The Instagram algorithm wants to make me a tradwife. Between ads for fertility-testing kits and natural family-planning apps, my recommended reels are women in veils with six children, women defending the marital debt, homesteaders with tips on breastfeeding and pickling and preserving. Sometimes I go down the rabbit hole and find infographics on how to be a contemplative housewife, how to clean my kitchen prayerfully and submit to my husband (I’m single). All of this is framed as a radical challenge to secular, consumerist society, which has convinced women to seek fulfilment in wage labour rather than marriage and child-rearing. For traditionalists, the family has become a front line of the culture war, a way of witnessing to the Christian faith in the midst of an increasingly depraved, anti-natalist society. Never mind that the “return to tradition” looks suspiciously like something dreamt up by 1950s advertising executives.
It’s an image of Christian witness that would, I think, have surprised St Paul, whose First Letter to the Corinthians recommended marriage only as an alternative to uncontrollable lust – better to marry than to burn, but best to avoid burning desire altogether. “The present form of the world is passing away,” he wrote, and “the unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.” Writing to the earliest Christian communities in the first-century Roman Empire, Paul offered marriage as a concession to the weak; the ideal state was continence, the gift of one’s whole life and attention to God.
Christian theological attention to the family is surprisingly modern. In Catholicism, it’s a creation of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), where Lumen Gentium referred to the family as the “domestic church”, resurrecting a minor thread in patristic discussions of the family which had dropped out of doctrine in the intervening 16 centuries. The council’s focus on the laity drove it to bring the family into the realm of holiness previously reserved for celibate life.
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The new emphasis on the sanctity of the family was cemented during the pontificate of John Paul II with his 1981 encyclical Familiaris Consortio and the publication of Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992. Making doctrine available to lay Catholics as never before, the Catechism introduces the family as the “original cell of social life”, the “natural society” which forms the basis for all other levels of civil society. It’s perhaps unsurprising that a disproportionate number of traditionalist Catholics are converts and have studied the Catechism – as I did in the run-up to my confirmation – cover to cover.
The Roman Empire into which Christianity was born did not possess a notion of the family that we would recognise today. Familia was a legal term referring to persons under the authority of the paterfamilias, the head of the household, which included his slaves and children but not his wife, who remained under the authority (patria potestas) of her father. The mother had no legal rights to her children, who were incorporated into her husband’s familia if he chose to accept them (if not, the child would be exposed and left to die). When St Paul wrote to the community in Roman Corinth that “the wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife,” he was challenging the legal standing of the familia and the social norms that upheld the authority of the paterfamilias.
St Paul’s letters, the earliest Christian writings available to us, already indicate the revolutionary challenge that Christianity would present to ancient patterns of family life and sexuality. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples, “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother… Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
Christ’s challenge to the bonds of kinship is linked intimately with the apocalyptic strand that flavoured all early Christian life. He goes on, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” It’s the same sentiment in the Gospel of John, where Jesus announces, “My Kingdom is not of this world.” His followers were called to leave behind the safe, familiar trappings of their world, called literally to leave their homes and follow him across the deserts, in search of a new and unimaginable kind of life.
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The lives of the saints show us what this rejection looked like in practice. When Perpetua, nursing her newborn child in third-century North Africa, refused to participate in the pagan sacrifices required of her as a Roman citizen, she was rejecting all the earthly society she knew – family, city and empire – in favour of the heavenly city promised to her by faith.
Her father, visiting her in prison, begged her, “Spare your father’s grey hairs, spare the infancy of the boy. Make sacrifice for the emperor’s prosperity.” In her own words, she records: “And I answered: I am a Christian.” At this, she was sentenced to death in the gladiatorial arena. And yet, she says, “I knew that mine was the victory.” Her obedience to her faith justified disobedience to the paterfamilias and the rejection of her maternal role – making them signs of holiness rather than rebellion.
It was the same impulse that propelled the first hermits, in the third century, into the deserts of Egypt and Syria, where they sat in makeshift cells weaving reeds, seeking silence and subduing their passions through prayer and self-mortification. Above all, they sought to discipline the lusts of the flesh. When the disciple of an elderly hermit had tried to encourage him back to town, Abba Sisoës said, “Let us go where there are no women.” When his disciple asked, “Where is there a place where there are no women, except the desert?” the abba replied, “Take me to the desert.”
This was the beginning of the monastic tradition, which, whether in isolated cells or in the communal life of the monastery, developed entirely new forms of social life – an alternative to the reproductive life of the family. Even when monasteries developed in households or were inhabited by monks and nuns with close family ties, as was common throughout the early Middle Ages, their relationships were based on bonds of voluntary obedience rather than biological or legal ties. In a monastery, a mother could enter vows of obedience to an abbess who might be her daughter, and a man of royal birth might eat and pray alongside a freed slave.
For St Augustine, the monastic life pointed towards the kind of society that would characterise the world to come. This isn’t the spiritualised “Heaven” that people mistakenly think Christians believe in, but the real flesh-and-blood Kingdom of God where we will live after we’re resurrected from the dead. There will be no sexual reproduction or death, certainly no marriage. Freed from the drive to self-preservation and the limits of scarcity, we will be able to enter into relationships based on mutual self-giving love. As RA Markus wrote, the monastery “defined the permanent challenge to all other forms of social existence”.
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It’s here, in the eschatological dimension, that Christianity has its most radical potential – and why it can never be fully allied with the reproductive family. The hope and promise of the world to come calls us to imagine relationships and communities where death, sin, fear and suffering have been overcome – and to act as if this is possible, as if it’s something we can begin to build here and now.
The history of the early church is rarely discussed in conversations about alternatives to the family, which usually begin with the secular family abolitionism of 19th-century Marxists. In Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation, Sophie Lewis seeks “structures of dependency, need, and provision with no kinship dimension”, where ties of love are made rather than given. Rejecting the language of family and kinship as a model, she suggests words such as “comradeliness” and “accomplice”.
By replacing bonds based on the inherent value of the person with bonds based on shared political goals and values, secular proponents of family abolition end up dreaming of communities that are little more than interest groups. When ties are entirely voluntary, they risk becoming subject to the same capitalist logics of choice, consumption and disposability which they claim to reject. Without belief in anything transcendent, there’s no way to ground human value – to make people worth sticking with even when they fail and hurt each other, as people are wont to do. Lewis doesn’t discuss reconciliation or what to do when communities break down, nor does she suggest how we might build communities across difference. I’m increasingly sceptical of attempts to imagine a common good without theology.
The tension that exists in Christianity between the natural and the supernatural, between this world and the next, allows us to imagine radical possibilities without denying the difficulties of real, human relationships. Even in this world, we catch glimpses of the Kingdom of God, signs of its breaking through into history. But St Augustine is careful to counsel against expecting any perfect human society here on earth. Any perfection will be only in part, through a glass darkly. People cannot abandon their fear, self-protectiveness, selfishness: all the defences that stem from the reality of death. If all our relationships are to be characterised by failure, harm and imperfection, the family is the first arena where we do the messy work of learning to love people who we don’t agree with or always like. However flawed they may be, family members remain linked to us in a way that makes it hard just to write them off. There’s certainly a social pressure to reconcile, but I’m not sure if it’s straightforwardly oppressive.
Sometimes I wonder if the tradwives have a point. I prefer to work for myself rather than an employer; I’d like a family and I worry that sky-high rents and low-paid work will mean I won’t be able to have children as soon as I’d like. As my friends start to hit their thirties, still living in crowded house-shares with no savings and unreliable income streams, many are looking for more sustainable ways of living.
The tradwife homestead dream is the right-wing alternative to the queer commune – both idealised in ways that obscure the everyday trudge and drama of living with other people. But the Christian tradition is richer than the 1950s imagination of conservatives. It contains within it the seeds of a radical promise – a community built neither on biology nor on choice, but on bonds of love which knit individuals into a mystical body, a real communion. Against the collapse of the late Roman Empire, early Christians went into the desert to find other ways of living together. A turn to the premodern might help us imagine alternatives to our own crisis.
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