Today is the Feast of the Holy Family on the Liturgical Calendar and in an era when the family has such on-going damage, we do well to review God’s plan for marriage and how the modern age has so systematically departed from that plan. It is the departure from God’s plan that has brought about devastating consequences for the Church, the nation and especially for children. On this Feast of the Holy Family we do well to call upon God’s mercy and, frankly, for miracles to restore a proper and Godly realization of family life.
It is not news that the family is in great crisis. The combined effects of divorce and never married single parents mean that nearly one-third of children in the U.S. (32 percent or 22 million children) were living with one parent, usually their mother (KIDS COUNT Data Center, 2009). The share of children in one-parent families has nearly tripled since 1970, when the rate was 11 percent (Amato, 2008). This trend has disproportionately affected impoverished children and also children of color: 65 percent of black children, 49 percent of American Indian children, 37 percent of Hispanic children, (KIDS COUNT Data Center, 2009). With these numbers go a great number of social ills manifest by such children including higher poverty, lower scholastic achievement, behavioral problems, promiscuity, STDs, teenage pregnancy, higher school dropout rates, early criminal records and the like. It is clear, when the family is in crisis children suffer most. Only a return to God’s plan for marriage and family can reverse these trends.
What then is God’s plan? Actually it is spelled out quite clearly in the Book of Genesis in these verses along with my commentary:
- The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” (Gen 2:18) The chapter goes on to describe the creation of woman. Notice that the text says that it is not good to be alone. Partnership is essential. A man should not be alone, a woman should not be alone. God intends woman for man, man for woman. The partnership is obviously complimentary in that a man brings things to the marriage a woman does not. A woman brings things to the relationship that a man does not. The sexes are not merely interchangeable, they each bring essential ingredients to the marriage and to being parents. Parenting is to be a partnership, not a solo act.
- For this reason a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh (Gen 2:24). Notice here the pre-eminence of the relationship and its stability. It is preeminent because a man leaves the most important relationship he has up until that time (his family of origin) in order to establish a relationship of now greater priority, his marriage. It is stable because he is to cling to his wife. “Cling” is a strong word. It means to stick like glue. A man is to preserve union with his wife in a strong and decisive manner. Marriage is not to be a temporary relationship.
- God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. (Gen 1:28) Here is the fundamental mission God gives to marriage: the procreation and raising of children. This verse also helps give reason to the first two teachings that the marriage be heterosexual and stable. Since children are the expected fruit of marriage it is obvious that heterosexuality is necessary and essential. Further it is necessary and essential that the marriage be stable, for children need the stability and complementary witness of both their parents to best develop and thrive. Hence Adam is to cling to his wife and in the context of that stable union they are to conceive and raise their children.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that In creating man and woman, God instituted the human family and endowed it with its fundamental constitution.(CCC # 2203). Here then in a brief few verses Scripture details the fundamental vision of God for marriage and the family: One man for one woman in a stable, life long, complimentary relationship oriented to the procreation and formation of children. It is simple yet clear. But in recent decades we have seemed hell-bent (literally) on a systematic dismantling of every component of God’s plan for marriage. Let’s consider some of the modern trends that have dismantled God’s plan.
- A subtle but sure moving away from the understanding that children are the essential purpose and fruit of marriage to a rather subjective notion that marriage’s essential purpose is the “happiness” of the spouses. Many decades ago when I was a child, divorce was uncommon, even shocking. Unhappy marriages surely existed in those days prior to 1969 but there was an accepted understanding that you stuck it out “for the sake of the kids.” Commitments had been made and they should be honored. Children should not be exposed to the shame and sorrow of divorce. Or so the thinking went. Civil law backed these notions and made it difficult to get a divorce. But, through the 1950s and 1960s as the first celebrity divorces began to hit the news the shame of divorce began to erode and a notion that people shouldn’t have to stay in unhappy marriages grew. A happy marriage is surely something to be desired but notice that God did not say anything about that as an essential end of marriage. It is true that spouses ought to provide one another mutual support by sharing duties and thereby work for each-other’s mutual good, but happiness is another matter. Life in general brings with it both happiness and sorrow, joys and hardships. That is the nature of life and marriage is no different. While it is generally hoped that spouses will bring each other happiness that it not always the case even in the best marriages which have an admixture of pleasant and unpleasant qualities as does life in general. How else can we explain the vow “for better or worse?” So what was happening through the 1960s was as subtle but sure “redefining” of marriage, a replacing of the good of children with the preeminent notion of happiness. In recent years the Gay community has insisted that since marriage is just about two people being happy they should be allowed to marry since they deserve this happiness too. While Gay marriage should be opposed, it remains true that opponents are caught a bit flat footed when children are now only a way of “accessorizing” marriage and happiness is the overarching principle in the minds of most Americans. Only if children are an essential end of marriage does limiting marriage to heterosexuals really win the day.
- Increasing contraceptive use and a shunning of marriage’s greatest gift- Contraceptives were all but illegal in this country until the 1950s when they gradually became “respectable.” At the heart of contraceptive use is the notion that somehow children are a burden more than a blessing; that they limit happiness, freedom, and the share of resources in a family. From Biblical times until very recently children were considered a great blessing and large families were sought for. But a modern notion of Children being a burden swept the western world and contraceptive use dramatically reduced family size. Here too, a redefinition of marriage was taking place wherein God’s mandate to be fruitful and multiply was being set aside in favor of the wishes and happiness of the couple. And most couples began to see children in larger numbers as a hindrance to their happiness. This was getting very far from God’s plan.
- No Fault Divorce - In 1969 California Governor Ronald Regan signed the first “no-fault” divorce law in the country. The fundamental purpose of such a law was to make divorces easier and quicker to get. Why should people be “forced” to stay in unhappy relationships? Why should the government care? These were notions underlying no-fault or streamlined divorce. Of course the government SHOULD care since higher divorce rates have terrible effects on many things, not to mention children. As we have seen high divorce rates are directly tied to issues of poverty, public health, crime rates, the overall performance, productivity and success of children as they grow older and so forth. But here too, God’s plan that a man should cling to his wife, that marriage should be a stable, lasting union, was set aside. Marriage was being redefined.
- General promiscuity – with the wider availability of contraceptives it is not surprising that promiscuity skyrocketed. The notions that sex was tied to the procreation of children and hence to marriage was set aside. Generalized promiscuity weakens marriage for many reasons. First it takes a reward and pleasure that was the privilege of marriage and distributes it to any who want it. Thus an important incentive to marriage is lost. It is not surprising that the average age of marriage is now approaching the 30s for most young people. They see little “need” to get married. It is more of a formality for many of them who routinely fornicate and even have children apart from marriage. Many young men routinely quip: “Why buy the cow when you get the milk for free?” And many young women seem unfazed by such thinking. It seems many of them too prefer the “less complicated” world of casual dating and hooking up (with sex included) to the more “complicated” world of marriage. The unique privilege of the marriage bed has been given away and an important draw that God intended for marriage is lost. Over and over again God forbids fornication (pre-marital sex). The texts are too numerous to reproduce here (I have posted them here: Fornication) but the clear will of God is that he intends sex for the marriage bed alone, not because he wants to limit our fun but because he wants to protect marriage. There is a clear correlation between the rise in promiscuity and higher divorce rates along with the single and never married parent phenomenon. Promiscuity amounts to an attack on marriage. Scripture says, Let the marriage bed be honored in every way for God will judge fornicators and adulterers (Heb 13:4). All this has led to the final facet of dismantling that I would like to mention.
- Casual tolerance of single and never married parenting – Here too is a major trend in our modern society. Single never married parents used to be a rare and rather stunning thing. Today it is commonly held that such situations are not only acceptable but that they should even be considered on par with other “arrangements” like the traditional family. And once again we are redefining the family as God has set it forth. God clearly had a stable, heterosexual union in mind for the rearing of children. The sexes are not just interchangeable. A male father has important things to teach and model for his children. Likewise a female mother. These cannot simply be set aside without detriment, even harm to the children. Children need both the male and female, the mother and father, this is what is best for them and what God intends. Further that the influence of both parents be consistent, not just an on-again off-again influence based on visitation rights. Once again the Gay community in insisting that they be on equal footing for adopting children runs afoul of God’s plan. But their demands have become harder to resist after years of heterosexual misbehavior.
In the end it is the children who suffer most. God’s plan for the family is best and we know it.
Married couples with children, on average, have a higher standard of living and greater economic security than one-parent families (Thomas & Sawhill, 2005). Parents raising children together tend to have more money, more flexibility and more time to supervise their children, offer emotional support, take an active part in their education, and arrange other activities for them. In contrast, one-parent families are more likely to experience economic hardship and stressful living conditions—including fewer resources, more frequent moves, and less stability—that take a toll on adults and children alike. When economic hardship and stressful living conditions are present, children are at greater risk of poor achievement as well as behavioral, psychological, and health problems. (Amato & Maynard, 2006). Quote from the Document Kids Count by the Annie Casey Foundation, July 2009)
While it is true that many very good people have struggled to fully realize God’s plan for marriage and family it also remains true that we cannot fail to announce it and insist upon it as the norm, the model and goal for everyone on this planet. Too many priests and other teachers have grown silent on this and worry too much about “offending” people who are in irregular situations and so we fail to point clearly to what God teaches. No one will follow an uncertain trumpet. On this Feast of the Holy Family it is time to trumpet God’s plan. We will ALL admit we have fallen short but this is no time to abandon the vision. God has a plan, we have only to follow it.