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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXIX, No. 2
30th Anniversary Issue

The New Challenge for Women: Restoring the Culture of Marriage


by Donna Fitzpatrick Bethell


For those of us who remember 30 years ago, there might be a temptation to think of those times as the good old days. It might be like the time I went biking without my glasses. All edges softened and colors melded gently. It was like riding through an Impressionist painting. But with a better focus, 1984 was anything but halcyon.

The very year evokes images from George Orwell’s novel and there was a certain amount of notice in the press about the failure of the Orwellian dystopia to materialize. This was willful blindness, as the gulag flourished and much of the world suffered from totalitarian regimes and the Evil Empire. President Ronald Reagan was still being ridiculed for using that term and he had not yet called on Mr. Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. 

It would be five more years before Otto von Hapsburg would invite leaders from both sides of the wall to come to a picnic on the Austrian border with Hungary. People began to cross that border and within a few months the Iron Curtain became untenable.  I returned from a news-free vacation early that November and thought that the radio in the taxi was broadcasting some sort of fantasy drama. But it was real. The wall was being torn down and Mr. Gorbachev, to his everlasting credit, did not send the tanks to stop it. The enormity of the shock is a measure of how great the evil had been, but we were living with it in 1984 and many thought that there was no alternative.

Conditions in the Catholic Church in the United States were also not so good.  Catholic education was either fading at the elementary level or severely compromised at the college level.  Our liturgy had been refocused on us, now arranged in a closed circle facing a priest who was forced into some degree of performance.  The greatest musical patrimony in the world had been chucked out for something more “relevant,” which meant banal songs instead of the psalms that were still in the Missal but largely ignored. 

Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical restating the Church’s doctrine against artificial contraception, had been issued in 1968. After a brief flurry of protest, the dissidents decided simply to ignore it and bishops tacitly agreed. Our bishops were more interested in writing pastoral letters on the economy or world peace than attending to actually teaching the Faith. The Faith itself had been reduced in many minds to social justice.

It was those conditions that prompted the small but significant counter-punch, Voices. The Faith still informed many lives with the power of sacramental life and the graces of prayer.  Catholic women were living the challenges of the working world and the hidden glories and struggles of home and family. And many of these women needed a place to voice their thoughts and experiences and to be encouraged and guided.

Women are the hearth-keepers. It is they who bear and raise children with the faithful protection of the father and husband.  Normally women are oriented toward the home and men are more active outside the home. Social trends in the last few decades have had at least one good effect in highlighting the importance of men’s participation in children’s upbringing, but that has been true mostly when the man is actually in the home.

On the other hand, women have become more active outside the home. A great deal of this has, unfortunately, come at the behest of feminists who thought it was necessary to denigrate marriage and child-rearing in order to free women for their full economic and personal realization.  But there is a role for women outside the home that does not shortchange the indispensable role of nurturing children; the realization of that role by many Catholic women has been a blessing for the Church and society.

Yet, even with these improvements, a fundamental problem for the Church and society was and remains attacks on the family. The foundation of a family is a marriage between a man and a woman who are committed to each other to have children and raise them in an exclusive and enduring relationship. So the elements of marriage and family are a man and a woman, fertility, exclusivity, and indissolubility. This kind of marriage alone provides a solid foundation for society, giving more than it takes.

These are the elements that have always been recognized and protected by Catholicism. They are based on the instruction of our Lord, natural law, and common sense. The erosion of these boundaries over the last 60 years has provided copious evidence of the dysfunction and unhappiness that result from any other arrangements. So we can now say that science also supports these elements.

But we have often neglected to talk explicitly about these characteristics of marriage and to teach them to our children.  Our pastors have been reticent to the point of dereliction of duty while the general culture has raged against them. So we have to learn to talk about marriage again, to understand why all its traditional characteristics are necessary, and to explain them to others.

Thirty years ago, the great menace to the Catholic Church and many nations was persecution and aggression from atheistic Communism, which directed its attack principally at private property and political and religious freedom. The Church was a bulwark and thanks to Saint John Paul II and determined political leaders that threat was largely defeated.  But even while it persisted, Saint John Paul II was thinking deeply about the threat of the moral disintegration of the family. He spent five years of general audiences from 1979 to 1984 in expounding the theology of the body, which he called a commentary on Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae.

In a nutshell, the theology of the body teaches that masculine and feminine are complementary and that complementarity alone can be fruitful. Our bodies themselves teach us this. The union of a man and a woman requires a mutual self-giving that bears fruit in the child. This is an image of the Trinitarian life in which the Father gives Himself to the Son and the Son returns all to the Father.  Their interchange of love is the Holy Spirit.  All life, both spiritual and biological, derives from the loving gift of self and the reception of the gift of another.

To understand marriage as a mutual gift of self is to understand why it must be open to fertility and encompass an exclusive and indissoluble relationship. To block its fertility is to withhold part of the gift, while to try to give to a third person or to end the relationship is to retract the gift. This is a deeply personal understanding of marriage, going beyond the merely contractual and establishing marriage as a sharing in the divine power of creation and an imaging of the Trinitarian life. The dynamic of the gift means that the parties are living, changing, transforming, always becoming under divine grace who God intends them to be. It is not a process that either could accomplish alone. It is a process that involves the whole persons as embodied spirits and spiritual bodies, working in both the natural and supernatural spheres.

The development of the theology of the body was a prescient, not to say prophetic, work in the midst of the Communist attacks that seemed to be about something else. But in fact all forms of socialism have had a common thread of attacking the family.  Denial of property rights, restriction of religious and political rights, and the aggrandizement of the state must necessarily interfere with the integrity and health of the family.  The Soviet Union may have collapsed almost 25 years ago, but all of the elements of materialistic socialism have continued to advance.  They have become the partners of the moral disintegration that has been hollowing out the West since even before the sexual revolution of the 1960s.  Our culture in North America and Europe is on a continuum with the 1960s and is actively subverting each of the elements of marriage.  Let’s go through them one by one, so that we can recognize how the integrity of marriage relies on each of them.

Fallen man hates restraints, and so he strains against the bond of marriage.  This is the one question about marriage that was put to our Lord because Moses had allowed a man to put away his wife.  Although adultery certainly existed and also contraception and abortion, no one thought to propose to Jesus that these be approved.  But they did ask about divorce.  Jesus answered definitively: “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” (Mt 19:4-6)

Yet we have now come to the point that the option of divorce is a given — an escape hatch in case things don’t work out. There is even some question whether many young people today, having little or no experience of intact marriages, are even aware of what is involved in making the necessary commitment.

The natural consequence of dissolvable marriage is that many people don’t bother to get married at all. But they still have babies, and 40% of births in the United States are out of wedlock.  Most of Europe is even worse. It is becoming unusual for children to grow up in a home with both biological parents married to each other. Single parenting, nearly always by the mother, is an almost sure path to poverty and other childhood and adult problems. Meanwhile the fertility rates drop and populations age.  The US fertility rate is just below replacement level, which is 2.1 children per woman. The European Union is at 1.55, with Germany, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland all below the average.

The next element is faithfulness of the partners to one another. Exclusivity in marriage, or rather its violation, provides the fodder for entertainment and celebrity cover stories. Yet a recent survey of 40 countries by the Pew Research Center found that infidelity in marriage was disapproved by high percentages almost everywhere ( Even France, with the lowest score, came in at 48%. 

It seems that as long as the marriage lasts, the partners expect fidelity. There is an innate sense of betrayal and rejection when fidelity is violated. When one has given what is precious, a unique gift, to another and the other has spurned it, the wound to the person is deep and lasting. This is a powerful witness to what marriage is, for all the theorizing and social liberation. Without fidelity, fertility becomes an unacceptable risk and indissolubility a lie. Perhaps this is one positive point on which to build in talking to young people about what they should expect and demand of themselves and a marriage partner.

Next, fertility. Fruitfulness is the natural result of marriage and the joy of the husband and wife.  To block fertility is to close the couple upon themselves, to stunt the mutual gift, to seek domination of life and to reject life when we should be receiving it.  It is a kind of mutual infidelity, where each partner chooses himself or some other perceived good instead of the other.  It freezes the marriage in place, opting for the known status quo instead of the unknown possible. In a sense it dissolves the marriage because it blocks its natural development.

Married or unmarried, fertility rates are falling. Nations and continents are not replacing themselves. Among the areas in trouble are the United States, Canada, Europe, China, Russia, Australia, and Japan. The reason is evidently not lack of sexual activity but the near universal use of contraceptives and abortion.  Or, rather, those are the means. The actual causes are loss of hope, or economic insecurity, or lack of self-restraint, or unwillingness to make the sacrifices required to raise children. As Cardinal Ratzinger said, we are seeing the refusal to choose and create a future. China, of course, has pursued a disastrous and coercive one-child policy since 1979.  We are already in uncharted territory and demographers think that some countries are approaching a point of no return, where the decline in numbers coupled with aging will make recovery impossible. Somehow, the population bomb we were threatened with 30 years ago seems to have imploded rather than exploded.

Finally, marriage is between a man and a woman. Thirty years ago, we already had no-fault divorce, abortion, contraception, adultery, and a rise in out-of-wedlock births. What we did not have was the claim that marriage is possible between two men or two women. It is hard to think about. The mind boggles and one wonders where to begin to explain why this is wrong. To put it somewhat crudely, it’s wrong because you can’t unlock a lock with another lock. You don’t put one electric plug up against another and expect anything to happen. Man and woman are complementary, they complete one another. They are not supposed to be alike.

Pope Saint John Paul II explained it when he described Adam surveying and naming all the animals and then concluding sadly that there was none like himself. How did he know that? He could see it. So God made him a helper, one like himself, but different. “’Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.’” What could be more intimate? “For this reason a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). This is simply not possible except with a man and a woman.
Same-sex “marriage” lacks all the attributes of marriage.  Obviously it cannot be fertile. Social data tell us that it is rarely exclusive and its proponents want the same easy access to divorce that everyone else has. So they are taking an already debased model of marriage and knocking the last leg from under the stool.

In millennia of legal tradition, both church and civil law have required that a marriage be consummated to be valid. That is because the physical union of man and woman is essential to marriage. It is what differentiates the relationship from friendship. It is the gift that speaks with the body of the deeply personal commitment to the other. Now we are told that marriage has no requirement for consummation because it is not about two persons joining to produce children and forming a stable bond to nurture those children. Marriage is about being with the person you love, at least now, and doing whatever you like for your gratification. But then why limit it to two people? Why not two men and a woman or three women and a man? Indeed, approval of polyamory is rising. They just have not yet asked for state licensing and marriage benefits.

Actually, there is an awful logic at work here. There is a natural golden triangle of marriage, sex, and children. But we began to dismantle it: sex without children, sex without marriage, children without marriage, children without sex (in vitro fertilization), and marriage without children. Who would have thought it possible or desirable or even thinkable to have marriage without sex, true sex? That is breaking the last bond. To accept it is to accept that marriage is meaningless because it has become a completely unlimited set of all possible combinations of any number whatsoever, optionally fruitful, nonexclusive, and dissolvable at will: in other words, no definition at all. 

But that is where we find ourselves in most Western, formerly Christian, countries in 2014. We have come a long way since 1984, most of it in the wrong direction. Pope Francis has recognized the crucial role of the family and its dire condition.  He has called both an extraordinary synod and an ordinary synod to address the issues. That is important, but the bishops are not going to turn this around.  We need their leadership and the sound formation of priests to teach the truth, but it will not get better until the laity engage the battle.

We have fallen under the tyranny of judges who have cancelled the votes of the people in order to impose the new order.  The only way back is through a sustained effort, like the right to life, and that will require that enough people understand exactly where pseudo-marriage has to lead.  The days of the revolutionaries just asking for tolerance are over.  They want submission.  It is all a part of the same battle: to strip the public square of our values and to impose theirs. It is not true that we can’t impose our values on someone else. It is unavoidable: someone’s values will be imposed.

We must provide the counter examples. We must begin our own “long march through the institutions” to take back our culture through education, politics, commerce, entertainment, and religion. Now is the time to turn and fight. Now is the time to be bold and confident about stating our values and reclaiming our culture. This is the only hope of preserving marriage and the family. Without healthy families, there is no future.


Donna F. Bethell is a lawyer and Chairman of the Board of Directors of Christendom College. She lives in Washington, DC, with her husband Tom.



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