It was, not so very long ago, widely regarded in this country as morally wrong and, not infrequently, socially ruinous, for a man to walk out on his wife and children. In 1961, for example, Nelson Rockefeller, who was then Governor of New York, decided to divorce his wife of more than twenty years, for a much younger woman (who thereupon divorced her husband, leaving him with custody of their four children). The result? Despite every prediction that Rockefeller would easily become the Republican Party’s nominee for President in 1964, the scandal of divorce so undermined his credibility at the convention that he finally withdrew from the race. (Of course, his squishy republicanism was not exactly helpful, either.) In addition to committing political suicide, Rockefeller’s defiance of society’s mores earned him the opprobrium of vast swaths of ordinary Americans.
Now fast forward to the recent presidential sweepstakes and observe, in lurid contrast, the approval rating of Republican stalwart Newt Gingrich, who has compiled an impressive number of conjugal conquests (four so far). Has that seriously impeded his standing among voters? Not at all. Even ardent conservatives appear undisturbed by the obvious disconnect between his repeated failures to remain faithful to the covenant of marriage alongside his eagerness to uphold the Constitution of the United States.
But take another look back at that halcyon age. What other aberrations did people in that quaint and distant time find abhorrent? How approving were Americans of, say, abortion? Or pornography? And what about homosexuality? Were these hot-button issues back in 1961? Hardly. Had anyone back then dared to propose the legalization of abortion-on-demand, a porn-fed reading public, and same-sex marriage, not only would people find their ideas incomprehensible, but their morals reprehensible. And yet today these are issues around which fashionable opinion has rallied in the most robust and shameful way. Pornography, for example, has gone totally viral, becoming as ubiquitous as smoking once was. And, of course, the toxicity fallout is far, far greater inasmuch as it targets the soul while, at the same time, victimizing the innocent in ways that second-hand tobacco smoke never could. In other words, smut doesn’t poison the lungs, but it will infect everything and everyone else, leaving a mushroom cloud of defilement and degradation that only the grace of God can remove.
And then of course there is homosexuality. Not only has it come defiantly out from the closet, even social sanctions no seem no longer in force. Indeed, it has become a force itself, perhaps more powerful than any other in the deformation of the culture. Just ask the Democratic Party if it can safely ignore the Gay Lobby. Or the entertainment industry, which is not only hospitable to the homosexual community, but increasingly harnessed to its agenda.
Yes, we’ve certainly come a long way, baby.
But this is not an argument for going back to the world before history hit us with a freight train (and, in any case, there was much that was already rotten amid the seeming innocence of those days). Still, it shouldn’t be necessary to have specialized in social pathology to predict the demise of a civilization. And, without question, the one we’re living in now is, by all accounts, guttering and gasping on the cusp of complete dissolution. Can the disease be arrested? Or must the patient die?
These are questions that, as Pascal would say, take a man by the throat. In the meantime, I will venture this—that if our civilization is to go up in smoke, there is one very good reason for it, and that is the current crisis of marriage and family life, which threatens to destroy the principal institution making possible the life of civilization. It is not rocket science, I am saying, that tells us that the world’s health and happiness finally depend on the survival of something not only antedating the civil and societal order, but nourishing and sustaining it at every turn.
And what is it that truly distinguishes life in a family? It is something that hardly ever gets talked about, not even in families. It is the belief that here is a safe and reassuring place in the midst of an otherwise harsh and pitiless world; a place where one is loved, not for anything he or she might do, but simply for being who they are. Without that carapace of warmth and welcoming love, one is left alone and bereft in a world trembling with the cold.
“A man is uncivilized, barbarian, in the degree to which he does not take others into account,” wrote Jose Ortega y Gasset more than eighty years ago in his great work, The Revolt of the Masses. “Barbarism is the tendency to disassociation.” Now there’s a thesis that, in light of all that has happened since, seems positively prophetic. Indeed, with uncanny accuracy, Ortega put his finger on what really goes on between two people and the life that springs from the loins of their love. Because what else does it mean when two people marry and have babies but that they must now take others into account. That they are now to live so entirely for the other that the two become one flesh.
“God was in love,” Fulton Sheen used to say, “but He could not keep the secret. The telling of it was creation.” How else does God go about telling us how much He loves us if not through the institution of marriage? It is the high road of nature that God chose to lead us through, in order that, in grace, we might then experience the wonder and majesty of divine love. The opening chapter of Genesis makes this abundantly clear with the creation of Adam and Eve, whom God enjoins to be fruitful and multiply. Here, among other equally obvious data, is a procreative power surely beyond the capacity of same-sex unions to achieve.
Is there anything in society more foundational than this? Why it is nothing less than the great revelational event in the history of the world! At the level, that is, of nature. It is God’s way of telling us how He wants life to begin: through the mysterious coupling of two disparate human beings, thus creating a bond the origin and strength of whose union is so sacred not even governments can sever it. And the fruit of so blessed and intimate a union? Nothing less than membership in a family few us can ever remember not having belonged to.
“Home is the place where,” Robert Frost reminds us, “when you go there, they have to take you in.” Or put it this way: the place where, when you arrive, it suddenly becomes what it was always meant to be, i.e., a family. And we all find ourselves more or less inserted into its fabric. Why should it then surprise us to learn that God is himself a family? (“It is not well,” warns Chesterton, “for God to be alone.”) Or that He should take an interest in our own families? Are they not replications of His family, which is to say, little domestic churches? And when He fashioned for Himself a body with which to redeem us, God chose a family to be the place where it should all begin. Joseph and Mary and Jesus. It is the family, in other words, after whose perfection we are to model our own efforts to become perfect.
The world is to be saved by beauty. But only because of that prior absolute Beauty which, in Jean Danielou’s lovely and expressive phrase, “cascades down from the Trinity.” Only in the love of Christ, who is the beauty of God Incarnate, will the world find salvation. And what else is marriage but the love of two people annealed in a common enterprise whose exalted purpose is nothing less than to monstrate before the world the very Face of God.
“Who speaks the things that Love him shows,” writes Coventry Patmore, “shall say things deeper than he knows.” When a man and a woman fall in love, a terrible beauty is born. A beauty which, please God, may become yet more beautiful when, quickened by the springs of Love itself, the miracle of life happens and, all at once, we witness the laughter and the smiles of little children.
Editor’s note: The image above is entitled “The Marriage of Cana” painted by Gerard David in c. 1500.