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 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".
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.
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:
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.
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]
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.