The Origins of Political Order

Christianity Undermines the Family

Yup, that’s right; that’s not a typo. The Catholic Church was responsible for reducing the size of families in Western Europe contrary to popular belief.

Before I get stuck in the details, a little context is needed.

The fight over the reproductive health bill in the Philippines has pitted the Catholic clergy and faithful on the one hand against secular, feminist, and humanists on the other. One of the contentions of the anti-RH camp is that the bill is anti-family and will cause a rapid decline in our population similar to what has occurred in Western Europe.

Here is Sen President Juan Ponce Enrile one of our elder statesmen opposed to the RH bill,

If you are going to contract the population, you reach a point in time where you will have less workers, less production, less consumption, less taxpayers to support the government.

And again, he goes on

The economic interest of the country will be a factor and the security of this nation for the next 100 years will be on the balance. Mind you, this bill is not really that easy. It’s a matter that will affect, will impinge on the faith of each one of us.

This popular belief which he expresses comes from the experience of Western European countries where fertility rates have dipped below replacement levels since the mid-60s. This is attributable to the rise of contraception use in those countries, the strength of the women’s movement and the legalization of abortion. Concurrent with these developments has been the collapse of the traditional family and with that the greying of the population.

The Philippines with its exposure to Western media and culture has still managed to maintain laws which reflect the predominantly Catholic nature of its population. This according to Sen Enrile is the only thing that prevents it from slipping into the demographic malaise of our European counterparts.

Modern Family

In reality, the decline of the traditional family in the West preceded the rise of modern contraceptives. In his new book The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama devotes an entire chapter the title of which I borrowed from him here to discuss this form of “European exceptionalism.” According to Fukuyama, dating the rise of the modern family is a bit tricky.

Karl Marx associated it with the rise of the bourgeois class during the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the Communist Manifesto Marx claimed that the bourgeoisie “has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced family relation to a mere money relation.”

For his part, Max Weber felt that the rise of individualism came about through the Protestant Reformation with its emphasis on personal salvation and the Enlightenment with its emphasis on individual rights and secular humanism. This would date the existence of modern families to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

If Weber and Marx are correct then the collapse of traditional societies, which were based on extensive ties of kinship, restrictions on market transactions and individual social mobility due to informal social norms grounded in tradition, religion, and charisma, and the transition into modern societies which are based on individualism, meritocracy, egalitarianism and rational-legal forms of authority is only but a few centuries old.

The french historian Marc Bloch however believes that the rise of feudalism in the ninth and tenth centuries was in part a way of coping with the decline of kinship based tribal societies in Europe. According to Bloch, “Neither the state nor the family any longer provided adequate protection…Everywhere the weak man felt the need to be sheltered by someone more powerful.” This dates the birth of the modern family much sooner.

But it was actually around the sixth century, when the Catholic church, confronted with the marriage practices of newly converted Germanic tribes that had toppled the Roman empire, introduced changes to them. These tribal practices included marriage to cousins or close kin, the levirate or marriage to widows of deceased relatives, adoption and divorce. The church instituted edicts that forbade concubinage and promoted marriage as an indissoluble, monogamous and lifelong bond.

The reason according to Jack Goody was not theological but material in nature. Goody labels the marriage practices banned by the church “strategies of heirship” whereby kinship groups maintained control of property. At a time when the average life expectancy was less than thirty-five, the likelihood that a couple produced a male heir who survived into adulthood was quite low.

At that time the church encouraged donations of land and property to itself. Accordingly, women were allowed to own property to prevent their deceased husbands’ inheritance from reverting back to the family group in the absence of an heir. Thus, women’s rights to own and bequeth property was an unintented consequence of this teaching which profited the church largely. By the end of the seventh century, one-third of all productive land in France fell into the hands of ecclesiastical estates.

So there you have it. The rise of individualism, women’s rights and the modern society in Western Europe which is blamed for the demise of the traditional family originated from church law back in the sixth century. If it was motivated by material interests to outlaw old forms of marriage back then, it might be similarly motivated today in seeking to discourage new forms of family planning to prevent its flock from shrinking.

Fertile Ground

Finally with regard to the argument that the promotion of modern forms of contraception will lead to an irreversible decline of population and economic stagnation, I would offer the following chart taken from a study by Mikko Mryskyla of the University of Pennsylvania published in the science journal Nature back in 2009.

It shows two snapshots of cross-country fertility rates recorded in 1975 and 2005 on the vertical axis plotted against human development scores on the horizontal. Back in the twentieth century, you could be forgiven for thinking that the downward trend would have no end as countries that grew richer exhibited lower fertility rates. This is clearly shown by the 1975 scatter plot (in blue).

Here in the twenty-first century, that pattern has clearly been reversed with countries exhibiting advanced levels of human development recording a recovery (see the red scatter plot) of their fertility rates compared to previous levels set in 1975 (HDI or the human development indicator on the horizontal axis is a composite index of health, education and income levels).

The way that these countries have reversed the downward trend and produced the J-curve observed in 2005 has been by promoting a number of family friendly policies which include generous maternity/paternity leave allowances, free or subsidized childcare and pre-schools, pre- and post-partum care to mothers and newborns, and flexible working hours, to name a few.

Myrskyla has since then studied the relationship between happiness and fertility using data from the World Values Survey and has concluded that having children is “a long-term investment in well-being.” In the short-run however the data shows that having more kids poses challenges to happiness (less time for personal needs and interests). The policies mentioned help to counter that and allow families cope better with raising kids.

With such policies in place, these countries have seen their fertility rates rising above the demographic point of no return (of around 1.5 births per woman) to near replacement levels (around 2.1 bpw). Given that this field of policy research and development is still in its “infancy” (pardon the pun), we can expect to see more countries joining them and hopefully see fertility rates in rich countries reach replacement levels in the near future.

So to the doubters out there who still feel that modern family planning is anti-family, perhaps they need to brush up on their reading of events, both past and present.

The New High Priests

In the debate over reproductive health, the country is caught between the increasingly vociferous moralist and rationalist voices in society.

Reproductive health advocates consider the involvement of the Catholic church in the debate over whether or not to enact a law that would provide the legal basis of family planning practices to be propagated by the state in schools, hospitals and workplaces an unwelcome intrusion. The debate does not seem to be about the merits of the measure but on defining the proper role of the church in relation to the state and society.

For the so-called Filipino Free-thinkers, an association of humanists, scientists, agnostics and atheists, and their ilk that role should be completely circumscribed by the separation of church and state provision of our consistution. In fact they would prefer it if the church performed as much of a diminished role in society as possible. For the “middle forces” or the so-called “yellow army” in the People Power coalition of President Aquino, the church performs an important role as moral guardians of our society; there lies the problem.

The members of civil society that often unite against corruption in government and mobilize everytime there is a crisis involving the illegitimate use of power splits asunder over social issues involving identity or a crisis of moral uncertainty. One faction looks back to tradition, while another looks forward to modernity. PNoy has been careful to tip-toe on the issue, afraid to upset either party. From his standpoint he cannot afford to lose either the moral or rationalist wings of his broad coalition.

In weak states, unable to withstand pressure from groups based on tribal and kinship loyalties, the only recourse to rein in the greed and abuse of power by the political class is some kind of appeal to a higher moral code. The advice and admonitions of people with moral authority who belong to the religious class help instruct future rulers on how to build a just society.

Without a moral code governing society that lays the basis for the legitimate exercise of power, that little thing called the rule of law which separates primitive from modern societies would have never come into being. The pre-colonial rajahs of India had their Brahmins, Chinese emperors had their mandarins, and the kings of Europe had their bishops to advise and guide them. These priestly classes would determine if their kings and emperors had lost “the mandate of heaven” and could therefore be deposed.

A tension arose between the monarchy, the aristocracy and the peasantry in pre-modern states. As Fukuyama points out in the first volume of The Origins of Political Order, a just ruler was seen as one who did not engage in excessive predation, and sided with the peasants against exploitation by their aristocratic landlords. They would concentrate authority in a central bureaucracy and military autonomous from feudal estates through taxation. This is how modern states came about. But this wouldn’t have occurred without the help of the priestly class that lent legitimacy to them.

The corruption of the priestly arbiters of power independent of tribal or kinship alliances occurred as they increasingly took on the trappings of power and gave in to the biological impulse to bequeth their titles and assets to offspring that they were originally discouraged or forbidden from having.

Since the Protestant Reformation followed by the European Renaissance and the scientific revolution early in the second millennium, the clergy have been increasingly marginalized from exercising their legal and moral authority over heads of state, particularly in Britain where the observance of common law as distinct from Canon law took root and independent judges held the English monarchs in check.

The veiled threats issued by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines to withdraw the “mandate from heaven” if the RH bill was passed was reminiscent of the way Pope Gregory VII excommunicated the Holy Roman Emperor in the year 1076 and forced him to come barefoot to Canossa to pleading for clemency. This action was pre-empted by PNoy in his speech at the University of the Philippines when he in essence dared them to do so, prompting one Catholic clergy to say that the son was very different from his mother referring to the pious Cory Aquino.

The president with his economics degree represents a new order of rationalist thinking on which to base public policy. Economists are considered the new high priests in today’s modern state. Whereas shamans and withdoctors were once summoned to perform rituals and cast spells to protect the polity from plague, famine and wars, so do economists conjure up their spreadsheets and statistical models to forecast and plot the direction of the state in this day and age.

When he announced his bid for the presidency, PNoy expressed a formula for countering the calculus of corruption which consisted mainly of incentives in the form of punishments and rewards. This was an expression of his vision for a state governed by the principles of homo economicus. If his mother appealed to a sense of altruistic motives, PNoy would rely on self-interested behavior to stay on the straight and narrow.

For similar reasons is he advocating the passage of the RH bill. The rationale behind this piece of legislation is primarily economic in nature for the president, but for many of its supporters, it is much more than that. For them, it would represent a break in Filipino mores and customs away from traditional social values based on religious beliefs and into a more modern one based on individual freedom. In this regard, both oppositors and advocates of the bill would agree.

The rise of religious fundamentalism or the resurgence of traditional values in response to the failings of modernity to achieve its promised objectives of human progress and happiness has cast the economic rationalist high priests in a bad light. Their overly materialist and utilitarian prescriptions have found their limits as society increasingly becomes more affluent. In fact they create new problems.

Those opposed to the RH bill point to the breakdown of the family in many Western countries as caused by this way of thinking. They point to the commodification of sex that freedom of choice allows (Catholic doctrine teaches that sex is only meant to perform its function within the “sacrament” of marriage). From their point of view, the bill is but one part in a wide array of liberal ideas and values that have caused the breakdown of society.

The conduct of the public debate can be characterized more as a battlefield than as a market place of ideas at the moment with either side engaged in vociferous name-calling and taunting. Discussions over deeply held beliefs often do slide into an abyss of crass behavior.

It would be better if this were not so. For the rationalists to come to terms with the legitimate role religion performs in modern day living for individuals who turn to it not just for rewards in the hereafter, but also in the here and now (as empirical studies have validated), and for moralists to come to terms with the fact that they can no longer coerce society through the state to adhere to its principles and that they now have to compete in the market for ideas without resorting to abuse of their spiritual authority, would be a big step towards restoring civility in the public discourse.

I am sure we can all say ‘amen’ to that.