The Value of Marriage

When I read Kai Austin’s article Argument Against Marriage, I realized that I had found my new trench. See, I am Catholic, and Catholics have gotten quite adept at falling short in societal debates about marriage and sex. In the last sixty years alone we have been the losing interlocutors regarding contraception, divorce, pre-marital sex, and abortion. Now, as we rapidly lose ground on same-sex marriage, I needed a new trench, a new line to hold, and Kai gave it to me: I am not yet ready to give up on the value of marriage.

Before I explain myself, though, I should make my relative bias clear: not only am I Catholic, I am training to be a Catholic priest. Among other things, this means that I will never get married. Priests are asked to forego personal marriage in order to give themselves in complete service to the Church. Some may think that my swearing off of marriage disqualifies me from defending marriage, but I think of it as a scientific bonus – I am an outside observer who can comment on the system without reducing it to my own experience. And what are my observations? That marriage is ultimately a life of love-as-service and that society has an important interest in promoting and protecting such an institution.

But let me build up to this thesis by first addressing Kai’s. On my reading, Kai is not arguing against marriage per se, but against our image of marriage as an institution of and for love (though the implication is that if marriage is not motivated by love then no other motivation can justify it either). He makes his argument historically, by asserting that marriage has always been an institution of economics and power, and practically, by suggesting that even today’s love-based marriages are not actually motivated by love and do little to support or sustain love.

Let us start with the history. While his assertions are certainly not groundless, my primary critique of Kai’s history is that it comes to us through Marxist historical analyses (which view history primarily as an economic system). Granted, all historical research requires a data filter and the Marxist approach is well-worn in academic circles, but its predisposition to favor economic data makes it less than ideal for an analysis of love. To give love the benefit-of-the-historical-doubt, one might instead choose a filter that takes better account, for example, of world literature, which associates love and marriage as far back as Homer’s Odyssey and the Bible’s Song of Songs. Those interested in marriage history might look into Stephanie Coontz[1], the most prominent proponent of Kai’s view, and her book Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, and then move on to the many and varied responses to Ms. Coontz’ works, especially an article by Kay Hymowitz[2] arguing that marriage actually developed as an institution of childbearing / childrearing and that it still holds value today for exactly these purposes.

But Kai’s deeper point is not about history, it is about the relationship between marriage and love. He is certainly correct that something significant changed about this relationship in the 19th century, but I fear that he has confused the cause for the effect. It is not our views of marriage that changed, but our definition of love.

What is love? It would seem that Kai, mirroring contemporary western society, follows Webster in thinking that love is “a feeling of strong or constant affection for a person.”[3] But this definition is incredibly novel. For more than two millennia, from Aristotle until the end of the Enlightenment, love had a completely different definition in western philosophy, “to will the good of another,” and this definition is the only definition that makes love-based marriage make sense.

Note well: according to the classical definition, love is not a feeling, love is a choice. What we designate today as “love” is, at best, “joy” and, at worst, a selfish, hedonistic addiction to an evanescent infatuation. While attraction and compatibility are powerful motivations for love, we should not confuse the aids to love for love itself. Love is service. If you authentically love someone you serve them, you do not desire to use them as a means for your own pleasure.

Certainly love often brings joy, but the absence of joy does not preclude the ability to love. In fact, you can identify true love by the fact that it persists even when the joy does not. Taylor Swift did not “love” Jake Gyllenhaal in the same sense that Blessed Mother Theresa “loved” the poor. Let me assure you that Mother Theresa did not always feel joy when she was cleaning the diseased sores of the marginalized of Calcutta, but she chose to keep serving them, to keep loving them, anyway. For that matter, I am fairly sure that Jesus was not feeling a whole lot of joy being tortured to death by his Roman overlords, and yet Christianity holds up his crucifixion as the greatest act of love the world has ever known.

Let us be clear, though: even under the classical definition, love is more than a stoic duty. Love is what makes us human. Love brings us closer to God and makes us like God. Love brings us joy but transcends joy, bringing us a level of peace and happiness that hedonistic pleasure seeking cannot begin to explore or understand. Even when we suffer for the sake of love, it is love that gives meaning to the suffering and, in so doing, meaning to all suffering around the world. As counter intuitive as it may sound to the contemporary ear, it is in giving ourselves to others that we discover our true selves as human persons.

Now, if we are using the modern, Taylor Swift definition of love, I absolutely agree with Kai’s contentions that love is a very poor reason to enter marriage and that marriage, if not actually hostile to love, certainly does nothing good for it. If familiarity breeds contempt, then there is nothing worse for love than to become family.
But if we define love as service, as willing the good of another, then we arrive at the surprising notion that marriage is not about good feels, but good works. In fact, for marriage to be the highest expression of love, it must be the highest expression of service: complete self-sacrifice for the sake of another. The last person you should be thinking about when you are getting married, therefore, is yourself.

Even previous forms of marriage, imperfect as they were, contained the seeds of love-as-service. Loveless arranged marriages may not have had service-to-spouse in mind, sure, but they were dutifully entered into in service to one’s family or, in the case of royalty, one’s people. Women’s rights in many places were dismal, certainly, but forcing the husband to make sure her economic needs were met is still love-as-service, even if incredibly diminished.

Yet today, with our enlightened outlook, our marriages should contain vastly more love than these economic models, right? Nope! We have exchanged our ancestors’ quest after property rights and legitimate heirs for our quest after self-fulfillment and the avoidance of bad feelings. Of course, according to our standards, ours is the nobler quest, but it is equally loveless and selfish. Neither model has as its goal “to will the good of another”.

Still, our failings are no reason to abandon marriage, but to embrace it all the more strongly. Marriage, properly understood, is the antidote to hedonism and, if we only lived it out, would instantly create a world that could surpass any utopian hippy pipe-dream. You cannot give your whole self in service to another and not begin to serve others in your life outside the home. And it would be sustainable to boot, because the children of these marriages would be equally affected by being raised in micro-communities of service.

It is understandable, then, why a love-based marriage must have certain characteristics. Marriage must be a complete self-gift because abandoning oneself for another creates absolute vulnerability and the only protection that is compatible with love is the knowledge and trust that the other person is giving him/herself in an equally complete manner. When spouses hold back from each other, or (worse) when the level of self-gift is unequal, marriages break down quickly. Marriage must be exclusive and monogamous because a complete gift of self can only be made to one person at a time. Marriage must be life-long because the only motivation for love during periods of joylessness is a definitive and unending act of the will. And, if I may be so bold as to assert the Catholic position, marriage must be the only appropriate context for sex because (1) if sex, the highest form of physical self-gift, is given in relationships otherwise marked by partial self-gift, then there remains no unique physical act of self-gift that can mirror the other unique intimacies present in relationships of complete self-gift and (2) sex being the ordinary means of procreation , the optimal environment for child rearing is a micro-community of complete self-service.

It is further understandable why our government has a significant interest in maintaining, encouraging, and defending marriage: because even one love-as-service marriage builds a more robust society. A population grounded in child-rearing micro-communities of self-service cannot help but be stable, peaceful, fruitful, and civic-minded. Though today’s high divorce-rate is certainly tragic, how impossibly more tragic would society become if there were no marriage at all?

Idealized? Yes. Impossible? No, but a certain heroism is undoubtedly necessary. It takes a hero to be true in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health and to love and honor the other all the days of his/her life. If, instead, we replace heroism with hedonism, if we cannot muster the self-sacrifice necessary to commit ourselves to such an essential form of life, then the status of marriage does not really matter anyway; our society will already have rotted to its core. Fortunately, I still believe in heroes, and I still believe in marriage. Now, if you will excuse me, I have to go man a trench.

Thank you, Kai, for your article and thank you, Frankly Speaking, for hosting such an important discussion.

[Jeff Moore is a member of the Class of 2010 (E:C). He is a resident of Burien, WA, but is currently finishing his final three years of priestly training at Mundelein Seminary, outside Chicago. He can be reached at jeffrey.moore@alumni.olin.edu.]

[1] http://stephaniecoontz.com/
[2] http://www.cato-unbound.org/2008/01/16/kay-s-hymowitz/marriage-gap
[3]http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/love