Sancta Familia

I boast, shamelessly and perhaps unreasonably, of being a man of the thirteenth century; but if gentle reader finds that a little too progressive, I reply that the twelfth was too exciting for me. It was a “renaissance.” We’ve had five, six, or more of them in Christendom, depending which we count; and as ever happens during one of these rebirths, experiments are tried to improve things. The thirteenth century had plenty of excitements, too; but on balance, in my view, it was a period of consolidation. It was the century in which the still-reigning master of modern thought, Saint Thomas Aquinas, committed his great act of intellectual re-assembly, pacing through Christian philosophy over the broadest possible base; and other Schoolmen worked in parallel ways. A century is a long time, by earthly measure, and an Idlepost is ten minutes, so we will leave it there, as a crude generalization.


Paris is much in the news. Recently I touched on the foundations of the modern university, including the celebrated one that was established on the Île de la Cité. I stressed the dangerous freedom that this university offered, once detached from the religious houses in which learning had previously been nurtured and supervised; but allowed that something important was gained for the loss. The autonomous university was a typical invention of the mediaeval mind: growing in its place organically, and like an organism finally coming of age, and thus to independence.

Ah, to be in Paris, in the thirteenth century, with her church spires and palaces; her convents, hospices, and many other specialized monastic establishments; her magnificent buildings at the peak of the Romanesque; her schools, including the incomparable school of polyphony in Notre Dame; her ars antiqua and its echoes in the sung poetry of the trouvères; the prospects along her rooflines to her walls; “her river, her gardens, her vineyards”; her warm comfortable houses; her hives of industry, on the Left Bank, where monk artists copied and illuminated gorgeous codices in remarkable numbers; her markets of the Right Bank with their enchanting smells and the musical cries; the shops of her artisans; her goldsmiths and ivory carvers at work on reliquaries and crucifixes, to intricate Byzantine designs; her sculptors, painters, glaziers in stained glass. Look for depictions of mediaeval costumage, and consider the cloth-weavers and tailors who could deliver such work: to this city blossoming in every season. And then hear the bells.

Already by the dawn of the thirteenth century Paris had more than a hundred thousand souls and was, among cities, the indisputable Queen of the North. She was more cosmopolitan than today’s drudgery-ridden city (with more “multi” but less “culture”). By her reputation for learning the students came from afar, settling into their national colleges in the island Cité, and spreading through the Quartier Latin — as they had done long before the formal establishment of the university, or the college of Robert de Sorbon.

What fascinates me just now is the matrix of autonomies, by which the independence of so many institutions was sustained and guaranteed; the rights, corresponding to duties, which pertained to persons in each station; all the mutual relations that had grown through the evolution of custom, and not bureaucratic imposition. Minor conflicts could be resolved by precedent, if necessary through the courts and lawyers; the largest were settled in appeals to Rome. In their replies, the Popes intervened like a supreme court, to preserve one party from the tyranny of another. It is a heritage we have lost, or are still losing: this explicitly Christian vision of the City of Man aspiring to harmony with the City of God; of autonomy in subsidiarity; of self-governing guilds. I don’t think the modern “democratic” mind quite begins to comprehend civic freedom, mired as we are in a conception of freedom that reduces to the Hobbesian tyranny of all upon all. Our ideal instead is “free and equal” — a direct contradiction of terms, and therefore never imposed without hypocrisy.

The man who pays the piper calls the tune: students had real power. We had in the colleges of thirteenth-century Paris (as elsewhere in schools across Europe) the wonderful consequence of “full tuition.” A lecturer could be fined if he arrived late for class; or if he funked when asked to explain a difficult passage. Iustitia, justise: those students had the right to the teaching they had paid for. Or think about a law that prevented the very Chancellor of the University from blocking the appointment of any professor qualified to teach. The mediaeval mind considers many angles; the modern demands “one size fits all.”

Autonomies within autonomies: they are such little things as these which persuade me that mediaeval, “feudal” man was no pushover. It was why, in the end, he was able to withstand such huge challenges as the violent expansion of Islam. (It would be tasteless, today of all days, to draw a comparison to that ocean of slobbering Charlies, having their Princess Di moment in Paris as I write; who think evil can be stopped by posting a mass selfie, and are in fact providing the Muslim fanatics with exactly the attention they expected, and craved.)


Put this another way. To our modern, revolutionized, “secular” imagination, an institution is a team, with a captain. Followers need “leaders.” There are “policies” which the captain may change, or he may change the personnel to improve “performance.” If the team fails, the captain may be replaced, for there is a collective interest in “success.” But even with incompetence and failure, the point is to get paid. (It is not an absolute value, however: “how much” is always an issue.) The good, the beautiful, the true are acknowledged, as being like God: irrelevant, because of no cash value. On the other hand, it is widely understood that sentimentality sells (like mild pornography); and that wealth has correlatives in fame and power.

Life is a game, and a game needs rules: the purpose of “rights,” in this secular view, is to level the playing field. All loyalties are conditional; each player answers only to himself, for his “lifestyle choices.” There can be no ineffaceable criterion of judgement, no stakes not transient.

Given the assumption that there can be no enduring purposes, an institution can serve no enduring purpose. It must exist only for those of whom we may speak in the present tense. It may come, go, or be “repurposed,” according only to immediate need — as currently “perceived” by whoever is in power. They are answerable only to those who keep them in power. Those who once built or belonged to the institution are dead and gone: the dead can feel no injuries. Only the living can feel pain, when those elected decide they should do so, for opposing the latest iteration of “progress.”

To the old Christian mind, the analogy for an institution was instead the family, which has a ruler to be sure, in the husband and father, and is thus “paternalistic.” But each member is of absolute value, and obedience is commanded by an authority that can be justified only by Love (see Catholic marriage sacrament; compare sacrament for holy orders). Members cannot be arbitrarily assigned to new roles, nor casually dispensed with. Each exists for the sake of all the others in a divine plan, accommodated in goodness, beauty, truth; denied in their opposites. There are no institutional “performance” values, nor any others that could be charted or quantified; indeed, the pursuit of money as an end in itself counts as sin. What is served is ultimately no man, nor material function, but God, and success or failure is in the sight of Him.

There can thus be, in the Christian institution, no publishable criteria for winning or losing, no scoring card or cost-benefit analysis: not where martyrdom may be recognized as victory. There is no way for man to level any playing field. We cannot even know the extent of the field on which we are “playing.” Nor can rights exist severable from duties, nor duties severable from rights, any more than a coin can have only one side. Loyalties are not conditional; everything has that flavour of “till death do us part,” and then some. Not only do the institutions perdure, but the founders and members never cease to be alive; they must still be prayed for. Even they who are buried have rights, and the reciprocal duty to pray for us. The end is not a game, but a Day of Judgement, in the prospect of Life Everlasting; the stakes are never less than everything.

I think it may be seen that there is a contrast between these two analogies, as between these two views of life. I think it would be fair to say, that in terms of the former, the latter is inefficient; that in terms of the latter, the former is worthless.

At foot and crown of that now ancient, unambiguously Christian “social and economic” order, was indeed the autonomy of the family; its legal status compounded by its sanctity.

How beautifully this is taught through the liturgy of the Feast of the Holy Family, celebrated in the Old Mass today: in which the Kingship of Christ is beyond question, the Queenship of Mary on Earth as in Heaven — but too, the sanctity of that home wherein not Christ, nor Mary, but Joseph the carpenter was master, under the Law of Love. More is involved in the matter than this; but in this alone volumes are sung and spoken.