Okay, let’s wrap this up. (I hoped to do this before Labor Day, but Irene and such put a crank in my works. I’m determined to keep this to 10 parts, although I will need to cheat and add an epilogue.)
Where do the reflections in the first nine parts of this series leave us?
- Marriage and family life are in decline. On average, more people wait longer to marry, engage in more sex with more partners before marrying, cohabitate before marriage, eschew marriage entirely, or divorce (and remarry, and divorce again) than past generations.
- The effects of the decline of marriage and family life are not theoretical or moralistic, but measurable, practical and serious. The decline of marriage, and with it the rise of children raised out of wedlock, contributes to a host of physical, emotional, social, behavioral, educational and economic disadvantages, and those problems become society’s problems. (Family breakdown has been implicated, for instance, in the social environment that gave rise to the recent riots in England.)
- The decline of marriage correlates the relaxing of social norms regarding sexual behavior associated with the sexual revolution, including the mainstreaming of contraception as well as artificial conception techniques and increased acceptance of nonmarital sex, cohabitation, casual sex, unnatural sexual acts, adultery and divorce and remarriage have all undermined the institutional authority of marriage.
- The relaxing of social norms regarding sexual behavior have undermined the traditional function of marriage as a social institution in regulating sexual behavior between men and women. The nature of marriage as the enduring union of a man and a woman as the privileged context for sexual relations between a man and a woman for the welfare of the next generation has been eclipsed. The value of marriage today is widely reduced to the happiness and fulfillment of the individual spouses.
- At the same time, the cultural legacy of marriage still commends it as a romantic and personal ideal. The celebration of marriage in a culture that no longer understands it has led to pressures to redefine marriage in various ways, e.g., no-fault divorce, divorce-ready prenups, and now, among other things, efforts to erode the social expectation of exclusive fidelity.
- It’s this context that the push for same-sex “marriage” has become first thinkable, then reasonable, and finally, in the eyes of many, seemingly inevitable.
Worse, the decline of marriage has disproportionately hit precisely those already disadvantaged in many of these ways and can least afford the additional hit. No paternal support laws can compensate for the absence of paternal involvement. (Recent research even suggests that unmarried cohabitation is worse than divorce for the children’s welfare.)
Even as society suffers the corrosive effects of the breakdown of marriage, the historic social impetus for marriage—the reason marriage as a universal social institution existed in the first place—has become so inaccessible to most people today that it is widely supposed, by marriage defenders as well as marriage revisionists, that the case for marriage as the enduring union of a man and a woman is rooted not in the common good but in religious doctrine.
Even many people who intuitively recognize, or are at least sympathetic to the idea, that marriage can only be between a man and a woman are daunted by the seeming lack of self-evident reasons why marriage should be defined as it is and has been throughout human history. Filling in the blanks and helping people to really see and understand the rationale for what they already knew to be true is an important step in the right direction—a step I’ve tried to contribute to in this blog post series. We need to be clear and confident, not apologetic or intimidated, about what we believe.
Those unsympathetic to the historic understanding of marriage, of course, will resist this, while those on the fence may require more convincing. How can we respond to them? What needs to be done? Here are some considerations toward defending marriage.
- While we need to be clear and confident, we also need to be charitable and compassionate. It is both wrong and counterproductive to demonize those who oppose us. Unquestionably, we will be demonized ourselves by others—we will be called haters, bigots, homophobes and worse. The temptation to respond in kind is understandable, but must be resisted. The hollowness of the other side’s charges against us depends on our ability to be charitable rather than hateful.
- We need to be clear, both among ourselves and with those who challenge us, that the problem we face is much bigger than one issue. A particular legal definition of marriage is far from a panacea. We need to work toward a healthier marital culture. This is a huge challenge, and it’s a challenge to the whole culture.
- Building a healthier marital culture begins with the Church. We need better catechesis and formation on marriage—from our bishops and priests, in our schools and religious education, and in pre-Cana programs. Catholics need to understand Church teaching better, not just insofar as it reflects divine revelation, but insofar as it is founded upon natural law. Pastors and religious instructors need to speak courageously about the most intimidating topics: cohabitation, contraception, divorce, remarriage.
- We must be clear what is at stake for the Church. Better catechesis and formation, and a more courageous defense of Church teaching, are not merely moralistic agenda items: Same-sex “marriage” is a legal weapon pointed right at the role and mission of the Church in society. Poor catechesis and formation has directly contributed to the social challenges now faced by the Church to her freedom to operate adoption agencies, hospitals and schools in a manner consistent with her moral teaching. Pastors cannot afford the sort of “pastoral sensitivity” (or timidity, or whatever it is) that avoids difficult topics. If we continue to lose ground in the broader cultural discussion, in the end Caesar will be calling all the shots.
- Catholic families should live their vocation joyfully and support other families. We can help save the world by loving our spouses and our children. Research has indicated that divorce is contagious. The reverse can also be true: Happy marriages and families can be a beacon of hope and inspiration to others. If you don’t see any happy marriages, it’s harder to believe that marriage can work at all. Generosity in having large families can also be contagious.
- Looking beyond the Church, we need to keep the discussion focused on the nature of marriage itself. Instead of being defensive when challenged, we should challenge those on the other side to explain what it is they think marriage as a social institution is in the first place, and why the state has or ought to have a bureaucratic apparatus for certifying and decertifying sexual partnerships involving two and only two non-related adult partners. If Michael sets up house with Emma, or with Anthony, what business is it of the state’s? What compelling state interest applies to those situations, but not to Michael, Emma and Anthony all setting up house together? Etc.
- In pressing this argument, there is a place for pointing to actual people and institutions defending and seeking to legitimize, e.g., polyamory or group marriage as well as polygamy, pedophilia, incest, etc., as well as doing away with marriage altogether.
- Legal and educational measures can help, as the authors of a recent report propose. Instead of subsidizing marriage as it ought to, the state currently penalizes marriage in various ways, both via taxes and via support offered to cohabitating couples but not to married couples. This should be changed. Divorce laws should be reformed. Public campaigns have had some success in changing cultural attitudes regarding, for example, smoking and drunk driving. Similar campaigns could be helpful in promoting marriage and discouraging divorce.
Dealing charitably with those demonizing us may or may not win over our attackers, but it will help win over other people, and in the long run it will help us win the larger cultural discussion. It’s also helpful to remember that many individuals with same-sex attraction have suffered real cruelty, and some of the anger may be grounded in such experiences. Responding in kind will only confirm negative preconceptions, understandably so.
We need catechesis and formation that is explicitly countercultural—that awakens Catholics, and especially engaged couples, to the toxic culture in which we live and move and have our being, and the extent to which we must accept the challenge to live in opposition to the values of the larger culture. Ultimately we want to redeem and transform the culture, but this goal starts with valuing and nurturing a distinctive Catholic and Christian presence within the larger culture.
How bad is the catechetical/formation problem? Consider this bar graph breakdown of social support for same-sex “marriage” by religion. Note that the reported point spread for support among Catholics (52% vs. 41% opposed) is statistically identical to white mainline Protestants—many of whom belong to churches that officially sanction homosexuality! (Even if this data is distorted, it’s hard to imagine that methodological bias entirely explains away the appearance of catechetical failure. For example, it’s fair to note that the “Catholic” population undoubtedly includes a great many nominal or lapsed Catholics—but why are there so many nominal or lapsed Catholics in the first place?)
Will we see direct legal action brought against churches merely for refusing to marry homosexual couples, or against pastors or bishops who merely affirm historic Christian teaching? In the United States, perhaps not—our First Amendment protections may be too robust for that; even the ACLU would probably be on our side in such a battle—but in other countries in which free speech is less robustly protected, including Canada and various European countries, it could be only a matter of time.
Other measures are more likely in the U.S. if they aren’t already underway. Will Catholic schools be forced to hire teachers with same-sex partners? To provide benefits for said partners? Will churches lose their tax-exempt status, or face other punitive measures? Will Catholic hospitals and charities find doors shut to them, be forced out of the work of helping people? Will churches that refuse to marry homosexual couples eventually lose their right to celebrate legally recognized marriages? Will Christian couples be required to marry twice, once by the church and once by the state? It is far from clear that we will win these battles if same-sex “marriage” continues to advance.
The argument, though, is broader than a pragmatic slippery slope; it is an in-principle challenge to articulate why any domestic arrangements and not others should have any particular standing in the eyes of the state. Marriage revisionists have no coherent answer to this question. The only answer that makes sense of marriage as a social institution is that society has a proper interest in regulating sexual relations between men and women, founded in human reproduction and the needs of children.
Finally, we need to be prepared to counter arguments regarding same-sex “marriage.” This will be the topic of my next and final post.