Sunday, October 26, 2014

Virtue, That’s the Thing

            In preparation for what I think will be a great issue of the Catholic Review of Books, I have started to read a number of wonderful books on marriage. The fine people at Ignatius Press sent me several and those other fine people at Sophia Institute Press have sent me a few on the topic too. Ignatius has those ‘controversial’ books taking on Kasper directly with robust historical, canonical and theological essays. Power-punches, for lack of a better phrase. Sophia has sent a book that has kind of stopped me short, called “When Divorce is not an Option.”  It is written by Dr. Gregory Popcak, a psychologist.

            I don’t like books like this in general. No, that’s not right. I don’t like to read books like this. I think they are very useful for people, but I don’t enjoy reading them. But this one had me right from the get-go with two points: 1) the author accepts the possibility that a marriage can fail because of one person (yes, it’s almost always the fault of both, but there are cases, I am convinced, where it is 99% one person’s fault), 2) he promises he can help a marriage even when only one of the partners wants to fix it. Having been sold by this book so quickly, I thought, “Hey, Anne-Marie and I should read this together,” laughing at myself, because I desperately hate when she makes this suggestion to me. Keep in mind she never suggests we read theological encyclopaedias. Rotter.

            Anyway, I also started to read the short book by Cardinal Müller, Hope of the Family. The good cardinal and his interviewer begin by noting statistical tendencies in marriage. This information is always interesting, but seems to me almost beside the point. One thing people never seem to notice – whether we are talking about writers, journalists, theologians, psychiatrists, Synod-members – is that from a statistical standpoint, marriage has never worked . I read a lot of stuff from Antiquity. I read a lot of Medieval and Modern history. To say that ‘marriage is in a state of crisis’ suggests that it hasn't always been. And there is no such thing as a permanent crisis, is there? I blogged a few months ago about that new difficulties that young people have now in their marriages that were not there before. Am I going to hereby contradict myself? Nope, just perhaps to look at things in a broader perspective. I argued in that post that without the help of a Catholic community, grace, good-guidance of parents, that marriage is nearly impossible today. I stand by that. What I want to say here is that even with these things it is not easy, and it has never been easy, nor known ‘statistical success.’

            The common-denominator is virtue. While marriage is certainly good for us, and not only that, necessary to our nature, and, indeed, a fulfillment of our nature, to move it from merely fulfilling the biological imperative and developing its economic potential, to something that is holy, something that cradles, sustains and nourishes virtue, well, that is something altogether different. Do these books, synods, psychiatrists miss that? As a theologian, that is the part to which I must attend.

            Does the literature properly attend to this distinction? Probably not. In the case of the defense of marriage, vis à vis homosexualism, I have seen no rigorous attempt (and this is like wishing for oranges from apple trees) to speak of the economic meaning, versus the biological meaning, the moral meaning, and the theological meaning of marriage. I have no doubt that the public is incapable of working through the complex issue of homosexuality. It is one that at least requires an extensive knowledge of human psycho-sexual development – not to mention having a serious handle on logic, and when it comes to talking about whether it’s good or not (biology can talk about whether it is biologically ‘fit,’ but not anything more than that) you kind of have to have a handle on ethics. Whether it is natural in the sense of ‘good,’ as fulfilling the theological notion of man as found in the revelation of Christ – that is so far out of the capacity of the great unwashed masses. And, how it is to be understood in light of ethics (i.e. Aristotle’s happiness principle and/or Kant’s categorical imperative) that is also well beyond the capacity of 99% of people.

            Judges like to think that they are operating from a position that is at least comprehensive of the biological and ethical dimensions, but people would have to be seriously self-deluded to think that it is not about popularity, serving demagogic forces, i.e., the way the wind is blowing. People-pleasing is their subconscious drive, I'd say. (Everything is politics, and in the judiciary, this is conspicuously so.) Consciously, judges think about how to make things fair and equal. But equal does not make for fair if there are reasons why heterosexual unions need to be distinguished from homosexual ones. Treating cats and dogs equally is to give both of them cat food. Equal does not necessarily mean fair. In any case, is it fair to forbid tax breaks to one class of sex-union granted to another? Yes, it is. A nation has an obvious vested interest in favouring one type of union over the other. Every medical system is based on making distinctions between people: people who smoke do not get heart transplants, for instance. If there were an unlimited number of spare hearts it would be unethical to deny the smoker a new heart. Any money given to person X is money taken from person Y. Tax breaks for X is money taken from Y. Money is a finite commodity. Not only is it in the nation’s best interest to promote heterosexuality for the obvious short-term economic reasons of population sustenance and growth, but a morally healthy populace is civilly fit one. Moral health is the only foundation for the civic virtues without which no society can thrive. Otherwise we descend into the chaos of the ghetto, for instance, where there is a serious dearth of moral and, therefore, civic virtues. The question about homosexuality must be a comprehensive one. It is obviously an unhealthy lifestyle choice. But why? Is that intrinsic to homosexuality or to society’s poor regard for it? It is evident that it is to a great extent intrinsic to it. So what? So everything. A society that does not promote various physically and/or morally healthy activities seems like a rather pointless one. What is the point of the state? It is meant to produce a greater good than can be gained without voluntary co-operation. If it cannot do this, it has no point. Nor is this an infinite type of calculus which is meant to reduce people to mere cogs in the efficiency machine. For force characteristically has an inverse relationship with human happiness. We cannot force people to not be gay, nor can we force people to think well of it, if we are interested in being a truly healthy culture.

            So, governments have an interest and a role to play in marriage but it is not the comprehensive one some, or many, imagine it to be. Governments are at the service of marriages, not the reverse. Governments are meant to help families, not families help governments. In a certain sense one could say that insofar as governments help families, they are legitimate. But the definition of a family has nothing to do with government. In the worst case we could say that a family is what the government defines it to be for the sake of its political objectives. That is how the communists in Russia and China defined it. They had realized a long time ago that the traditional notion of the family was one that undermined the hegemony of the state.

            If there is one thing that links the moral views of the great philosophers from Antiquity and the pre-Modern era as a whole (and there are many things that unites the moral thinking of these great philosophers – read my up-coming book, Philosophers Behaving Well – I am not kidding, I have been working on this for a while. Someone give me some bloody money so I can keep working on it!), if there is one thing that unites their moral view, it is that a state’s usefulness is defined in terms of how it serves the basic good of the human person. Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, the Stoics, all looked at things this way. They did not begin with the state and figure out from it how people could make it stronger; they began with the person and asked how the state can make people happier. What kind of state there should be was determined by how good it was thought to be at making people happy.

            In this light, marriage is properly considered 'in the interest of the state' in this service sense. But it does not get to design marriages and families. If it wants to be of service to people’s happiness it must ask what things are working against family flourishing, and attempt to deal with some of these things. But it must not force compliance with programs. A happy family is a self-determined one.

            Okay, it has taken me a long way to get to this word, self-determination. I suppose I could have dispensed with the last four or five paragraphs, or really everything after my third paragraph, but the above digression does at least provide some political context. There is nothing a Church program can do to make marriages better; nothing statements can do – statements in addition to the crystal clear articulations of the Faith we have received up to this point.  In fact, statements seem most often to have the very opposite effect. I know I am going to get into trouble with this one, but you know what a great waste of time, talent and treasure is: episcopal conferences. More paper work, more meetings, less clarity, energy dissipated. Lots of money spent on generating documents no one will ever read or benefit from. Let the popes speak, let the bishops speak, let priests speak, let conferences go by the wayside. They perform no essential enculturating service, which is how they explain their existence. Can’t Quebecois read and understand papal encyclicals and the Catechism for themselves? If they can’t, what’s wrong with the Catechism?

            Self-determination. What families need is human virtue. Any and every happy marriage in the past or in the present had one thing as a part of it: people trying to live well, being selfless, caring, loving, self-sacrificing, working hard in service to the other. The question of how we can have good marriages is first and foremost, how can we have moral people? Ideological confusion is a part of the problem in that it falsely defines the good. Church documents can help with this, but, as I said, we have more than enough of these already, and the more produced the less weighty each one becomes (basic supply and demand theory here). Economics and politics can help and hurt, as I’ve said above. Taxes that promote family life, indeed, are pro-life, and not based upon the cynicism of life’s meaninglessness and a belief in the arbitrariness of social covenants, are indeed helpful, but they are not sufficient to make a marriage succeed. Nor can knowledge of psychology or even of theology makes for a happy marriage – these things help. The only thing that makes for a happy marriage, again, is virtue. Other things can bolster virtue, but not take its place.

            There is no marriage crisis. There is a virtue crisis and this has been the case since the Fall of man. If you get rid of false ideologies, if states stop harming families by supporting sinful structures with their resources, if the Church clearly articulates the Faith, if, if, if, then we will get back to square one: the basic problem of being good in light of the Fall. Then we have to work on that problem. What separated the relatively divorce-free past from today are the above things that have added problems on top of the basic problem of original sin. Nevertheless, even if you remove all the Kaspers,all the homosexualists,all the United Nations, and the communists, all the pessimistic philosophies, you will take us back to a better age, yes, but not to a time where marriage was statistically working.

           Sometimes our analysis can lead us into a false nostalgia, false in that it considers the past to have been some golden age that we must return to. Certainly, there were fewer divorces in the past than now. Certainly, a society that has a heterosexual notion of marriage, certainly, one that has a sacramental notion of marriages is for that reason better than ones that do not. However, that does not mean that that is enough for good marriages. The absence of divorce, homosexuality, abortion and pornography will not make good marriages. Through most of the millennium that was dominated by a sacramental notion of marriage, marriage was still a struggle. Sure, economic forces helped families cohere in a sort of unity. This was a unity of work and of geographical unity, not necessarily a unity of hearts. Of course. 'no fault divorce' has made the world a worse place, but it came in because people wanted it, not by the force of 'some enemy in the night.' Marriage is always hard. Modernity did not make it so. We need to insist on these facts because when we define problems inaccurately, we cannot hope to discover how to fix them. Subsistence agriculture was hard on families and marriages. But this does not mean that the more leisure couples have the happier marriages will be. We've never had so much leisure; coincidentally, we have never had so much marital unhappiness. Short skirts cause problems in marriages, but long skirts do not cure marriages. 

1 comment:

  1. You hit that one out of the park, colin. After each and every marriage prep weekend, I think to myself, all these people really need is Jesus - to understand who he is and to hand it all over to him. I mentioned this to a good priest friend who told me that bishop Riesbeck, when a lowly pastor, decided that Alpha would be far more useful than marriage prep. I tend to agree.