In her article entitled ‘The Trouble With Modern Marriage’, published in Psychology Today, Erica B. Slotter echoed the questions asked by many marital researchers: “‘What gives?’ What has changed about the nature of marriage since the 1970s that makes it less appealing to some, less satisfying to others, and generally less stable?”
The signs that marriages are not only less resilient today, but that marriage itself is falling out of favour, are altogether obvious and ominous. These trends are not confined only to the West, but are also mirrored in Asian countries like Singapore. For example, in 2015 there were 7,500 marital dissolutions here, compared to 3,500 in 1990.
But why are we witnessing the collapse of marriage and the family?
Some scholars believe that part of the reason for this is the sexual revolution, a social movement in the 1960s responsible for the liberalisation of moral attitudes towards sex and the eradication of taboos. Its libertine attitude is expressed well by the rockers of Woodstock: “If you are not with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”
The sexual revolution has unleashed experimental sexual practices and habits such as ‘open marriages’ and ‘public intercourse’, all of which have wide and disconcerting ramifications to familial and social relationships.
Self-styled progressives and liberals, who are promoting novel models of marriage, are simply not perturbed. They often argue that marriage is evolving. But what exactly do they mean by this?
In his book Defending Marriage, Anthony Esolen rightly takes issue with this liberal evolutionary view of marriage and the family. He points out that the inner meaning of the biological metaphor has to do with the unfolding “of ever greater and more powerful potentialities that had lain latent within”.
In other words, to speak of evolution is to suggest that a more complex and sophisticated organism has emerged from something more primordial and basic. “So a seed germinates and develops into a seedling,” Esolen writes, “which then unfolds in trunk and limbs and leaves and becomes a tree.”
Esolen therefore asks if we can really say that marriage and the family have evolved, “in the common sense of the word”. By what criterion, and on what basis do the progressives and liberals make such a claim?
“Is the family, I say, now something mightier than it was, as the tall oak is mightier than the sapling it used to be? Has it not been disintegrating – not evolving, but collapsing?” he asks.
This discussion brings to the surface another issue that Esolen and many Christian commentators have alluded to but which still deserves more attention. It is the view that marriage, like all other forms of social institutions, should change and adapt with the times. It is the view that, just like other social and cultural customs, marriage should morph if it is to remain relevant, and that society can and perhaps should direct this metamorphosis.
The Church can never endorse the evolutionary view of marriage and the family because it believes that they are instituted by God Himself, and are not merely malleable human customs or conventions.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “the intimate community of life and love which constitutes the married state has been established by the Creator and endowed by him with its own proper laws… God himself is the author of marriage”.
Furthermore, marriage as a human vocation cannot be extricated from the nature of humanity itself, for it is “written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator”. In other words, marriage is in a profound sense intrinsic to the order of creation itself.
To understand marriage and family in this way is to see just how essential they are for the ordering and flourishing of human society. The Catechism is again very clear on this: “The wellbeing of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family life.”
This means that the attempt to evolve or ‘update’ marriage and family by replacing the model that God had designed with something avant-garde would have serious and perhaps irreversible long-term consequences to society.
Dr Roland Chia
is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the ETHOS Institute™ for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg).