Healthy Societies Need Successful Marriages

The great error of most economic thinking these days is not that it is too keenly focused on the economy, but that it has all but forgotten it.  A good friend of mine, a wise theologian, has encouraged his students to distinguish between what Aristotle calls chrematistics, the craft of amassing wealth, which Aristotle viewed with a healthy suspicion, and economics, the laws governing the management of an oikos, a household.  Another way to put this is that man is not made for an economy, but economy is made for man, who is ineluctably a social being, or, as Aristotle put it, a political being.

Aristotle did not mean that man is made for the ridiculous charade of self-government that we Americans enjoy every four years, with its heaves of moronic marketing, evasion, and dishonesty. Aristotle is the pagan with the flat feet. He stands squarely on the ground of common things. A political animal is a rational creature who thrives best within a polis, a smallish community of people who do not suffer edicts from afar, but who adjust their civil laws to the laws of man’s nature, to secure amongst themselves the common good.

There’s a nice analogy to draw, between mass politics which overwhelms the polis, along with its ally in mass “economics” or chrematistics whether of the left or the right, which ignores what man is made for, and society properly conceived, fashioned by healthy and thriving households.  Catholic Social Teaching will not allow us the ease of abstraction, as if “society” could denote any aggregate of human beings organized (or disorganized) according to any financial and, for want of a better word, political laws whatsoever.  In short, a society must be social—it must be based upon the human good of friendship and what the medieval English called “neighborhood,” meaning the virtue of getting along with and assisting those among whom we live most closely.  An economy, too, must be economic—it must be based on the good of households, and must aim, though in sometimes an intricate or circuitous way, at that same good.

We cannot make any headway understanding the encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII unless we keep these things firmly in mind.  The Pope’s teachings on the nature of man, his eternal destiny, the sanctity of marriage, the good of the family, and social and economic justice are all one coherent and harmonious vision.  So then let us turn to his encyclical on Christian marriage, Arcanum divinae (1880), for this too is eminently a social letter.

Leo begins by observing that Christ came among us, as Saint Paul says, “to re-establish all things” in Him—all things, not just the Sunday things, as it were.  Just as, in Aeterni patris, Leo affirmed the assistance that faith lends to reason, elevating it to heights it could never have scaled on its own, while reason in turn clarifies faith and protects it from lapsing into error, so too this new instauration in Christ “imparted a new form and fresh beauty to all things, taking away the effects of their time-worn age.”  That refreshment came in the order of nature, too, redounding to the good of nations and families.  “The authority of rulers,” he writes, “became more just and revered; the obedience of the people more ready and unforced; the union of citizens closer; the rights of dominion more secure.”  Indeed, the Christian faith could hardly have done more to procure the truly good things of a common life, had it been instituted solely for that purpose.

Such is the context for Leo’s discussion of marriage—and marriage, in turn, is the context for his economic and political thinking. The first thing he insists upon is that marriage is not a human creation, much less a creation of the State, but is of divine origin. Its fruition is not in the satisfaction of individual desires, as potent or as harmless as some of those may be. It is, because it is divine, by necessity oriented towards the being of God Himself. Its fruitfulness participates in His creative bounty. Its unity reflects the inner life of love that is the Trinity. Its exclusivity and perpetuity reflect His faithfulness and His eternity.

When Jesus teaches us that the two great commandments are like unto one another, we are apt to remember that we cannot love God aright unless we love our neighbor; but apt to forget that our love of neighbor cannot be divorced from the love we owe to God. If, then, we sin against marriage, demoting it to the status of a contract, which in pagan times could be abrogated by the husband at a whim (and which now can be so abrogated by either party), we sin against God and neighbor both. We sow dissolution in what should be a society but degenerates into a mass, an aggregate, a confounding of wills.

Thus, according to Leo, it was an act of the highest mercy and justice at once, when Jesus blessed marriage at Cana, and went on to bring back “matrimony to the nobility of its primeval origin,” in his role as “supreme Lawgiver.”  We misread things if we assume that only a prohibition against divorce is involved.  The marriage of man and woman, grounded in their biological, earthly nature, is divine in origin and end; it is the sphere in which most of us will be called to holiness, with a procreation both physical and spiritual: “By the command of Christ, [marriage] not only looks to the propagation of the human race, but to the bringing forth of children for the Church, fellow-citizens with the saints, and the domestics of God (Eph. 2:19).”  Leo is ever at pains to show that the Church does for the State what the State cannot well do for itself: she makes citizens of the city of God, citizens who make for something like a just city here below.

If we consider the matter carefully, we see not only that Christian marriage is the foundation for a genuine society.  It is a society in itself, and a model for the society at large.   Thus when Leo describes the inner dynamic of a Christian marriage, it is in social terms.  “The mutual duties of husband and wife have been defined,” he writes, “and their several rights accurately established.  They are bound, namely, to have such feelings for one another as to cherish always very great mutual love, to be ever faithful to their marriage vow, and to give one another an unfailing and unselfish help.”  The key words here are mutual and several.  They have profound implications for all genuine Catholic teaching on the just society.

We have almost lost the sense of gift implied by the word mutual.  For us, it means that if John does something, then Mary does the same, and so on, until the end of time.  We take it to imply a flat identity.  But the inner meaning of the word involves an exchange of gifts, a reciprocity that is not arithmetical but human.  Thus the mutuality of the love between husband and wife is implied in their several or separate, distinct duties.  It is precisely because the husband and wife are not the same in their mode of being human and even in their physical relations to one another that they can most fully embody the complete gift of self that love demands.  Each complements the other; each completes the other, and this completion is not subjective but an objective, incarnate fact.  The two are one flesh.  The man is for the woman, the woman for the man, and both, as individuals and as a married couple, are for God.

From Christian marriages, says Leo, “the State may rightly expect a race of citizens animated by a good spirit and filled with reverence and love for God, recognizing in it their duty to obey those who rule justly and lawfully, to love all, and to injure no one.”  What, by contrast, might we expect from an anti-society of self-will and divorce?  For some hedonists delight in riches, and others delight in sex, and still others in prestige or ease or hectic excitements.  Leo won’t mince words.  When Christian marriage is deprecated, man sinks “into the slavery of [his] vicious nature and vile passions,” and nothing, says Leo, “has such power to lay waste families and destroy the mainstay of kingdoms as the corruption of morals.”  Or are we to believe that men who are shameless and shiftless in the most intimate and most socially productive of human relations will, in any great numbers, be animated by civic responsibility and love of neighbor in their other public actions, where their duties are less clear, and the opportunities for self-serving almost limitless?

Every sin against marriage is a sin against the very possibility of any kind of society at all.  Every Christian marriage begun in purity and continued in faithfulness and duty and love is an exemplar for all social relations, and allows us to imagine something better than the loneliness of self-will “wedded,” in ghastly symbiosis, to the inhumanity of economics without households, and a state without citizens.

Anthony Esolen


Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

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  • musicacre

    Thank you! So much clarity in such a short article! It’s so hard to explain to people how extremely connected divorce is to a failing society, you really nailed it! The second last paragraph in particular, puts it in a nutshell. Oftentimes young people (even Catholics) won’t take the time to read any of the excellent books out there on marriage, so this article can serve as a beginning, to spark the interest. We still all have much to learn from the collective wisdom of the Popes, past and the the present-day one! I think your students are lucky and I hope you keep writing pieces like this!

  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    Thank you for an eloquent and illuminating essay on a subject of supreme importance for civilization. As even Homer shows in the ODYSSEY, the home is the center of civilization, and marriage is the heart of the family. Without the virtues of noble men who will defend the home and found families in loving marriages and without the virtues of generous women who provide a sense of permanence and stability that orders the family and who sacrifice for the well-being and education of children, society will degenerate. Children will not know the balance of justice and mercy, strength and gentleness, will power and sensitivity that only the complementary virtues of fathers and mothers exemplify in holy marriages.

    • Tout

      KALPAKGIAN very good. Now if you will demand communion-rails in our churches, where children can kneel besides their parents, children may learn that it starts by honoring God. Even their parents kneel for Him.

      • Ford Oxaal

        A bit off-topic, but it is true that when a child sees an adult genuflect gracefully before the tabernacle, a profound impression is made.

  • Prof_Override

    Well put and eloquent, however … “It is precisely because the husband and wife are not the same in their mode of being human and even in their physical relations to one another that they can most fully embody the complete gift of self that love demands. Each complements the other; each completes the other, and this completion is not subjective but an objective, incarnate fact.” This describes virtually all the same sex pairs I’ve encountered. Your argument for marriage is beautiful, but it’s an argument for same sex marriage and not against it.

    • Ford Oxaal

      The argument for same gender marriage is based on the notion that society is benefited by augmenting equal rights and advancing liberty. This argument is based on individual rights alone, and could therefore be logically extended to no end, thus nullifying marriage. Open to all, it would be eliminated for all. To the contrary, the promotion of family is the very reason for society’s existence. As same gender marriage tends toward nullification of the marriage contract, it is harmful to society. The legitimate benefits of the marriage contract are not privileges contrary to equal rights, but rather, are rights prior to, underlying, and in support of individual rights. Of all intrinsic rights and natural allegiances, family is first.

      • JERD

        Well said. Put another way: If marriage can be anything, then marriage is nothing.

        Also, Override does not recognize that to “fully embody” the gift of self, requires openness to the creation of new life.

      • Prof_Override

        My personal position on this issue revolves around 2 words of your reply – “marriage contract”. I believe that the solution to this issue is very easy and straight forward. Those 2 words don’t belong together. First the religious context should be “marriage covenant” and legal context should be “civil union contract”. I think that the government should get out of the marriage business completely. Marriage is the sole and exclusive perogative of religious organizations. Each church to handle the matter as it sees fit. Freed of the burden of marriage, government policy should then focus on whether there is any reason to provide legal and policy distinctions to people who wish to sign up to a civil union contract. The only reason I can think of for why the government has crossed this seperation of church and state boundry is so that conservative churches can use the government to enforce their beliefs on liberal churches.

        • Ford Oxaal

          At some point the civil government would have to enter the picture — and it boils down to a contract issue. Under your scheme, you could have various levels of contracts — indissoluble (Roman Catholic) down to no-fault — there would be a marketplace of marriage contracts. That might be better than the situation where the teeth have been completely knocked out of the traditional contract, as we have now.

          • Tony

            Fornication is the gorilla in the middle of the room here. Or rather one of the three or four gorillas. We cannot sanction the physical and ontological absurdity of same-sex unions without sanctioning fornication. And that, of course, is precisely what has devastated marriage since the sexual revolution. The other gorilla in the room is male-male friendship, or rather the possiblilty for normal and physically demonstrative friendships among people of the same sex. That is gone, once sodomitical relationships are open and celebrated; every simple normal human interchange is going to be seen in light of the sexual habits prevalent. A third gorilla in the room is the unnaturalness of the same-sex eros itself, which is attached to other unnatural desires (porn use among homosexual men is universal, and that is just for starters), so that to approve of one is to approve of the other. A fourth gorilla in the room is the welfare of those teenagers who are timid or unsure or nervous about their roiling sexual feelings — these need to be brought gently into the world of healthy sexual identity, and not encouraged by nearby example to fall into Sodom.

            • Ford Oxaal

              All true, but unpersuasive to the people that need persuading. The purely rational approach is sufficient — (a) the family precedes society, and is the reason for society, and is therefore the reason underlying any and all rights, (b) same gender marriage tends to nullification of marriage. I challenge anyone on the other side of this debate to refute this line of reason (using reason).

          • enness

            It might be preferable, but I doubt it could last — ‘a house divided against itself’ and whatnot.

        • enness

          I have been of that position in the past. I understand where it comes from. Ultimately I had to decide whether I really thought society might unravel, and if so, what responsibility our governance might have to stop it. Yes, I also had to re-examine the whole “limited-government conservative” thing and venture into less strictly defined territory.
          As for the last line, if only it were true that liberal churches (or secular liberals, for that matter) were pepetually the victim and never the agressor…

          • Prof_Override

            Same sex marriage is just the issue du jour. When it dies down, there will be another to take its place. The real battle is the larger schools of thought behind the issues. The razor I’m trying to highlight is Traditionalist vs Conservative. I think of conservative as focused, limited government in all aspects. The Traditionalists tend to track with the economic elements of conservatism, but deviate on the social elements – ready to use government to slow or stop social change. The interesting dynamic to me is the alliance of the Traditionalists with the Post Modernist right (who with the Post Modernist left are the truly coreless players in this game). The truly amoral teamed up with the hyper-moral, and the funny thing is that it seems to work. Now they lost the election (47% is not bad, but it seems to have a bad taste to it), mainly because the Post Modern left are better liars (they’ve got their anger under control a bit better). Being left (no pun intended) on the sidelines are the Modernists of all stripes, they seem to have only brought assault rifles to the fight when WMDs are the weapon of choice – there is no reasoning whether left or right when rhetorical nuclear blasting is the new norm.

    • enness

      If you intend to interpret it that way, there will be little I can do to dissuade you, but for what it’s worth I thought it was pretty clear he was speaking of the inherent complementarity of a man and a woman. “Incarnate [in the flesh] fact” ought to make it especially clear that this is physical as well as spiritual. Yin to the yang, as opposed to yin-yin or yang-yang, you might say.

      • Prof_Override

        I understand where people are coming from on this issue. I’m a married with children, hetero male. My main point is to have churches take control of marriage as a religious covenant again, by pulling the government completely out of the marriage business. Once all government “marriage contracts” have been demoted to civil unions, the social polarization is removed and then it is just about economic benefits. If you’re apposing civil union contracts of same sex couples, that’s another matter completely, because the religious element has now been exorcized.

  • mally el

    Healthy marriages make healthy societies.

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  • Bedarz Iliaci

    “a polis, a smallish community of people”

    Any odd community does not make a polis. It has to be an authoritative moral community i.e. a State– a self-ruling particular State that has its material cause as land plus the people. That accounts for the neighborhood i.e. lacking the land in the definition, we can not assume that the people are neighbors. It has to be authoritative in that it can execute justice among the people.

    “Smallish” should not be strictly necessarily and how it would be possible in 21C of mega-citiies?. The key point is that of Subsidiarity and given the subsidiarity, the modern State can self-organize into a hierarchy of communities, beginning from the neighborhood and onwards to the modern Nation State.

  • Bedarz Iliaci

    Healthy marriages depend upon a healthy society too. From Aristotle’s Politics:

    Without the City, the rules in the household and the village actually
    become destructive to the human beings, for just like the relationship
    between the growth of the whole and that of the parts, where the latter
    is beneficial only in relation to the former (without respect to which
    it can be cancerous and harm the body). So too is the relationship
    between the rules in the household/village and that in the City. If the
    unequal rules in the household do not aim at the rule among equals in
    the City, the inferior work produced by them will turn humans into
    Cyclops with a natural bent toward war.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Professor Esolen is right to invoke Aristotle, the philosopher of common sense, who is really very good on this.

    “Hence in the household are first found the origins and springs of friendship, of political organization and of justice.” [[1242b][1] διὸ ἐν οἰκίᾳ πρῶτον ἀρχαὶ καὶ πηγαὶ φιλίας καὶ πολιτείας καὶ δικαίου.] – Eudemian Ethics Book 7

    It is precisely because of the formation they receive in the home that people are fitted for the task of building up the wider community of the polis or city, in which the virtues learned in the home find their fullest realisation and expression

    This is poles apart from the social contract theories of Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke.

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  • enness