The Catholic Church is sometimes unfairly reproached because of an inaccurate perception that her defense of marriage and family diminishes her efforts to address economic problems such as poverty and the rights of workers.
For example, during a recent conversation I was asked when “the Catholic Church [will] stop involving herself in social issues like abortion and marriage and begin solving real problems like economic injustice.”
Creating false dichotomies
The question sets up a false dichotomy pitting two complementary and necessarily interdependent aspects of human life against each other. This view assumes that issues that intersect with human sexuality are simply “private issues” as opposed to social questions.
Marriage, however, is a profoundly social institution. The civil institution of marriage primarily serves the well-being of children and affirms the optimal setting for their development. This, in turn, helps protect and nurture the next generation and the good of society.
Those who suggest that marriage is simply the emotional union of two adults, or that the government should not be in the marriage business at all, advocate for what we may call a “social free market,” that is, an individualist theory that reduces government functions to facilitating “choice,” and which conceives its purpose almost entirely in terms of limiting the harm individuals do to each other as they pursue their various lifestyle choices.
Rather than unite individuals in service of the common good, this unbridling of man’s thirst for his own self-interest atomizes society and isolates individuals from community. As Pope Leo XIII wrote in the encyclical Libertas Praestantissimum, the proponents of a social free market would “… adopt as their own [the] rebellious cry, ‘I will not serve’ and consequently substitute for true liberty what is sheer and most foolish license.”
The lust for freedom ignores the moral values and legal structures needed to defend and support the family. Just as it is an error to let economic relationships be governed solely by the logic of unbridled market forces, it is also a similar mistake to relegate marriage to the private sphere, as if it were just another private contract between consenting parties.
The premium paid for individualism
According to research, children of divorce and single-parent homes are three times more likely to drop out of school or have babies in their teenage years, are five times more likely to end up poor, and are 12 times more likely to be incarcerated.
Our society is also steadily becoming fatherless. Today, roughly 40 percent of our children are raised in homes without fathers, a statistic we cannot attribute only to economic conditions, but largely to the combination of no-fault divorce, fragmented or “alternative” parenting, abortion and contraception, which are disrupting our human ecosystem and fueling a culture of hyper-sexualized individualism.
The effects of rampant individualism are not confined to the private sphere, but have profound costs, especially economic ones. When children do well and are formed as virtuous citizens, they will grow up to be productive economic actors. When they do not do well, especially in school, it has profound consequences for not only their own long-term well-being but also for whole economies. Stable marriages produce children who have higher educational attainment. As the Social Trends Institute recently concluded, the well-being of a nation’s economy is closely connected to the well-being of the nuclear family.
Healthy marriages, healthy economies
Here we get back to the original question about why the church spends so much time defending marriage. The church speaks to both marriage and the economy because they are both related to human happiness and social prosperity, and the church wishes to support and contribute to both.
If structural problems require structural solutions, as proponents of economic justice correctly observe, then we ought to pay closer attention to the integral relationship between economics and the social order, and promote what Pope Benedict calls a healthy human ecology.
The author G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism.” In this vein, those of us with social concerns can no longer afford to play the socio-economic “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” debate over whether economic or cultural forces fragment the family. It isn’t an either/or dilemma. It’s both. Ignoring social justice in the family or in the economy only encourages individualist social and economic policies that come at the expense of human dignity.
As originally appeared in The Catholic Spirit.