There are two kinds of rules.
One is the kind that we would gladly break if we could. The other will ruin us if we break it. Studies increasingly show that marriage “rules” fit into the second category — but our culture is slow to notice.
The first kind of rule is what we encounter at the Department of Motor Vehicles. We have to register our cars, we have to renew our licenses and we have to do it all in a certain way. There are certain papers we have to bring, and we have to wait in certain lines in a certain order.
These are bureaucratic rules, invented by people to fit society’s purposes.
We don’t oppose these rules and, in fact, we see very well why they’re necessary: Because there are so many cars, and so many problems associated with cars, we need to keep track of them all.
But if we were allowed a dispensation from the need to follow DMV rules, we would jump at the chance. And if the world underwent a major change, such that very few people drove cars anymore, we wouldn’t feel any compelling need to keep the tradition of the DMV alive.
That’s because DMV rules aren’t really essential to us as persons.
But there’s another kind of rule that we would never skip, even if we were given a dispensation to do so.
Certain road rules, for instance. Rules expressed on signs like: “No Passage: Bridge Is Out.” Or “Do Not Enter When Flooded.” Or “Danger! Demolition. Garage Closed.”
We would never shrug off rules like these. The risk is too great.
The question is, into what category do traditional rules regarding marriage fall? In which category does the Church’s teaching on marriage fall? Does the Church warn us about real obstacles? Or were its rules devised by human beings to address problems in the past? Can we shed them if we determine that realities have changed?
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking the rules about marriage and family as bureaucratic. There are some superficial similarities: You have to wait in a line at a government office to get a marriage license, just like you do to get a driver’s license. You have to fill out tax forms a certain way every year based on your marital status.
But we risk ruin just as surely by breaking the rules of marriage as we do by ignoring traffic warnings. It just doesn’t happen as swiftly and obviously as driving off a cliff.
The Catholic rule about marriage that causes the most rancor is its prohibition of divorce. Divorce is a very hard reality for many people — and God’s grace is as open to them as anyone else. But Tim Drake records the sad statistics in our front page story.
According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, 85% of all children exhibiting behavioral disorders come from fatherless homes. Studies going back a quarter century show that 80% of rapists and 70% of juveniles in state-operated institutions are from fatherless homes.
In fact, it’s a fallacy to associate crime with race. It’s not the race of a community that affects the crime rate most — it’s the prevalence of single-parent homes.
“When you control for marriage, the crime rates between blacks and whites show no difference,” said Patrick Fagan at the Heritage Foundation. “The huge gorilla sitting in the center of the floor is boys without fathers.”
Patrick Mitchell, founder of Catholic Dads Matter!, lists the problems associated with the children of divorce: “growing up poor, getting into trouble with the law, abusing drugs and alcohol, early sex, teen pregnancy, dropping out of school and even suicide.”
And it’s not just children who are affected by divorce. Sociologic data indicate that the survival of your marriage will be one of the biggest factors affecting whether or not you are happy or depressed, financially secure or hard-up, suicidal or not, at higher risk of heart disease or not, or likely to turn to crime yourself.
Because, as it turns out, the real difference between these two kinds of rules is that the second kind aren’t really “rules” at all. They are observations about reality.
That’s what the Church’s teaching on marriage is. It’s not the wagging finger of an institution — it’s the instruction manual for a rewarding life.
And love should compel us to get it into the hands of as many people as possible.