Helen M. Alvaré is an Associate Professor of Law who, prior to joining the George Mason faculty, was an Associate Professor at Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law. Professor Alvaré chaired the commission investigating clerical abuse in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and is an advisor to Pope Benedict XVI’s Pontifical Council for the Laity, as well as an ABC News consultant.
“It’s never just about him. It’s never just about her. It’s never even just about him and her together. Rather, it’s always, also about the children he and she could make, or have made together, as indispensable co-creators with God.”
As a family law professor, as a person of faith, and as an American, this is the message I am more and more coming to believe is an essential part today, of any discussion, any lawmaking, any ministering, to men and women in a romantic partnership. This report on the intersection between family structure and faith seems to me to join a plethora of related studies pointing out that unless men and women understand their romantic lives to be linked with the remarkable fact that their sexual intimacy co-creates children, they will too easily succumb to the temptation to treat their partner as a means to an end, and to sever the partnership when the partner disappoints.
Imagine if the sexual relationship was understood, in part but always, to connote “making a father and a mother” from the intimate pair. Of course, it also bonds the couple in important ways; but even the gigantic numbers of “unintended” and non-marital births, all by themselves, counsel the importance of remembering the mysterious decision by our Maker to pair sex with the conception of a genetically-related child who needs rather intensive nurturing for decades to come.
It’s too late to begin such a conversation when a couple is about to marry. By that time (and given historically high ages at first marriage in the U.S.), men and women in the United States have been instructed over and over and over again that sex is one thing and children are entirely another… a rather “problematic” thing if one is to believe what the government and some self-described “women’s rights” groups are saying. They say: “Unprotected sex makes babies. It also makes sexually transmitted diseases.” That’s right, a failure – of technology, or will, or practical skill – is how children, and diseases, come to be, according to the relentless messaging of both these sources.
Without “re-orienting” (early and often) what is most celebrated in American culture about what men and women do together (sex, romantic love) — away from the couple themselves, and their individual and joint happiness –how are we to get to the place where children’s interests are privileged? In the earliest discussions of sex and life skills and vocations, then, schools and churches and families, need to link the relationships between men and women to children. They need to be honest about what the data shows about the link between children’s flourishing, and stable marital families. Obviously, the information should never be wielded as a weapon to hurt, but in the fashion of a hard truth which will, in the end, help more than it hurts.
State and federal governments have, in recent decades, put some effort toward emphasizing the need to keep children’s interests front and center in discussions about marriage. But not nearly enough. Certainly not enough to counter the loud and long message (particularly over the last two years) that women’s freedom is synonymous with the freedom to avoid children, via government-ordered “free” birth control. If this is freedom, how might freedom also include entering into a mutually interdependent, lifelong commitment with a person of the opposite sex, oriented in large part to the care of children? It couldn’t. The law is not the only player here; it can’t “make men and women moral.” But at the very least, it can stop sending the completely wrong message. Then the good messages will make sense.
Churches, too, of course, have a massive role to play. It is a bit shocking, in fact, they have not played it to the hilt by this time in our nation’s marriage crisis. Judeo-Christian traditions after all, explicitly teach that humans can come to “glimpse” God via the experience of a loving marriage. They need to take seriously the duty this implies to minister quite actively to marriage, to divorced couples, and to the children of both. “Nuclear families” are part of church and geographic communities, not self-sufficient fortresses whose boundaries may never be breached. Marriage is both a private and a public reality. Churches have the scriptures and the theology to grasp the “public” aspect better than most secular institutions today. Nothing is holding them back from acting on their understanding. The report, Does the Shape of FamiliesShape Faith?, is another, and an important call to action.