"What God Has Joined, Let Not Man Put Asunder"....Unless ....

Helen Alvare
© Culture of Life Foundation 2009
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

One of the most respected American sociologists, Andrew Cherlin, has recently published The Marriage-Go-Round: the State of Marriage and the Family in America. True to his role at Johns Hopkins University, he proposes in his new work, not only a sociologically based characterization of the American family, but also a public policy response. The book is as important and revealing as it is overwhelming and discouraging to supporters of children's welfare and the overall strength of marriage and families.

A large section of the book sets out current and telling statistics about the state of marriage, other intimate heterosexual relationships (i.e. cohabitation) and divorce in the U.S. It compares our numbers with other Western European and non-European English speaking nations. The latter exercise proves most revealing. While Americans have a strong "cultural ideal" about marriage - marrying more often and fighting to defend opposite marriage more vociferously - we also experience more relationship "turnover." One particularly telling figure: the percentage of children who saw their mother partner with three or more men by age 15 was 2% (or at most 3 %) in all other compared countries; in the U.S. it was 8%. Those who saw their mother partner with 2 or more men? Twenty-one percent in the U.S. compared with 16% in Sweden and 8% in France. Consequences for children are rough. While not every involved child is so affected, a large number experience emotional and educational problems. Having a new man in the house might theoretically provide additional monitoring, discipline and money. But its measured effects are actually negative, as their presence also rewires established family system systems, diverts a mother's focus, and all too often leads to abuse.

Professor Cherlin believes that two co-existing and contradictory preferences help to explain Americans' behavior. First, we have a strong cultural ideal of marriage. We associate it with success in life and with social status and even community strength. Second, we are committed to "expressive individualism," e.g. to the realization of our best selves, and to seeing our choices in light of self-development. These include our choices in partners, including serial partners. If the first love isn't fulfilling our hopes for happiness and self-development, we will move on to the next.

Professor Cherlin's next move is the most interesting. First he states emphatically that there is no better ground on which to distinguish the U.S. from other Western and English speaking countries than our religious nature: "In our search for reasons for the distinctiveness of American family patterns, there is still no more obvious suspect to round up. And enough evidence exists to make an arrest." (104). U.S. citizens report more regular churchgoing and belief in a transcendent God, than comparable nations. Second, though, he asserts that religion, along with law, is among the most important factors solidifying Americans' impulse to throw over one partner for the next in the quest for self-development. He does not find Catholicism different from other religions in this regard. Rather he claims that Catholics, like others, both in their theological focus, and in their worship, have recently come to place a high value upon expressive individualism. While he writes more about these tendencies within modern Evangelical Protestantism than in Catholicism, still he claims that American Catholics "altered their beliefs in a similar way in the 1980s and 1990s, placing "less emphasis on the Church as an institution and more on individual responsibility for one's own faith." They "[s]hifted toward viewing God as loving and forgiving rather than as punitive and judgmental… [and] placed greater importance on personal exploration and discovery." (107) He points to the drastic rise in granted annulments over the last 40 years and characterizes them as evidence of the trend he identifies. Finally, he links these religious moves with U.S. marriage patterns via surveys which show that Americans believe that their churches are important sources of information about how to live a good family life.

Professor Cherlin points out that law, too, plays a very important role. He chronicles its major transitions over the last 50 years: away from focusing on marriage to a focus on the individual adult; and away from inter-spousal relations to a focus on parent-child relations. Divorce is drastically simpler to accomplish; child support is guaranteed in or out of marriage; and there are no legal penalties for out of wedlock births.

Several reactions to Cherlin's many worthy insights. First, it is a relief to see a scholar of this magnitude acknowledge the roles played by religion and law respecting choices about sex, marriage and family. Many other scholars seem to have concluded that personal decisions on these matters simply can't be influenced. Cherlin's evidence invites us to conclude otherwise.

Second, Professor Cherlin's remarks on religions' influence make one wonder about people who are too eager to chase religious voices from public debates about marriage. Perhaps they know just how effective those voices can be? Surely their ostensible argument -- that laws which agree with religious teachings are per se an unconstitutional "establishment of religion" - is silly on its face. We'd have to jettison all U.S. laws forbidding killing, stealing, etc. on those grounds. Furthermore, one can't help notice how proudly the same-sex marriage movement brandishes support from even tiny religious denominations, when they can find it. The movement doth protest too much.

Third, about Professor Cherlin's claim that Catholicism has embraced expressive individualism and self-development as religious ideals. Catholic scholars of marriage and church history undoubtedly would feel themselves unable to speak in less than 100 pages about this topic which Professor Cherlin concludes in a few paragraphs. And they would undoubtedly come to a much more nuanced conclusion. Cherlin has taken a risk by stepping outside his own field of expertise and into Theology. As a law professor, I can't presume to correct his analysis fully. But as an involved Catholic, and a collaborator with the U.S bishops for the past 20 years on matters touching upon sex and marriage, I can begin to offer some relevant additional points.

It is quite likely true that Catholics have been urged more seriously in the past several decades to come to "know" Jesus Christ in a personal and life-transforming fashion. At the same time, however, Catholics have been taught to understand that this relationship has an inherently horizontal, social dimension; it includes loving one's "nearest neighbors," those who are "given us" as spouses, children, parents, siblings, and non-kin neighbors. The Catholic Church's unbroken teachings on the indissolubility of marriage, the necessity of openness to children, and the necessity of assisting the less fortunate, have not altered, despite immense pressure from the world around us. As for our teaching on indissolubility, taken together with the fact of a rising number of annulments, there is a far more complicated story here than Professor Cherlin is able to tell. The coexistence of these facts is related to growing conviction among Canon lawyers that large number of Catholics - alongside others in society - are so poorly formed regarding marriage, so inundated with exactly wrong ideas, that they enter into marriage genuinely ignorant about, and incapacitated to give consent to, what marriage actually is.

Whether or not Cherlin is correct about perceptions that the Catholic Church has signed on to expressive individualism in the context of marriage and elsewhere, the Church should take note when a scholar as respected as Professor Cherlin writes in this vein. If this is an impression that needs correcting, we should attend to it.

Fourth, devotees of the Theology of the Body ought to take heart that an empirical scholar has identified a close connection between the stance people take toward God and the stance they take toward romantic partners. Professor Cherlin directly connects Americans' willingness to change religions or to join what he calls "seeker" churches (churches encouraging members to seek a successful life, with Jesus Christ as one means to that end) with their willingness to change marital or cohabiting partners. This is modern evidence of the truth of St. Paul's assertion that marriage, mysteriously, is a reflection of God's relationship with the Church, the People of God. It is also a modern version of the story of the Fall: when Adam and Eve betrayed God, they immediately fell out with one another.

Fifth and finally, Professor Cherlin's advice in the face of U.S. patterns' effects on children is to "slow down," (194) to have children later, to take on new partners less often or after more consideration of children's needs. Brad Wilcox, an eminent sociologist at the University of Virginia, has said this of Cherlin's policy advice: "

Because Mr. Cherlin is reluctant to challenge the individualistic ethos of our day, the strongest advice he can muster - when he steps back to consider the marriage portrait he has drawn so brilliantly - is that Americans who aspire to be parents should "slow down" when they are entering or exiting a marriage or a co-habiting relationship, bearing in mind that children do best in a stable home. It is not bad advice, certainly. But some of us may wish to do more than put a yellow light in the path of parents who are tempted to hop onto (and off of) America's family merry-go-round. For the sake of the children, a red light may be better." (W. Bradford Wilcox, To Have, To Hold, For a While, Wall Street Journal, April 13, 2009, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123958524728412435.html).

I agree. Sociological evidence of this quality, and hurting children in this quantity cannot be overlooked. If Professor Cherlin is right, and law and religion significantly influence people's choices about marriage and other partnerships, then the Church and the State ought to bring their resources to bear on our consciences and our sense of duty to children. Today in particular, when it is acceptable to propose drastic legal and religious action on behalf of our natural environment, our economy, or our health, why not on behalf of our children?