The intrinsic good of marriage

One of the events in the John Adams Center’s recent Goods of Family conference (a really important event put on by the Center’s director, Ralph Hancock) was a superb lecture by Russell Hittinger of the University of Tulsa. Dr. Hittinger described how the French Revolution’s vociferous attack on the family caused its defenders in the Catholic Church to understand that marriage has to be defended for its own sake. As Dr. Hittinger put it, “matrimony has to be defended on its own terms.”

He invoked Pope Leo XIII for the proposition that we cannot separate the goods of marriage, its social and other benefits, from its intrinsic nature.

This may seem an obvious point, but our ongoing debate over whether to redefine or deconstruct marriage suggests it’s a point that eludes large segments of our political, entertainment and business elites. It is not that marriage is good because of what it contributes to personal satisfaction or convenience or event to society more generally. Rather its great contributions flow from its very being.

We see this in the benefit children derive from marriage. We do not aspire to lifelong marriage because we see our children respond well to stability; we make a lasting commitment and this provides the context within which children flourish. Indeed, if commitment to marriage were dependent on what we were getting out of it, or even what our children were getting out of it, we would hold back full devotion and the benefits would not follow or would be greatly diminished.

As Roger Scruton has explained: “Almost nothing about the family union rests in contract or consent, and none of the values which spring from it can be understood except in terms of the peculiar lastingness with which it is endowed.”

This, of course, does not bode well for a culture that seems to be rushing heedlessly to jettison from its law and practice whatever remains of the intrinsic nature of marriage.

Dr. Hittinger mentioned in his talk the French lawyer Louis de Bonald. This experience of this little-known statesman could give us great hope. Bonald took up the mantle of defending the intrinsic nature of marriage from the French Revolutionary attack. The specific attack he had to fend off was an attack on the nature of marriage as a binding, rather than contingent, union. The revolutionaries had enacted new divorce laws to make marriage easy to dissolve.

Bonald pointed out the paucity of the picture of marriage the French revolution endorsed, and as Christopher Olaf Blum said: “Of his many achievements in his fifteen years of service as a legislator during the Bourbon Restoration, he was most proud of his role in the repeal of legal divorce in 1816.” By insisting on the true nature of marriage, he turned back a divorce culture.

Which is to say that even with our deep confusion, there is great hope that we can reclaim a culture that values marriage if we reinvigorate our understanding of what it is — the permanent and exclusive union of a husband and wife.