Why Marriage Matters

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.

Regis Martin


Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar's Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.

  • Kevin McCormick

    It is a beautiful image that you paint and certainly the ideal that every family should strive for. However, I think it is important to mention that, sadly, even before the sixties not every family was a “carapace of warmth and welcoming love.” It is not only ideas that have lead us to this current precipice but also the failures of many to live the very difficult calling of married life and in fact to live the difficulties inherent in the calling of Christianity itself. The sixties were a breaking point but the decline in the West began much earlier. Arguably the Reformation marks more of its beginning. Our present conundrum seems more the fruition of that seed.

    • Ford Oxaal

      Very true. And now, maybe the time is approaching for all baptized Christians to come back together in full communion. Perhaps that opportunity grows greater as the decay begins to openly fester. If we can only find the key to purifying our intentions, God can answer our prayers in the wink of an eye.

      • musicacre

        Yes, Opportunity grows as things becomes more clear, and choices never more clear. One great example of God’s mercy and grace recently, (prayers are ALWAYS being answered in different times, in different ways,) was the recent joining of an entire Anglican congregation (with it’s pastor) to the Catholic Church, here on Vancouver Island! (Conversion) A great cause for celebration!! Such a wonderful addition of determined souls! Such a beautiful example for us all!

        • Ford Oxaal

          *Great* news.

  • Arriero

    Is the article trying to say that there were no homosexuals, protitutes, abortions or divorces during the old and happy sixties? Things barely have changed since then. Is likely to be only a fundamental difference between what were the sixties and what we are now: in the sixties people, at least, were more afraid about public scandals, about what other could say, about “honor”. There were less permission -though in many times was just a false attitude, many were within scandals while they were saying advices and praying our Lord every day-. And another point is -one the author maybe has not talked about for political correctness-: now women are not what they used to be (or yes, but they’ve changed their paper in society). Now they’ve won in independence and personal choice, that’s why they’re not obligated -as they used to be- to be with someone who, in many cases, only could be named a “wild”. I think that could be the key point behind the rise of abortions, divorces and others; albeit I’m glad how women have won some freedom to choose, either the good or the bad, what makes them responsible. Besides that, not many other things have essentially changed since then. Men are still men. Women are still women. And obviously, sin is still sin. Certainly, the rest of it is just writting a romantic novel about what could have been. Family is deeply important in our societies, in our world. And I may say more: it is even more important now than it was in the past. Summarizing, I’m only saying that we have to live our lives as best as we can, trying to give to the others the best present and advice someone could give: our example. That’s the way how others will notice the kind of greatness thay stays in a Catholic family.

    • Matt Landry

      It is a bit disingenuous to say things “barely have changed” since the 1960s. For one thing, children in the 1960s mostly made it all the way through to adulthood with their parents’ marriages intact. By the time I was growing up, on the other hand, divorce was so commonplace that by the time I graduated high school I didn’t have a single friend or acquaintance whose biological parents were still married to one another. Most, indeed, had several sets of step-parents by then. And nowadays, most children are born into families where marriage isn’t even a thought.

      Of course, sin has always happened. Even in Jesus’ day, divorce, prostitution, and abortion were known to occur. But it took the modern era to bring about _normalization_ of such things.

      • musicacre

        Yes, that’s the frightening thing, the new “norm” is not much different the Sodom and Gomorrah. It was always hidden away before, as shameful things and practices usually are.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        In France (I do not know the figures for the USA) 44% of all births are out of wedlock, including 56% of the births of first children. Nevertheless, 85% of children under 15 are living with both their parents.

      • Matt, you lament the “normalization” of divorce, prostitution, and abortion. I don’t think any of us would disagree with you that these are social dysfunctions that must be addressed. But what is the best approach to addressing them?
        In my view, framing these dysfunctions as “sin” is not effective. Many people who are caught up in crises (divorce, abortion) or self-destructive behaviors (prostitution) bristle when they hear the “S-word.” Then you have lost them. Do you want to do that?

        Try stepping out of the “Catholic box” and trying a more pragmatic approach. Instead of blaming and shaming, could you think of non-moralistic terms in which you could address these issues?

        I’ll give you an example. A European city wanted to discourage littering in public parks. Instead of using the “blame-and-shame” approach, they provided positive incentives. They rigged up the trash cans so that they said “Thank you for not littering” every time someone tossed something into them. Soon, everyone was looking forward to the experience, and littering almost completely stopped.

        Can you think in this way about divorce, prostitution, and abortion? What are some creative solutions to these problems? Have any of them already been tried and been successful?

        • There are plenty of Catholic speakers who talk to young people about the wonderful things that can come from saving yourself for marriage, and for making a renewed commitment to chastity if you already lost your virginity outside of marriage. some of these people speak to religious and non-religious audiences alike! Do a little bit of research on Jason and Crystalina Evert for more information.

    • Ford Oxaal

      I don’t think the author would disagree at all with your summary. But the family has been *savaged*, and so have millions and millions of children — it’s not the occasional drunken dad wife beater we are talking about here — and a lot of the problem is the incredible *guilt* that is born by poor mothers who made the wrong choice about a precious child in their womb. One great way that baggage can be shed is through devotion to the Divine Mercy and confession to the bishop. Then those poor mothers become huge saints — *huge* saints.

  • John Bequette

    Beautifully written, Regis.

  • jkg

    Over the last 20 or so years that I have had the privlege of leading young people toward the sacrament of Confirmation, I have opened the first session always by stating that “God must have great plans for you–to live and be born into a society as it was in the age of the early Christians, when they were the real revolutionaries in the society in which they lived.” I still believe that today. Only ACTIVE Christians can change things, not those who sit in their rooms or the Ivory towers and “view with alarm, and note with concern.”

  • Sophie

    Mr. Martin, You seem to regard the “closet” as the place where homosexuals should be. I doubt any medical professional would agree with you, but you may be able to find one or two. The closet is in fact a very unhealthy place, not just for homosexuals but for their families and for society as a whole. Gays and lesbians are now in a much better place than they were fifty years ago: they are more socially integrated, they can form families, have children, and marry. In many places, they do not have to fear employment or housing discrimination. And again, this is not just good for them but for everyone. Fewer people are now on the frontier of vulnerability, and that is a positive good.

    Can you not see that what you wrote about life in a family (para. 8) is one of the best arguments that can be made for same-sex marriage? In fact, I am going to quote you just to drive this point home: “…What truly distinguishes life in a family 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.”

    Why would this not apply to gays and lesbians? Why are YOU not taking THEM into account when you quote Ortega y Gasset? “A man is uncivilized, barbarian, in the degree to which he does not take others into account.”

    None of the good things that you have written about families is dependent on there being children. Like couples with children, childless couples who love each other also need that “reassuring place where one is loved simply for being who they are.”

    Having written so beautifully about family, why would you ever want to withhold its benefits from gays and lesbians? This is what never makes sense to me. Can you explain?

    • mally el

      Over two thousand years ago the Chinese realized that it was only in an uncivilized society would there be no marrage and family, no proper and permanent relationship between husband and wife, parent and child, brother and sister. Nature, including human nature, is well designed and beautifully ordered. The marriage created when two people from the two genders that have meaning and purpose commit themselves to each other is unique. We expect love to exist in every human relationship, but marriage is more than just about love: it is our suvival. We all belong to families and, hopefully, every one of us benefits from the love and goodness flowing from them. Marriage is a wonderful human phenomenon and any attack on it is an attack on society.

      • Mally, as you say, marriage is a wonderful human phenomenon, but no one is attacking it. Your marriage is not affected by gay marriage; it remains just as unique as ever.

        • mally el

          Sophie, first of all, there is no such thing as same-gender marriage. Furthermore, if we empower politicians and judges to usurp the law that is built within us then we have opened the gates for further re-defintions (and reversals) depending upon the whims and fancies of the leaders. For thousands of years marriage has sustained humanity and many of us, including billions in Asia and Africa, will never allow marriage to be re-defined by man. The only role states play in marriage is to offer legal protection to the citizens who are married and also to their children.

  • anon


    Some people always bristle at the truth.

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