By: Christopher West
Why Marriage Matters
There was less chatter in the Catholic press than I had expected about Time Magazine’s July 2009 cover story. Above a wedding cake with plastic bride and groom sinking below the icing, the headline read: “Unfaithfully Yours — Infidelity is eroding our most sacred institution. How to make marriage matter again.” Inside, the five-page piece by Caitlin Flanagan was titled “Why Marriage Matters.” Though this Time edition dates a few years back, it is as relevant as ever.
This surprisingly insightful and markedly “un-PC” essay may well mark a turning point in the secular culture’s discussion about sex and marriage. Finally, someone is looking at the facts and being honest about how our sexual misbehavior is destroying marriages and families. “How much does this matter?” Flanagan asks. “More than words can say. There is no other single force causing as much measurable hardship and human misery in this country as the collapse of marriage.” And most of that misery falls to children. Citing “groundbreaking research on the effects of divorce on children” Flanagan reveals, as she admits, “truths that many of us may find uncomfortable.” Why uncomfortable? Because these truths compel us to look in the mirror and examine how our sexual choices actually impact others. She cites the late writer Leonard Michaels: “Adultery is not about sex or romance. Ultimately, it’s about how little we mean to one another.”
The reason we need solid, lasting marriages is simple, Flanagan asserts: “on every single significant outcome related to short-term well-being and long-term success” — she cites drug abuse, school performance and dropout rates, teen pregnancy, criminal behavior and incarceration — “in all cases, the kids living with both parents drastically outperform the others. Few things hamper a child as much as not having a father at home,” she concludes. “‘As a feminist, I didn’t want to believe [the research],’ says Maria Kefalas, a sociologist who studies marriage and family issues…. ‘Women always tell me, “I can be a mother and a father to a child,” but it’s not true.’ Growing up without a father has a deep psychological effect on a child,” Flanagan writes.
Secular Press Confirms Longstanding Catholic Teaching
None of this, of course, is surprising to those well-versed in an authentically Catholic vision of human life and the call of man and woman to become “one flesh” in marriage. What’s surprising is the fact that a major secular media outlet — whether it knows it or not — provided a five-page cover story that essentially defends the oh-so-controversial Catholic position on sex and marriage. Flanagan’s essay doesn’t connect all the dots, but if one carries her argument to its logical conclusion, the arrival point is precisely what the Catholic Church has been saying all along about contraception, adultery, pre-marital sex, homosexual behavior, etc. “The fundamental question we must ask ourselves at the beginning of the century,” Flanagan contends, “is this: What is the purpose of marriage?” Our answer to this question “will determine a great deal about our fate.” She’s absolutely right. Indeed, the future of humanity hangs in the balance. As marriage goes, so goes the family. As the family goes, so goes the world.
Is marriage “simply an institution that has the capacity to increase the pleasure of the adults who enter into it? If so, we might as well hold the wake [for marriage] now. …Or is marriage an institution that still hews to its old intention and function — to raise the next generation, to protect and teach it, to instill in it the habits of conduct and character that will ensure the generation’s own safe passage into adulthood?” What has enabled society to jettison this age-old definition of marriage so easily and embrace the adult pleasure model? Flanagan points to “the game-changing realities of birth control … and the fact that motherhood outside of marriage is no longer stigmatized.” Someone is waking up to smell the coffee.
I often compare the secular culture’s long-time denial of the harmful effects of contraception and sexual promiscuity to Big Tobacco’s long-time denial of the harmful effects of smoking. Eventually the evidence that smoking caused lung-cancer was so overwhelming that Big Tobacco had to re-examine its posture. So will it be with the secular culture’s sexual posture — and we can see signs of this posture adjustment in Flanagan’s watershed article.