism. Finally, we turn toward the institution of the family as a starting point for reimagining a political economy directed toward the common good and sketch the beginning of an economic response to the challenges facing it.

True and False Solidarity

“For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another.”

Romans 12:4-5

Between the late 19th and early-20th  century, solidarism rose to popularity as a label for various attempts at navigating the theoretical inadequacies of individualism and collectivism, gaining special prominence with French social theorists and politicians at the turn of the century.

To dispel confusion regarding the term “solidarism” and its historical varieties, we must first examine the points of departure between the Peschian variant from other strains—thinkers often unfavorable toward the Catholic mode of thought. False anthropology breeds erroneous policy, so by drawing this contrast the framework of Peschian Solidarismus will come into view.

Leading exponents of varying interpretations of solidarism at the turn of the century included French social theorists, including Charles Gide, Léon Bourgeois, and Emilé Durkheim. Pesch’s Solidarismus stood in opposition to these variants for both substantive and philosophic reasons. While recognizing the good contained in the French solidarist thought, Pesch decried the French variants with a laundry list of criticisms: “utilitarian, positivistic, evolutionistic, socialistic theories.”14

Pesch singled out Gide’s solidarism as especially opposed to his own conception, describing him as “advocat[ing] a universal cooperative communalization of economic life,” in opposition to occupational organization—which is central to Pesch’s own system of solidarism.15 Meanwhile, Pesch positively notes Durkheim’s support of “restoration of a corporative order.”16 Pesch was also critical of what he considered to be liberal tendencies in Bourgeois’ solidarism, later describing it as tending “toward a destruction of social peace, a proclamation of class-struggle, paving the way for collective solutions.”17

Pesch’s critique of Gide, Bourgeois, and Durkheim goes further on philosophic grounds, and much of the disagreement can plausibly be traced to how Pesch derives the moral responsibility bound up in solidarity. In his conception of solidarity, Gide distinguishes between solidarité-fait, or solidarity “as a matter of fact,” and solidarité-devoir, or solidarity as “duty.”18 In a similar fashion, Bourgeois distinguished between “natural” solidarity and “moral” solidarity. Gide, Bourgeois and Durkheim grounded the moral duties of solidarity in that “natural,” observable and empirical interdependence of people—not primarily through moral duty and social philosophy as Pesch conceived it.

This mistaken notion led the ersatz solidarists to implicitly or explicitly endorse a form of liberal social contract theory, which Pesch completely disavowed. For Bourgeois and others, the only way to formulate a moral basis for solidarity, ironically enough, was through the “voluntary consent of individuals acting out of their own self-interests.”19 In this error, Pesch saw the source of fundamental disagreement between him and other solidarist thinkers.

For Pesch, moral concepts were independent of those positivistic observations. Pesch’s approach was fundamentally teleological, grounding the concept of solidarity and mutual interdependence in man’s common Creation and in understanding humanity’s social nature as directed toward God through one’s neighbor. Only through this understanding of ourselves and our relationships as rooted in common Creation, and not the rampant sociological positivism of the French theorists, is there firm basis for the moral and legal principles that originate mutual assistance and solidarity.

Society as a Moral Organism

Pesch’s deeply philosophic outlook is present throughout his work. He considered the lack of such a philosophical grounding a defining deficiency of the reigning economic creed. Pesch criticized the economic thinking of his time as a “materialistic and individualistic science of money-making, because its relation with the social sciences was completely forgotten.”20 Obviously, little has changed to that effect.

Pesch described solidarism as “the social system which gives full expression to the proper solidaristic bond among people as such, and as members of the natural communities—the family and the state—in accordance with the nature of the respective communities.”21 In the most broad sense, solidarism can simply be described as a social philosophy aimed at “complementing and regulating power by binding together people in solidarity.”22

It concerns itself with four levels at which people are bound by its animating principle: the solidarity of the family, solidarity at the occupational level, solidarity among citizens of the same state, and the universal solidarity of all mankind. Economic solidarism is the approach by which the social bond can be brought into concrete realization, fostered, and cared for among these levels of community in order to secure the common good of all.

To get a clearer picture of Pesch’s economic solidarism, five elements of his thought deserve further examination: the goal of the economy, economics as a practical science, private property as a social institution, corporatist organization, and the necessary Weltanschauung of solidarity.

For Pesch, economic inquiry could not be divorced from ethics or social philosophy: questions of political economy and ethical concerns are inseparably bound together. The moral law is valid “for all times and places” and directs man this his final end.23 Therefore, political economy ought not to contradict the moral law because such an opposition creates a conflict between man’s temporal and eternal ends, resulting in a disordered reality.

This further leads Pesch to bring into view another characteristic feature of his solidarist approach, society as a “moral organism.” Unlike neoliberals of various shades and times, who have pronounced that “there is no such thing as society” but only a sum of individuals and families interacting on the basis of their individual self-interest, conceiving of society as a moral organism takes a more encompassing view of persons and relationships as combining into a true community. Society has moral character because “economic subjects are morally obligated to subordinate their endeavors to” both the temporal common good and their final end.24 Through the unity that society is imbued with on account of its moral character, it is directed by a shared social purpose rather than individual material self-interest.

The solidaristic society’s “moral-organic character” opposes the individualistic anti-society because it affirms the primacy of the moral and subordination of individual good to the common good. Likewise, it rejects a collectivist society that erases the organic, subsidiary ordering of individual to whole.25 Inherent to this moral-organic fabric of society is the teleological approach that undergirds solidarist economics.

Peschian Solidarism

In a materialist age where the dividing line between ideal citizen and homo economicus is blurred, the purpose of economics has been obscured beyond recognition. Economist Lionel Robbins, writing on the nature of economic science, claimed “there are no economic ends.”26 Human beings may have their own ends and goals, but economics in Robbins’s account is “entirely neutral between ends.”27 For Robbins, the only purpose of economics is to best determine the most efficient means, but doesn’t wade into the business of ends.

John Stuart Mill notably wrote that political economy “does not treat of the whole of man’s nature as modified by the social state, nor of the whole conduct of man in society,” but was instead “concerned with him solely as a being who desires to possess wealth,” and how to most efficiently go about attaining it.28

Separating economy from morality inevitably leads to mechanistic approaches, atomizing and alienating the individual from his or her natural social reality, paving a path to dehumanization. This stands opposite of the Catholic “integral and solidary humanism” that recognizes the intrinsic relation between the moral and economic spheres.29

The market is made for man, and not man for the market. Economic activity and policy are not taken up for their own sake but for the common good of society.30

Economic means are guided by their telos, purposes directed toward ends.31 In this teleological understanding—indeed, the properly ordered one—economics is also a normative science because of its moral dimensions.32 Pesch noted in Ethics and the National Economy that positive economics certainly has its place, but those that sidestep the foundational questions:

Try to abolish completely the question of what ought to be from the body of the science. They then go on to reject any consideration of ends and any kind of value judgment, because such matters are declared to be unscientific.33

Furthermore, economics is a practical science  because it is concerned with action: “the practical sciences must be things that can be made or done by us, so that we can direct the knowledge of them to activity as to an end.”34

It may, at first, seem quite banal to say that the goal of the economy is the material welfare of man but by material welfare something greater than just maximized utility is meant. Pesch speaks of the “overall material national welfare” as the most fundamental goal of the economy.35 The economy ought to serve the “genuine and legitimate interest of the whole nation,” Pesch wrote, because the economy is only a component of the larger community and therefore is to be ordered toward the common good.36

Also at the very foundation of political and economic order is the question of property. Individualistic capitalism upholds possession and use of private property as sacred and absolute, while collectivist ideologies erase the notion of private property in favor of a “community of goods” held and administered in common.37

In consonance with the longstanding doctrine of the Church, solidarism upholds private property as a necessary institution,  and the lawfulness to possess and dispense goods as one’s own. At the same time and without contradiction, the use of property is not inviolable because “man ought to possess external things not as his own, but as common.”38 Private ownership is subordinate to common use.39

The universal destination of goods—that the goods of creation are destined for all mankind—is antecedent to property and rooted in “God’s full and perennial lordship” over His creation.40 To that end, the use of property must always be in accordance with universal destination, as it is a secondary natural right and not absolute.41 This is why Pesch describes private property as a social institution: it is not an end in itself, “but only the means to see to the sustenance of mankind in a manner which conforms in a fitting manner to the welfare of the individual, the family, and the state.”42

Therefore the role of the state extends beyond simply securing or enforcing property rights to include regulating the economic order in accordance with the common good.43

We ought to live in a society, but instead we have found ourselves living in an economy that conceives property is conceived primarily as an individualistic enterprise and negative right, sowing the seeds for atomization and alienation. When regulated in accord with the common good, property is a social bond “indispensable for participation in the goods of a higher social order.”44 As St. Thomas taught, “he that seeks the good of many, seeks in consequence his own good. . . because the individual good is impossible without the common good of the family, state, or kingdom.”45

Organs of Solidarity

Building atop his solidaristic foundation, Pesch emphasized solidarity in industry and occupation, looking toward the corporatist tradition. This tradition enjoyed special prominence during Pesch’s life, reignited in mid-19th century Europe as the continent began to debate the social question. Prominent figures in social Catholicism and exponents of what some described as a “third way,” looked toward corporatist unification and occupational associations as ways of reviving the social character of the economy and remedying the disordered relations between capital and labor.46

Pesch’s occupational organizations (berufsständische Organisation) are corporate bodies whose members all share the same occupation or are a part of rendering the same service in society. They are, in their most mature realization, autonomous juridical bodies serving a two-fold purpose, representation and regulation—functioning as an institutional embodiment of the solidarity of occupation.47

The occupational organization is a pillar of Peschian solidarism because it is an institution reflecting of organic solidarity and is oriented to imbue the economy with social character. Pesch, once again drawing allusion to society as an organism, wrote that those taking part in similar work or service to the community are not “merely a pile of separate, mutually unrelated minute and tiny cells,” but “constitute the intrinsic unifying bond of organizations which present themselves as ‘organs’ of the overall social body; and the particular work which they perform is a social function in the service of the whole body.”48

As serving a representative purpose, Pesch envisioned a tiered system of occupational organizations that brought capital and labor together to facilitate collaboration and temper competition, unified at the firm, the local or regional, and at the national level.

Recognition of the commonality of purpose found in occupation was often obscured by capital and labor tensions, antagonism that could only be tempered by collaboration and occupational unity on equal footing. Instead, “only in their vocational unity do they become organs of the national economy” capable of participating in the economy in the “service of the welfare of the whole.”49

Pesch recognized labor unions and co-determination (“works councils” were a relatively recent development in Pesch’s Germany) as crucial and irreplaceable arrangements, especially for solidarist ends—but occupational organizations were the answer to cultivating a more encompassing economic solidarity. Labor unions exist to secure the well-being of workers and function by leveraging collective power against an opposing party within the workplace or industry. Occupational organizations in Peschian solidarism, however, seek a more collaborative arrangement, “in subordination to the general welfare and the law of [the] state.”50

The regulatory function of the occupational organization can be understood in two ways: in a social and a juridical manner. The socio-regulatory function of occupational organization functions internally and externally: internally, by facilitating a more unified character to those within the occupation; externally, by imbuing the person and their work with greater social character in relation to society as a whole. Juridically speaking, the occupational organization also acts as a regulatory force internally and externally: internally self-regulating the industry on account of its autonomous status; and externally through representation and participation in the political arena.

The overarching purpose of the occupational organization in Peschian solidarism is to function as an organ of solidarity between those within the same occupation and with society as a whole. It functions as an institution that socializes the person. The transmission of the social purpose and character of work and its implications—between the community, the family, and the market—is viewed as best facilitated through such an institutional arrangement. Pesch writes:

If we cannot rely on the individual to always remain sufficiently aware of the indirect social purpose of his work, we may with greater confidence expect this from the association of work into the occupational organization.51

Economic historians Antonio Almódovar and José Luís Cardoso described the sociological calculus behind corporative organization with unique clarity as homo corporativus replacing homo economicus:

The typical self-interest of the traditional economic agent was therefore to be replaced by an interested concern with the national, common values and objectives, and instrumental rationality would consequently apply within a broader institutional context—where individuals would be acting while citizens within the new frame-work of the corporations. Moreover, since individuals would start to operate within a less individualistic environment, their own personal abilities to choose and decide according to the rules of the utility calculus would become naturally tempered by the higher notion of social responsibilities and welfare. . . we may say that the corporatist movement plays an important role in changing the atomistic conception of individual behavior that characterizes neoclassical economics to a broader view of individuals as socially embedded.52

Ultimately, Pesch emphasized the necessity of the solidaristic Weltanschauung, or an animating spirit and worldview that is essential to realizing solidarism in earnest. Proceeding from a false anthropology and an individualistic or inordinately collectivist Weltanschauung threatens the very foundation of solidarism. In the immediate aftermath of the First World War, when some movement toward occupational organization began to gain popularity, Pesch criticized these modern attempts as “lacking in the main the correct weltanschauung,” leading to a “conglomeration for special interests, a further concession to the materialistic attitude in economic things.”53

Solidarism comes into full view when society is animated by the virtues of justice and charity, duty and love, public spirit and social responsibility.54 His Holiness’s most recent social encyclical, Fratelli tutti, provides a beautiful exhortation on human fraternity and social friendship, calling on the faithful to recover a love of neighbor that animates the human spirit and sits at the foundation of any just political or economic order. Indeed, social friendship is not just some byproduct of economic solidarism but completely essential and intrinsic to the very concept.

Like Pesch’s own recognition of the universal solidarity of mankind, Pope Francis calls for the “development of a global community of fraternity based on the practice of social friendship on the part of peoples and nations calls for a better kind of politics, one truly at the service of the common good.”55 In the same vein, Pope Benedict XVI (approvingly quoted by Francis) in Caritas in veritate noted that “without internal forms of solidarity and mutual trust, the market cannot completely fulfill its proper economic function. . . today it is this trust which has ceased to exist.”56The Holy Father’s call for social friendship and solidarity repeated a stark rebuke of the modern economic order’s “throwaway culture,” a product of the individualistic Weltanschauung that has led us to “consuming distraction, insularity and solitude. We gorged ourselves on networking, and lost the taste of fraternity… Prisoners of a virtual reality, we lost the taste and flavor of the truly real.”57 Embedded in Francis’s call for a return to the real, is a call for the strengthening of those solidaristic bonds that form the human community, with a view toward our final end.

Toward a Renewal of the Family

In the preface to Charles De Koninck’s On the Primacy of the Common Good: Against the Personalists, Cardinal Villeneuve wrote:

All seem to see that political society increasingly fails in its duties, that it is dissolving and becoming less and less worthy of the most essential tasks. It no longer cares for God, for the human soul, for eternal goods, but wearies itself in purely economic preoccupations and bodily well-being. This is what increases the burden of family responsibility which must more and more, under the constraint of circumstances, supply the goods it should receive from public society. But, alas, the same authors also observe the ever-increasing dissolution of the family. The individual person is more and more isolated and abandoned to himself in the home as the family is with respect to society. What to do?58

“What ought to be done?” is the question Catholics in the public square must presently turn to with a renewed sense of urgency. As we have shown, the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity are inseparable and the Catholic approach to political economy must reflect this reality. Economic solidarism as presented by Pesch envisions an order permeated by solidarity as the animating principle—while maintaining a strong sense of subsidiarity with its emphasis on natural societies, such as the family and the state. Proceeding from these points, the institution of the family is the best starting point to begin sketching the contours of a revived Catholic political economic perspective.

De Koninck, following St. Thomas, argued that the common good does not contradict the private good, and is instead a more perfect good. One of the great errors, according to De Koninck, are elevating private good above the common good, or equating the private good with the common good.59 Those errors paved the road to the totalitarianisms of the 20th century, De Koninck wrote, because they deny the true commonness of the common good. Some challenged his position, as their students continue in today’s age, asserting that subordination to an ostensibly amorphous “common good” is totalitarian and ripe for abuse—De Koninck, however,  convincingly showed that position to be the eminently unreasonable one and contrary to our natures as human beings.

De Koninck wrote that, “Beings will be perfect insofar as their appetite extends to a good more remote from their singular good alone.”60 The private good, insofar as it is truly good, cannot be in contradiction to the common good because what is truly good for the whole is good for the part. The private good achieves its perfection in being ordered to something above and beyond itself.

This principle, just as in Pesch’s thought, is central to properly understanding our relationship to the economic order. Only through an intimate relationship with the moral questions can true progress and the infinitely shareable good come into view. This axiom—that the common good is not contrary to the private good, and vice versa—is crucial to revitalizing the proper relationship between subsidiarity and solidarity in political economy.

Proceeding from that view, the necessity of the good of the family for the common good of society becomes clear. Today, the institution of family is suffering a crisis in slow motion. As an organ of solidarity, and in understanding the true nature of subsidiarity as a support structure, the family must receive “social priority” in political and economic action.61 An economic solidarism for the modern age must strive toward recovering the family as a necessary, strong and attainable institution because the common good cannot be secured when the good of the first natural society wanes. The relationship between the family and society:

Requires that “society should never fail in its fundamental task of respecting and fostering the family”. Society, and in particular State institutions, respecting the priority and “antecedence” of the family, is called to guarantee and foster the genuine identity of family life and to avoid and fight all that alters or wounds it [emphasis added].62

As mentioned, marriage rates in the United States hit an all-time low in 2018. The national rate fell to 6.5 marriages per 1000 people, declining 39% in the period since 1980.63 Mirroring global trends, the total fertility rate likewise declined to a new low, at 1.73 children per woman, steadily declining since at least 2007 (apart from a slight bump in 2014).64 Despite a below replacement fertility rate, Americans have consistently answered the question “What do you think is the ideal number of kids for a family to have?” with 2.5–2.7 children on average since the mid-1970s, according to Gallup polling.65

While this shows a “general ideal,” other extensive survey data makes it possible to isolate intended childbearing for women, as Lyman Stone has shown.66 What Stone finds is that while intentions and ideals diverged after 2013, “the decline in intentions came after the actual decline in fertility, which suggests that the recession did permanent damage to fertility: it took a chunk out of childbearing, those births were not recovered later on” because women had adjusted their expectation without changing their ideal preferences.67 Despite the common story pointing to the shifts in cultural norms as the culprit—as women have prioritized careers in recent decades—the survey data reveals that women haven’t actually changed their ideal preferences and goals when it comes to childbearing and are instead “settling for less than they want.”

Stone also argues the primary driver of the decline in fertility in the declining marriage rate. Married women have a significantly greater number of children, with the average birth rate for married women (ages 15–50) consistently holding between four and five children. As men and especially women delay marriage, birth rates decline. Social and economic forces are simultaneously pushing against the institution of marriage, as young people increasingly view the formal commitment in matrimony as unnecessary or antiquated, or financially prohibitive—leading them to postpone marriage for need of savings and career, thereby shortening the window for childrearing.

This means that an effective pro-family policy must be targeted at both marriage and childrearing. While these demographic indicators certainly underscore how imperative a family-centered economy is, pro-family policy is about more than just a coarse attempt to increase the birth rate. Marriage is good because it reflects Christ’s love for the Church—and many social indicators confirm its social benefit. Children are good in themselves, because life is beautiful, worth living and sharing. As Gladden Pappin and Maria Molla write in American Affairs, “regardless of whether benefits are spent on the ‘quality’ or ‘quantity’ aspect of family formation, they are important as an indication of what a society considers worth of support.”68

Family wages are critical and must be safeguarded by public policy. To that end, the Church affirms the licitness of “various forms of important social provisions help to bring it about, for example, family subsidies and other contributions for dependent family members, and also remuneration for the domestic work done in the home by one of the parents.”69

Generous child allowances and marriage incentives ought to be priority policies for a pro-family agenda. As Pappin and Molla have described in a detailed proposal, a family-oriented stipend program would include direct cash transfers corresponding to the number of children, combined with a cash voucher program intended for a broad array of childcare needs.70

Child allowances are a more equitable policy for families than subsidized child care and facilitate family decision-making in a subsidiary manner. By providing a cash benefit instead of a one-size-fits-all policy, stay-at-home parents or working parents who would prefer to stay home with the children are included in that benefit (instead of entering the labor market to in turn redirect what is often a substantial fraction of income to child care expenses). Moreover, allowances would facilitate a choice that is best made by the family, instead of creating a perverse incentive that further entrenches the two-income trap and a labor force participation model ordered toward never-ending economic growth at the expense of the social priority of the family.

Other family-oriented policies could certainly include paid parental leave, generously expanded child tax credits, marriage bonuses and forgivable loans, increased availability of part-time and flextime work, and elder care incentives. A baseline minimum amount of paid parental leave should be guaranteed and publicly subsidized, optimized to avoid crowding out existing and additional private sector paid leave policies.

Some policies may mirror Hungary’s host of attempts at pro-natalist subsidies. For example, the income tax is scrapped for a Hungarian mother of four. In the same vein, the child tax credit could be generously expanded to effectively achieve a similar result, albeit phased out on higher incomes. Also, like Hungary, the government may offer loans upon marriage that are forgivable after the birth of a second or third child.

The economic order experienced a shock in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, with many sectors able to quickly alternate to virtual and remote work. As the future of work remains in flux, and it is becoming increasingly clear that remote work will see wide and continued use post-pandemic—certainly when compared to the pre-pandemic workplace in sectors where it has shown to be a viable alternative.

There are, broadly speaking, two “work-from-home futures.” One future is characterized by further isolation, atomization, and disruption of work-life balance, accelerated by movement away from the physical workplace. The second is a future defined by increased flexibility and reawakened community consciousness.

In the latter, technology can for once play a role in reversing the neoliberal commercialization and “workism” of recent decades by “restoring the home economy” as Michael Lind has recently written.71 For at least a slice of the American labor force, instead of commuting to urban cores or spending long evenings at the office, a new appreciation of home and place may emerge. And, with that, family can be brought into clearer focus.

Even if a less radical future is in store, one may reasonably hope to see remote work and virtual connectivity open up possibilities for more part-time and flexible work arrangements. Part-time and flexible work options can provide new opportunities for stay-at-home parents or broadly ease up the demands of balancing work and home—allowing for a more organic and integral role for the family in the economic order.

In that same turn toward the home, a post-pandemic political economy reoriented toward the family cannot ignore the plight of the elderly. Especially in western liberal democracies without a strong family culture, grandparents have been relegated to a minor role as younger families have chosen an independent and mobile lifestyle. A loss of familial obligation has given rise to the transferring of responsibility for the aged, the sanitized discarding of a perceived “liability.” In Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis once again called upon the faithful to reject today’s throwaway culture and to renew the social order:

A decline in the birthrate, which leads to the aging of the population, together with the relegation of the elderly to a sad and lonely existence, is a subtle way of stating that it is all about us, that our individual concerns are the only thing that matters.72

Consequently, a solidaristic political economy must also  create the conditions for a strengthened intergenerational solidarity, fostering true inclusion of both the elderly and  extended family—broadly recognizing the innate value of the family and the unique ability of the multigenerational household to function as a social safety net.

Economic solidarism strives to build a social order animated by the virtue of solidarity. As elaborated by Pesch, solidarism provides a blueprint for a social and economic order that seems foreign, if not unattainable, to us. But with his foundation and wide-ranging insights to guide us, we may begin to articulate a modern political economic vision that defends the common good and acts on the inseparability of solidarity and subsidiarity.

This renewal is called for at every level, with higher and lower orders working in tandem. But the natural nexus of these principles resides most clearly in the family. The first natural society is waning in the modern world, increasingly unable to attain its own ends or exercise its social function, and political economy must recognize its proper place is serving as a buttress. Social priority must be returned to the family because a healthy society requires it: the common good cannot be secured without the good of the family.


1. Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, sec. 211.

2. Ibid, sec. 214.

3. Pius XI, Quadragesimo anno, sec. 79.

4. Pius XI, Divini redemptoris,  sec. 51.

5. John Paul II, Centesimus annus, sec. 10.

6. Juan Donoso Cortés, Essays on Catholicism, Liberalism and Socialism: Considered in Their Fundamental Principles, trans. William McDonald. (M.H. Gill & Son: Dublin, 1888), 243.

7.  John Paul II, Centesimus annus, sec. 15.

8.  Francis, Fratelli tutti, sec. 187.

9.  For an exemplary study of the relationship between subsidiarity and solidarity, see: Russell  Hittinger, "The coherence of the four basic principles of Catholic social doctrine: An interpretation." Pursuing the common good: How solidarity and subsidiarity can work together 14 (2008).

10.  Heinrich Pesch and Rupert J. Ederer, Heinrich Pesch on Solidarist Economics: Excerpts from the Lehrbuch Der Nationalökonomie (Lanham: Univ. Press of America, 1998), 125.

11. Ibid.

12. Joseph A. Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis. (Oxford University Press: New York, 1986), 765.

13. Richard E. Mulcahy, The Economics of Heinrich Pesch (New York: Holt, 1952), 8; One of the main drafters of the 1931 encyclical was Oswald von Nell-Breuning S.J., a student of Pesch’s. Gustav Gundlach S.J., another drafter, was also strongly influenced by Pesch.

14. Heinrich Pesch, Lehrbuch der Nationalökonomie, I, 444. Quoted in Mulcahy, The Economics of Heinrich Pesch, 9.

15. Pesch and Ederer, Heinrich Pesch on Solidarist Economics, 41.

16. Ibid.

17. Quoted in Ruud Ter Meulen, “The Origins of Solidarity as a Sociological Concept,” Solidarity and Justice in Health and Social Care, n.d., 30-70, https://doi.org/10.1017/9781107707023.003.18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Pesch, Lehrbuch der Nationalökonomie, I, 498. Quoted in Mulcahy, The Economics of Heinrich Pesch, 36.

21. Pesch and Ederer, Heinrich Pesch on Solidarist Economics, 68.

22. Ibid.

23. Mulcahy, The Economics of Heinrich Pesch, 38; The “final end,” or ultimate goal, of a person’s temporal existence is God in the beatific vision.

24. Pesch and Ederer, Heinrich Pesch on Solidarist Economics, 73.

25. As Hittinger notes, Pius XI is also cognizant of “society as a moral organism” taking too concrete of a form and attributing an overly human character to society at large. Society, too, is made for man for the attainment of the good and is not an end in itself. In Divini redemptoris (sec. 29), Pius XI emphasizes human personality over collectivist notions: “society is made for man, that he may recognize this reflection of God's perfection, and refer it in praise and adoration to the Creator. Only man, the human person, and not society in any form is endowed with reason and a morally free will.”

26. Lionel Robbins, An Essay on the Nature & Significance of Economic Science. (Mises Institute: Auburn, Alabama, 2007), 129.

27. Robbins, An Essay on the Nature & Significance of Economic Science, 23.

28. John Stuart Mill, Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy. (Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer: United Kingdom, 1874), 137.

29. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, sec. 331-332.

30. Ibid, sec. 333.

31. See generally: Robert Sokolowski, “What Is Natural Law?: Human Purposes and Natural Ends,” The Thomist: A Speculative Quarterly Review 68, no. 4 (2004): 507-529, https://doi.org/10.1353/tho.2004.0000.

32.  Mulcahy, The Economics of Heinrich Pesch, 21; 72-73.

33.  Heinrich Pesch, Ethics and the National Economy, trans. Rupert J Ederer. (IHS Press: Chicago, 2008), 168.

34. St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Boethius’s De Trinitate, q. 5 a.1 co.; closely following Aristotle, Met. 993b20-21.

35. Pesch and Ederer, Heinrich Pesch on Solidarist Economics, 50.

36. Ibid.

37. Leo XIII, Rerum novarum, sec. 15.

38. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ IIa-IIae q. 66 a. 2 co.

39. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, sec. 177.

40. Ibid.

41. Francis, Fratelli tutti, sec. 120.

42. Heinrich Pesch, Liberalism, Socialism, and Christian Social Order: Private Property as a Social Institution, trans. Rupert J Ederer. (Edwin Mellen Press: Lewiston, NY, 2001), 142.

43. “[S]ince the common use, i.e., the social function, of private property is required by social justice, the civil authority should make laws governing private ownership that will protect the common good,” Thomistic Philosophy, Vol 3: Moral Philosophy, trans. J.P.E. O’Hanley. (St. Dunstan’s University: Charlottetown, 1950), 656.

44. Pesch, Liberalism, Socialism, and Christian Social Order: Private Property as a Social Institution, 144.

45. ST IIa-IIae q. 47 a.10 ad. 2.

46. Figures ranged from Luigi Taparelli, S.J. and Matteo Liberatore, S.J. to Wilhelm von Kettler, the Bishop of Mainz; along with Karl von Vogelsang through Pesch and Pius XI, among many others. See: António Almodovar and Pedro Teixeira, “The Ascent and Decline of Catholic Economic Thought, 1830–1950s,” History of Political Economy 40, no. 5 (2008): pp. 62-87, https://doi.org/10.1215/00182702-2007-060; Paul Misner, “The Predecessors of Rerum NovarumWithin Catholicism,” Review of Social Economy 49, no. 4 (1991): pp. 444-464, https://doi.org/10.1080/00346769100000039; Stefano Solari, “The Corporative Third Way in Social Catholicism (1830 to 1918),” The European Journal of the History of Economic Thought 17, no. 1 (2009): pp. 87-113, https://doi.org/10.1080/09672560903204551.

47. Mulcahy, The Economics of Heinrich Pesch, 185.

48. Pesch and Ederer, Heinrich Pesch on Solidarist Economics, 93.

49. Pesch, Lehrbuch der Nationalökonomie, III, 239. Quoted in Mulcahy, The Economics of Heinrich Pesch, 182.50. Heinrich Pesch, Liberalism, Socialism, and Christian Social Order: Free Market Economy or Economic Order?, trans. Rupert J Ederer. (Edwin Mellen Press: Lewiston, NY, 2001), 111.

51. Ibid, 98.

52. A. Almodovar & J.L. Cardoso, “Corporatism and the Economic Role of Government,” History of Political Economy 37, no. Suppl 1 (January 2005): pp. 333-354, https://doi.org/10.1215/00182702-37-suppl_1-333.

53. Pesch, Lehrbuch der Nationalökonomie, V, 788. Quoted in Mulcahy, The Economics of Heinrich Pesch, 187.

54. A. Almodovar & J.L. Cardoso, (2005).

55. Francis, Fratelli tutti, sec. 155.

56. Benedict XVI, Caritas in veritate, sec. 35.

57. Francis, “Homily in Skopje, North Macedonia.” (Vatican website, http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/homilies/2019/documents/papa-francesco_20190507_omelia-macedoniadelnord.html). Quoted at Fratelli tutti, sec. 33.

58. Charles De Koninck, “The Primacy of the Common Good against the Personalists; The Principle of the New Order (1943),” in The Writings of Charles De Koninck: Volume 2 (University of Notre Dame Press, 2009), 67.

59. Ibid, 80.

60. Ibid, 77.

61. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, sec. 252.

62. Ibid. (Citations omitted.)

63. Sally C. Curtin and Paul D. Sutton, “Marriage Rates in the United States, 1900–2018,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (National Center for Health Statistics, n.d.), https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/marriage_rate_2018/marriage_rate_2018.pdf.

64. Joyce A. Martin et al., “Births: Final Data for 2018,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (National Vital Statistics Reports, November 27, 2019), https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr68/nvsr68_13-508.pdf.

65.  “Children,” Gallup, November 11, 2019, https://news.gallup.com/poll/1588/children-violence.aspx.

66.  Lyman Stone, “How Many Kids Do Women Want?,” Institute for Family Studies, June 1, 2018, https://ifstudies.org/blog/how-many-kids-do-women-want. 67.  Ibid.

68.  Gladden Pappin and Maria Molla, “Affirming the American Family,” American Affairs Journal III, no. 3 (n.d.), https://americanaffairsjournal.org/2019/08/affirming-the-american-family/.

69.  Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, sec. 255.

70. Pappin and Molla, “Affirming the American Family.”

71. Michael Lind, “Home Economics: Putting the Family Back into the Economy,” American Affairs Journal IV, no. 3 (n.d.), https://americanaffairsjournal.org/2020/08/home-economics-putting-the-family-back-into-the-economy/.

72.  Francis, Fratelli tutti, sec. 19.

Featured image: The Four Seasons, Summer painting by Pieter Breughel the Younger via Wikimedia Commons.

Joseph Paul Barnas is a writer from Chicago, Illinois. He is an alumnus of the University of Illinois at Chicago.