“The family has a special role to play throughout the life of its members, from birth to death. It is truly ‘the sanctuary of life: the place in which life – the gift of God – can be properly welcomed and protected against the many attacks to which it is exposed, and can develop in accordance with what constitutes authentic human growth.’ Consequently, the role of the family in building a culture of life is decisive and irreplaceable.”
─ Pope St. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, no. 92
“Is marriage becoming irrelevant?” That’s the jarring headline on Gallup’s website, reporting the results of a new survey. The answer to the question, unfortunately, appears to be a resounding “yes.” In key ways, marriage is becoming irrelevant for large numbers of people.
The results of the survey show a distressingly swift reversal in public attitudes towards the importance of marriage in relation to the marital act and the transmission of human life. According to Gallup, only 29% of people now believe it is “very important” for a couple to get married before begetting children. That’s a drop from 49% in 2006.
Meanwhile, 72% of respondents said that it is morally acceptable to engage in a sexual act outside of marriage. That’s up from 53% in 2001.
This poll tells a sad tale about how people in general view human sexuality, marriage, procreation, children, and the family. However, one especially discouraging finding is how dramatic the shift in opinion has been among church-going people.
In 2006, 65% of poll respondents who went to church weekly said it was “very important” for couples begetting children to be married. In 2020, however, it was just 45%, a drop of 20 percentage points! Among those who go to church monthly, the number has dropped from 58% to 32%, a difference of 26 percentage points!
The good news is that church-going people are still more likely than people who never go to church to think marriage is important (only 19% of non-church-going people said being married is “very important”, down from 32% in 2006); the bad news is that the opinions of church-going people have changed far more swiftly for the worse than those of non-church-going people.
The Gallup poll also found that only 38% of people believe that it is “very important” for couples who want to spend the rest of their lives together to get married. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the number of respondents who say they are currently married has slid significantly in recent decades. Whereas in the early 80s, 64% of people said they were currently married, that number has since fallen to just 49%.
The Negative Effects of Family Breakdown
Unfortunately, none of these findings come as a great surprise. Ever since the introduction of contraception-on-demand and no-fault divorce, we have been witnessing the steady collapse of marriage and family life. This has been reinforced by the proliferation of a hedonistic attitude towards human sexuality that places greater emphasis upon personal pleasure, romance, and gratification. This attitude, in conjunction with the mentality and behavior it promotes, falsifies human sexuality, and divorces the marital act (an act meant to be exclusive to spouses) from its two-fold and inseparable ends, unitive and procreative. This kind of act is vastly different and contrary from the one God has made to be unique and complementary between spouses. The falsification of the inherent goods of marriage and the conjugal act has dire consequences, which impacts one’s view of self, others, marriage, and the family.
As Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Evangelium Vitae:
Thus the original import of human sexuality is distorted and falsified, and the two meanings, unitive and procreative, inherent in the very nature of the conjugal act, are artificially separated: in this way the marriage union is betrayed and its fruitfulness is subjected to the caprice of the couple. Procreation then becomes the “enemy” to be avoided in sexual activity: if it is welcomed, this is only because it expresses a desire, or indeed the intention, to have a child “at all costs”, and not because it signifies the complete acceptance of the other and therefore an openness to the richness of life which the child represents. (no. 23)
What we don’t seem to have yet realized, or at least not on any wide scale, is just how devastating the collapse of marriage and family life has been upon the health of our society. I am amazed, for instance, at how much conversation there is about poverty, violence, poor education, and homelessness, but how little is ever said of the systemic reasons behind these things, and where the remedy is to be found.
Study after study has found that children who do not grow up with both of their parents in the home suffer all sorts of negative consequences. As The National Review noted in response to a New York Times article minimizing the impact of single parenthood on poverty rates, the data is unequivocal: single parenthood is strongly associated with severe poverty.
“The social science tells us that children raised by single parents are significantly more likely to have children young, to drop out of high school, and to work less as young adults,” wrote W. Bradford Wilcox. “Not surprisingly, the children of single-parent families are more likely to end up poor as young adults.”
One Irish study found that the impact of divorce on children can even be worse than if one of the parents has died. According to that study, children of divorced parents are “more likely to develop depression, do worse in school, and have poor social skills compared to other children,” reported LifeSiteNews.
One of the researchers behind that Irish study said that she hoped their research would counteract the common narrative that paints divorce as inconsequential. “Nobody should delude themselves that divorce is easy,” she said. “Keeping a bad marriage together is difficult, but protecting children after a divorce can be even more difficult. Couples need to realise this.”
A Threat to the Common Good
The simple fact is that the redefinition and breakdown of marriage, exacerbated by the falsification of human sexuality and the acceptance of divorce and cohabitation, pose genuine and serious threats to the common good, the well-being of society. Marriage between a man and a woman, something that can be understood simply from the natural law, has been for millennia the foundation stone for civil society.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
The family is the original cell of social life. It is the natural society in which husband and wife are called to give themselves in love and in the gift of life. Authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society. The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honor God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society. (no. 2207, emphasis added)
Children, always welcomed as a blessing under any circumstance, have a right to be raised by their biological parents and nurtured within the family, this God-instituted school of learning. Today, however, children suffer widely from rejection, abandonment, divorce, and multi-relationship and single-parent households. Because of the falsification of human sexuality and wide acceptance of contraception, children are no longer seen as the fruit of conjugal love; they are, instead, labeled as a burden, an unwanted consequence of the sexual act. Moreover, children are being treated as objects to be exploited – engendered outside of the conjugal act, in petri dishes and laboratories, turning procreation into a “production” which dehumanizes children.
Unfortunately, the vices that are nourished in the privacy of family life have a tendency to perpetuate themselves across generations, and thence to spread out into society at large. One of the consequences of divorce is that children of broken families are in turn more likely to get divorced themselves. Divorce begets divorce, spreading like a virus, and bringing with it all the various negative personal and social consequences.
Building a Culture of Life by Defending Marriage
My question, then, is this: How can we build a virtue-based society, one that loves, respects, defends, and serves the sanctity of life and the dignity of the individual, if the original cell of social life (marriage and the family) upon which society is built is rejected, compromised, or re-created in the image of modern-day constructs and language?
After all, a building built on sand will collapse.
Unfortunately, with the legalization of same-sex “marriage” and the near-total triumph of the contraceptive mentality and the sexual revolution, even many conservatives and pro-life and family activists have lost sight of the importance of the battle over marriage, which is widely viewed as being “lost.”
Well, the battle may well be “lost”…for now. Or seem to be lost. But the fact that we must face is that the battle for a Culture of Life will never be won unless we turn the ship around, and begin to make some progress on the battle for marriage as well.
The data clearly show that the abortion rate among single and cohabiting women is way higher than among married women. This is hardly surprising. Biologically, women bear the brunt of the burden of having a child. Being in a stable marriage provides women with the security they need to feel safe bringing a child into the world. However, if the father of the child is either gone, or is likely to be gone sometime in the future, then it is far more likely that the mother will feel tempted to take drastic measures when she becomes pregnant.
However, the problem is even more basic than this. If most men and women don’t see any connection between sex and marriage, then they are more likely to engage in extra-marital sexual relations. The more people do this, the more unintended pregnancies there will be, and the more abortions there will be. The lives of countless unborn children depend on us defending marriage and pushing back against the lies of the sexual revolution.
In the fight against the culture of death, the church needs to get back to the basics. Christians have always taught that fornication and adultery are grave sins. However, as the Gallup poll findings suggest, churches are failing to educate their congregations in Biblical truths about human sexuality and marriage. As Pope St. John Paul II proclaimed, the “future of humanity passes by way of the family” (Familiaris Consortio, no. 75). Without strong marriages and families as its foundation, society will continue to disintegrate. If we restore, however, the centrality of marriage and the family, as designed by our Creator, they will serve as a catalyst for rejuvenating social life. Only by defending marriage and strengthening the family can society be revitalized.