Sex and the institutions, customs, and restraints related to it are basic to social order. That claim shouldn’t be controversial, and it’s odd that it has become so.
Older political philosophers such as Aristotle, who viewed man as naturally social, found it self-evident to start their analysis of society with the union of man and woman in marriage and build from there. Such a view has many virtues. For one, the natural authority of the family, and the need to supplement and complete it, explain the authority of government, and why it is necessary to social order but not its basis. The approach makes political life naturally multileveled and limited, and so makes it easy, without the aid of shaky inventions like the liberal theory of human rights, to avoid the extremes of anarchy and tyranny that seem at home in political thought today.
The older view has been eclipsed, for reasons that include individualism and the increasing role of bureaucratic and industrial forms of organization. The current tendency is to begin political thought with the atomic individual, and then construct the state as the protector of his well-being. The family then becomes a legal contrivance or a private contract among individuals rather than a fundamental institution in its own right. That is the view that recently led the Supreme Court to treat restriction of marriage to opposite-sex couples as an expression of intent to harm same-sex couples. After all, if marriage is an invention of government, and it’s what particular individuals want that matters, why should government facilitate the desires of some more than others?
Such views, while urged on us by the most reputable authorities, are completely unrealistic. It is absurd to say marriage and the family are a creation of the state when they long existed without it. And to reduce marriage to a private contract makes it, as the Marxists suggested, very much like prostitution. To the contrary, marriage and the family are part of what defines who their members are. How can that be just a contract or a legal artifice? The way to think about the family that best fits the place it has enduringly held in human life is to assume it as a normal fundamental part of the human world, and concern ourselves with its care and feeding so it will be able to live up to its role in that world. That is the view of the Church, and it’s the natural view for people to take who haven’t been taught ideological demands or addled by commercial pop culture. Once that view is taken, the solution to current questions regarding sex and the family fall into place.
Marriage, and the families to which it gives rise, play a fundamental role in human life. They provide a setting that is uniquely suitable for bringing the new generation into the world. It is much harder for children to grow up well if they lack a stable family with a mother and a father. Families also care for the old, sick, and unfortunate. When they are weakened that care becomes more and more the responsibility of government, which is badly positioned to tailor its response to individual situations. The result is that some go unaided, while others are tempted by the rewards on offer, and there is a rise in the numbers claiming benefits that eventually makes the system unsustainable.
The question, then, is how marriage and the family, which are basic to any humane way of life, can be maintained as stable and functional institutions. A necessary part of doing so is channeling the sexual impulse so that it supports marriage and becomes constructive rather than disruptive. That is not simply or even primarily a matter of rewards and penalties. Man is a social and rational animal, which means that he acts in accordance with shared understandings of himself, his situation, and his connections and obligations to others. Such understandings are absolutely basic to human society and moral life.
For that reason it matters what men, women, and marriage are thought to be. If marriage is to be something we can rely on, it can’t be a sentimental celebration or optional lifestyle choice whose content depends on the orientation and goals of the parties. It has to be understood as something definite that, simply because of what it is, has intrinsic functions that are basic to human life. To be itself, it must therefore be understood as a union of man and woman that accepts the natural consequences of such a union, and there have to be distinct understandings of men, women, the relations between the two, and what they owe and have a right to expect from each other.
Given the importance of marriage and family to human well-being, laws, practices, and attitudes must support such understandings. They must define marriage in a way consonant with its ends, and surround it with standards and expectations that guard and facilitate its functioning. Such considerations are a matter of fundamental social justice. Sexual freedom and standard-issue feminism are radically unjust, because they deprive necessary institutions of what is due them for support. They therefore injure all of us, the weakest and most vulnerable most of all.
That, of course, is the opposite of what most people say who talk about sex and justice. Liberal thought is entrenched as the basis for public discussion, and it doesn’t like the idea of a network of expectations and obligations to which people are subject other than those generated by state and market. What’s just, liberals believe, is for individuals to be free from all social pressure in their private lives as long as they perform their duties as employees, taxpayers, and citizens of a diverse, tolerant, and multicultural society. If people are pressured to act one way or another for some reason other than the needs of liberal institutions, that’s bigotry and discrimination, and eradicating it is one of the central duties of government.
However strong and entrenched that way of thinking is, it needs to be disputed and overthrown. There are a variety of fronts on which to carry on the attack. Sometimes we should attack its assumptions and their implications directly, while other times we should accept the legitimate concerns that have led many people to liberal social views and point out that we must go beyond liberalism for those concerns to be satisfied.
When we take the latter tack we can point out that liberalism claims to take individual and social well-being seriously, and a healthy marriage culture is necessary for those things. A sane liberalism could not be entirely liberal on lifestyle issues any more than it could be communist on economic issues or anarchist on administrative issues. Liberals accept the necessity of private property and police forces, even though those institutions limit equality and freedom in ways that are often quite radical. Similarly, they need to accept the necessity of marriage and the family, and give them no less deference and support than other fundamental social institutions.
Liberals also claim to favor respect for individuals. Experience has made it obvious that the abolition of traditional rules and roles doesn’t deliver the dignity, respect, happiness, or effective freedom that was promised. Instead, it’s given us hooking up, slutwalks, failure to bond, epidemics of STDs, complaints about rape culture, and a great deal of resentment. The problem is that sex is profoundly expressive and interpersonal, and it can’t mean what it naturally means when it’s disconnected from other considerations. If you get rid of the natural function of sex as a guide, and therefore the natural ordering of the relation between man and woman, that relation becomes a matter of shifting and conflicting desires, and we end up in the crude and manipulative world that has grown up around us.
We should also point out that self-interest is a big reason our ruling elites support social liberalism. The age of liberation from sexual roles and standards has also been an age of ever greater inequality. Traditional standards restrict what the so-called 1% can do, and functional families diffuse authority to all levels of society. With that in mind it’s hard to see why people concerned about inequality should enlist on the side chosen by Hollywood propagandists and billionaire foundations.
Such arguments have of course been tried by the pro-family movement. They’ve failed, and the failure shows that the struggle needs to be carried on at a deeper level. For Catholics, for example, it has an essential religious dimension. Nonetheless we should continue making such commonsensical arguments. Answering objections helps us stay clear about our own position, and even if the majority of the Supreme Court rejects our answers they have a cumulative effect, since they help conscientious people tempted by social liberalism understand that it is not social justice.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared October 2, 2013 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission. The image above of a Roman family is from a frieze on display at the Legion of Honor Museum of Fine Arts, San Francisco.