“Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity” by Anthony Esolen. St. Benedict Press (Charlotte, North Carolina, 2014). 174 pp., $14.95.
“The Seven Big Myths About Marriage: What Science, Faith and Philosophy Teach Us about Love and Happiness” by Christopher Kaczor and Jennifer Kaczor. Ignatius Press (San Francisco, 2014). 210 pp., $19.95.
“Marriage Markets: How Inequality is Remaking the American Family” by June Carbone and Naomi Cahn. Oxford University Press (New York, 2014). 258 pp., $29.95.
In these months after the first phase of the synod on the family in Rome, we have an important opportunity to reflect and pray about what the bishops have been considering, and we can take this time to focus on understanding what marriage is and isn’t and the challenges it faces today.
These three recent books attempt to help us do just that. In their own way, each of the three sees the picture of marriage changing not necessarily for the better, and each uses a different — and as we shall see, a partial — lens to analyze why and to attempt to address the problems it sees.
In “Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity,” Anthony Esolen yearns for a simpler time when everything seemed clearer about what marriage was and wasn’t. As a professor of English at Providence College in Rhode Island, his primary expertise is literature, and while that makes for an interesting backdrop for examining marriage today, it does not prove to be a satisfactory one for exploring such a complex reality.
Most of us may yearn for a simpler time when it comes to marriage, but nostalgia alone is not adequate in the face of all we continue to learn about marriage and sexuality today.
Although his examples come from a diverse range of literary sources, from Tom Sawyer and “The Lord of the Rings” to Shakespeare and “1984,” at times he shows an ignorance of the history of marriage and what scholars are learning about both biology and sociology and how that affects marriage today. To argue from portrayals of the past what should be today means that the changing context of marriage and family life today is neglected in the process.
For example, he makes what most today would see as an indefensible statement when he says, “Most men who find themselves compulsively attracted to other men have been brought to that pass by the cruelty or the neglect of others.” Although he goes on to argue for patience and compassion toward homosexuals, his statement doesn’t take into account all that has been learned in recent years about the origins of sexual orientation. His arguments against same-sex marriage, therefore, end up weaker as a result. While it would be nice to have the picture completely clear when it comes to all that we understand about marriage, we need more than a look backward to help us with that task.
In his book, “The Seven Big Myths About Marriage,” Christopher Kaczor and his wife, Jennifer, also talk about the challenges to marriage today, but with a much stronger reliance on a variety of tools and research, especially in discussing issues such as premarital sex and cohabitation. His background as a teacher of philosophy comes through as they examine in turn the following myths: Love is simple, marriage is a 50/50 contract, love alone makes a marriage, cohabitation is just like marriage, premarital sex is no big deal, children are irrelevant to marriage and all reproductive choices are equal.
With a combination of philosophical arguments, personal anecdotes and social science research, the Kaczors make a strong case for most of their ideas. Some may find areas where they disagree with their conclusions, such as a rather extreme contrast at times between a covenant marriage, one based on God’s unconditional love for us, and most other marriages, as well as some of their views on contraception.
But on the whole, the Kaczors offer what the church and the world need more of today: a married couple who are articulate about the reality they are living, a committed and faith-filled marriage in a confusing and rapidly changing world.
The final book of the three, “Marriage Markets,” examines some of those key changes around us and how they might be affecting couples today and their capacity for commitment. This isn’t a book written from a faith perspective, but it is thought-provoking because it takes into account one of the factors that often gets overlooked when considering marriage today, that of social and economic inequality.
We don’t like to think about either kind of inequality in our culture; it seems un-American. We prefer to think that all are equal here or at least all have equal opportunity, unless the individuals don’t show adequate initiative and effort.
But authors June Carbone and Naomi Cahn explain that the data would suggest otherwise.
“If we want to understand why our lives have changed, why our children’s marriages are shaky and why our grandchildren cannot count on the resources their parents enjoyed, we must be willing to confront the consequences of greater inequality,” they explain. “And any analysis or proposed solution that does not take growing inequality into account is based on a lie. Inequality matters to overall social health, and it matters to the well-being of future generations.”
They suggest that in the mid-20th century, the abundance of good-paying jobs that didn’t require nearly as many hours as many positions do today allowed for a stability that helped marriage and family life to flourish.
By contrast, today both men and women at the top, financially and educationally, have seen their incomes improve, but for those in the middle and on the bottom of the social ladder, life has gotten worse, especially for men, which has implications for both marriage and family life.
They explain, “At the bottom, men and women have lost ground in society. Their interests are largely unrepresented in the political system, and they enjoy less support than they once did from community and extended families.” The ultimate losers, they contend, are the children involved in marriages that can’t make it because of economic challenges.
One of the effects of a book like “Marriage Markets” is to challenge us to think differently about what is right before us, so that we remember to bring a sociological and economic lens to issues that have a faith and moral dimension to them and which aren’t all that simple, after all.
Each of these three books raises important questions that we need to explore further as we try to understand the changing and evolving reality of marriage.
Finley is the author of “Building A Christian Marriage: 11 Essential Skills” (Wipf and Stock) and has over 30 years of experience teaching about marriage and working with engaged couples.