Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

More marriage, or more virtuous marriage?


Making the rounds lately has been Anthony Esolen's article on how to mend declining marriage rates, which asks, "Where are we nudging [the youth] gently along toward marriage and the sweetness of that life?":
It’s been more than ten years since I first noticed something odd about the generally pleasant—and generally Catholic—students at the college where I teach.  The boys and girls don’t hold hands. 
Let that serve as shorthand for the absence of all those rites of attraction and conversation, flirting and courting, that used to be passed along from one youthful generation to the next, just as childhood games were once passed along, but are so no longer.  The boys and girls don’t hold hands.

I am aware of the many attempts by responsible Catholic priests and laymen to win the souls of young people, to keep them in the Church, and indeed to make some of them into attractive ambassadors for the Church. I approve of them heartily. Yes, we need those frank discussions about contraception. We need theological lectures to counter the regnant nihilism of the schools and the mass media. But we need something else too, something more human and more fundamental. We need desperately to reintroduce young men and young women to the delightfulness of the opposite sex. Just as boys after fifteen years of being hustled from institutional pillar to institutional post no longer know how to make up their own games outdoors, just as girls after fifteen years of the same no longer know how to organize a dance or a social, so now our young people not only refrain from dating and courting—they do not know how to do it. It isn’t happening. Look at the hands.
I don't accept the lack of handholding as shorthand for the rise of these dire trends, actually, but let that pass. The question posed by the essay is how we can reestablish these social conventions and rites of courtship and flirting that were prevalent in days of yore in which marriage rates were higher and average age of marriage was lower, "when Wally Cleaver was wearing a jacket and tie to join other boys and girls at a party, for playing records and eating ice cream and dancing".

Just as many overlook that underlying the edifice of the vibrant culture of family life in the 1950s was a deeply unstable moral foundation which was a direct contributor to the widespread acceptance of changing sexual and social mores in the 1960s, so many Catholics sigh for the romanticism of earlier eras in which relations between the sexes were more defined and regulated without considering that the climbing divorce rates of later years and decades were fueled at least in part by the dissolution of some of these marriages. The question should be, though: do these external features actually function to produce not just higher rates of marriage but better marriages?

Brandon takes exception to the sentimentality of Esolen's article:

People look upstream to Austenesque visions of earlier stages, where negotiating for good bargains was still more sharply bound by concerns of familial and sexual honor, and dating, while freer, looks like cheap imitation; they look downstream to the consensual market open for all, and dating, while safer, looks stifling and arbitrary. Unless conditions are just right, dating culture will always start looking like a bad compromise. The primary problem with the state in which we are increasingly finding ourselves, the anything-harmless-goes stage, is not that it's not dating, but that anything-harmless-goes inevitably breaks down as people find they cannot agree on what's really harmless. And then people start trying to keep order by intimidation and manipulation, because that's all that's really left. We know this is how it all goes down, and we've always known that this is how it works, because these tendencies are already found in every society, just in different proportions and under different conditions.

Dating, in short, is a low standard. For that matter, Austenesque Regency marriages are a low standard, for reasons Austen herself depicts quite clearly. The only relations between the sexes that matter are relations based on pursuit of virtue, which are both more free and more honorable than all the other options on the table. And the only possible thing that you can do to bring those about is to strive for virtue yourself and show proper respect for the particular cases you happen to come across in others. Everything else is arbitrary convention and the Goddess Fortune. [emphasis mine]
There's something charmingly retro about calling for the return of dances and social structures that throw men and women together, but Church-sanctioned socials or what-have-you, while (as Brandon points out) a lovely way to build community, can be an excuse for pushing out onto others the responsibility for virtuous marriages, whereas personal virtue is a change that starts right now, instantly, in the choices one makes every moment, in how one relates to every person one meets, man or woman. Unless relations between the sexes, and between individual men and women, are truly regulated by the pursuit of virtue and the full recognition of the dignity of all people (and this person with whom one is interacting, in particular), even Catholic social clubs and shindigs and family dances become a kind of marriage market-lite, with all the flirting, rating, and labeling that goes on in more secular venues.

I've pounded this drum before, but I do take great exception to Esolen's insistence that people need to be getting married younger. This is not because I'm opposed to early marriage, but because it is something that is generally not within the control of anyone to procure. It's sheer folly to declare, "I'm going to get married young!", without reference to a particular other person one wants to marry (and who wants to marry one). Doubtless he's referring to the cultural phenomenon of upwardly mobile young men and women who think that they must achieve certain educational and career and personal goals before even considering marriage, but it so, the answer would seem to lie in more evangelical methods of promoting the beauty of marriage than Church-based socials, as those are probably going to draw their attendance from a different demographic.

There has to be a mean for modern Catholics between Esolen's sugar-glazed nostalgia for "boys climbing the mountains to pick edelweiss for their sweethearts" and the oddly ahistorical assertion that "a whole mode of being has been lost, a mode of being that in every culture but our own produces a wealth of beauty, and sweeps young people along with its strong tide, into marriage and a world of families," on the one hand; and on the other, Brandon's rather cynical observation that "one of the more baffling elements of American Catholic culture is gripey passivity, an intense insistence that something must be done, beyond which nothing actually ever happens, except that sometimes various people are blamed." Contra Esolen, I don't think the problem is simply that "We need desperately to reintroduce young men and young women to the delightfulness of the opposite sex." We need desperately to reintroduce young and old men and women to the delightfulness of every human person, to the very real and intensely practical implications of every single person being made in the image and likeness of God. One of the best preparations for and witnesses toward marriage is not the mere participation in customs that may have produced superficial results in previous times, but in living a real charity toward each unique person who makes up God's family, regardless of venue, in anticipation of the day when He might give you one of your own.

11 comments:

Kate said...

*slow clap*

Brandon said...

I like your emphasis on dignity and the image of God, because I think it ends up being an important part of the Catholic concept of marriage that is often overlooked. Baptism, Confirmation, and Ordination all impose a character: they add something new, in a sense making us in the image of God in new ways. Reconciliation and Anointing restore what was lost. Eucharist perfects what we have, both the old and the new. But I increasingly think one of the more important reasons Marriage is a sacrament is that its point is to start to draw out, make more clear, what's already implicit in our being in the image of God. And if that's the case, you have to start there or you never even begin to do justice to it.

Crude said...

I think I'd agree with what I take as an attempt on the part of Esolen to recognize that the problems of marriage and dating, while individual, also have a cultural aspect. I'm not so sure about their recipe for how to address it.

I suppose one could start with fighting the notion that getting married at 18 or 19 - or being married and having a child at 19 or 20 (mostly pulling numbers out of the 'young' side of the air here) - shouldn't be met with forlorn looks and side-talk that the couple, particularly the mother, 'threw their lives away' or clearly made some huge mistake.

The solutions aren't easy, but at least some of the problems (if one views the lack of younger marriage, etc, as a problem) are at least a bit easier to see.

MrsDarwin said...

I don't advocate one way or the other for young marriage, because in the abstract it doesn't mean anything. A marriage of necessity involves two people, and one doesn't have any guarantee that one will meet one's spouse by age 19 or 24 or 39 or, possibly, ever. If a two people who happen to meet young feel that their vocation is to be married to each other, and are ready to get married sooner rather than later, that's fine. They're following their particular call. But it's pointless to toss around the term "young marriage" as if it's something that just happens with a roll of the dice. Spouses don't grow on trees in the orchard of love, ready to be plucked when ripe.

I myself was married at 22, which is comparatively young these days, but that was because Darwin and I met young and discerned our vocation together quickly. If I hadn't met him, I might still be single. No amount of societal scolding on the part of the pundits can conjure up a spouse out of thin air, or make two people compatible who really aren't.

Crude said...

I agree that approaching the problem from the perspective of 'we have to make sure people get married ASAP!' or the like would be a mistake, so I don't feel like it would be particularly wise to advocate 'younger marriage' in and of itself. But I do think that there is now some 'societal scolding' that actively discourages younger marriage, even if there's compatibility. Just like the idea of starting work out of high school rather than going to college (for anything, even something like 'Well, I'm going to get my PhD in Puppetry!') is met in some quarters with derision.

So my own focus here would be not on encouraging young marriage, but fighting some of the more exceptional discouragement. I mean, I've encountered some people - and I get the impression they're not exactly a fringe group - who would react to the news of a couple being married at 19 and having a child at 20 with 'oh my God, I'm so sorry to hear that' almost instinctively.

RL said...

Y'all read way too much into this stuff. The story here is that young Catholics these days don't seem to find holding special - the mysterious privilege of mutually crossing into the personal space of another who is their object of desire. To me this is a problem, not out of nostalgia and not that it heralds the end of civilization. It's a problem because of the cause.

The cause is of the Church's own making. We wouldn't have had the breakdown:

-If certain members of the Mystical Body hadn't decided that it would be groovy to hold hands in Mass.

-If other members had shunned them rather than thinking it a novel bottoms-up rite.

-If other members had folded their hands in prayer and rebuffed their neighbor's illicit advances.

-If ushers would have done their job clubbed arms that dared reach across the aisle for a cheap feel.

-If the priests had preached sermons against unnatural acts of hand-holding in sacred places and times.

If bishops had censured these purveyors of evil and unlawful appetites.

-If the Pope had anathematized the whole sorry bunch and then deployed the Swiss Guard to every parish to protect the faithful from this scourge of liturgical and cultural vandalism.

Yeah, I feel sorry for those youths who have never experienced that special tingle when touching your girl's hand for the first time, nor experienced a Mass without the dread of knowing that you're going likely to get abused after the consecration.

Darwin said...

Call me cynical, but even if college kids aren't holding hands in front of Esolen, I strongly suspect that "kids these days" have a strong appreciation of the delightfulness of the opposite sex. I'm pretty sure they deal in attraction and conversation and flirting as well. Even dancing. The thing is, that appreciation of delightfulness of the opposite sex these days is often not expressed in marriage. It's expressed in... other ways.

Thus, I would imagine that the thing that needs a'changin' is not a failure to understand the delightfulness of the opposite sex, but rather the failure to have an understanding of the purpose of the person and the purpose of life that properly integrates marriage and family -- as opposed to seeing it as a nice thing to settle down to once you've achieved career and personal stability and are ready to rear a couple of well groomed kids for bonus points.

Skywalker said...

It seems like people who meet someone young are encouraged to wait for years to marry and more years to have children on top of that. When my husband and I were married at 27 and 28 one of his bosses encouraged him to wait a while to have children. So on the one hand we have a very small demographic saying "Get married at 18!" and a much larger one on the other "Wait for marriage and kids until you're forty." I would like to see more dancing, bowling, and ice cream socials; and I'd like to see people encouraged to marry when they've found the right person, weather that's at 19 or 39.

ex-new yorker said...

Good post (a few days old by now, I see). It is more compelling coming from someone who can't be accused of feeling alienated from these prescriptions for youthful hand-holding by wounds from a past marked with the bitter loneliness of sin, or something. I married young also, but my "relationship" history wasn't as idyllic as you guys' sounds, and so many Catholic articles about this stuff come across as the writers defending their own lives in one way or another. Whether I was behaving with acknowledgment of "the purpose of the person and the purpose of life" is a pretty good measure of how good (and "happy") I have been at any given time of my life, including when I was a (not-so-good, not-so-happy) 22-year-old bride.

Theodore Seeber said...

The problem of the next generation delaying marriage will not be solved until we solve the problem of capitalism no longer providing living wage jobs for the unskilled.

The issue isn't just romantic- it is economic.

Darwin said...

Theodore Seeber,

There's an economic element, I expect, but I think there are also a lot of social expectations elements. People these days have the idea that they need to be very thoroughly established financially before they get married, perhaps to a greater extent than was the case in the past. With the exception of a few fairly exceptional times and places where the supply of labor was really short, I'm not clear it's to be expected that living off a single income of unskilled labor is ever going to be easy, at least not compared to our modern standards which tend to be formed by the earnings of very productive and skilled labor.

That said, I've been working through Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire novels lately, many of which deal with issues of money and marriage, and one of the things that's been striking me is that many of the characters there consider marrying in one's early '20s to be highly irresponsible for a man, unless he's inherited very large amounts of money (and sometimes even then.) So even circa 1850 we seem to have somewhat similar attitudes going on.