Review of The Conjugal Family: An Irreplaceable Resource for Society, by Pierpaolo Donati and Paul Sullins, editors. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2015; 249 pages
What seemed more certain in the sixties than that the future belonged to the utopian visionaries agitating for the creation in America of a marvelous new kind of society, a society of free sex, open marriages, quick and painless divorces, and complete gender equality? What seemed more obvious than the irrelevance of the troglodytes still devoted to traditional and surely outmoded notions of life-long marriage and home-centered child-rearing? And among those troglodytes, who then seemed more hopelessly atavistic than the religious types—especially those benighted, rosary-shackled Catholics—who actually believed God still expected modern men and women to live in that outmoded institution called the family?
Don’t look now, but well into the twenty-first century, many of those who believed the luminous promises of the sixties utopians are now suffering from economic distress, psychological trauma, and emotional turmoil. Meanwhile, those who adhered to traditional patterns of marital and family life now look remarkably well-off economically, psychologically, and emotionally. How can that be? In this volume, Catholic scholars from the United States, Italy, Chile, and Argentina deliver cogent and sobering evidence that even in this post-Woodstock world, the family is not an outmoded obstacle to individual well-being and social progress.
The utopians of the sixties envisioned only good coming from the jettisoning of traditional marriage—the life-long marital union of man and woman, devoted to each other and to their children. Co-editor Pierpaolo Donati notes in his introduction that those allied with these utopians have hoped that rejecting this kind of marriage and the family life it fosters will mean “the advent of a freer, egalitarian and happy society.”
This luminous utopian hope now stands contradicted by dark and sobering empirical social science, compellingly summarized here in D. Paul Sullins’ extended review of research pertinent to the United States, complemented by Eduardo Valenzuela and Beatriz Bailan de Tagtachian on the relevant research from Chile and Argentina, respectively. Whether looking at the well-being of adult men and women, or at the prospects for children and adolescents, or at the dynamics of social relationships beyond the family circle, the authors of these surveys adduce evidence that the disappearance of the traditional—or conjugal—family has meant trouble and distress for those affected.
Wherever the authors of this volume look, the family remains the wellspring of irreplaceable benefits to individual men, women, and children and to the broader community. Indeed, as Sullins assesses what these studies tell us about American family life since the sixties utopians first promised emancipation and social progress, Sullins concludes “such utopianism was (to put it mildly) misplaced.”
Sullins acknowledges that such utopianism has in recent decades helped to turn America into a nation in which men and women “live more of their lives alone and have fewer family connections than any preceding generation in American history.” The prime reason for this is that “in the United States, conjugal marriage is in long-term decline, being displaced by alternate forms of family association, such as post-divorce singleness or remarriage, cohabitation, and always-single parenting, resulting in fewer children.” In turning away from conjugal marriage, Americans have been jeopardizing their best chance for a healthy and happy life. Sullins remarks that “almost every study that has ever examined the question has concluded that married adults are healthier, wealthier, and happier than those who are not married.”
And the threat to health, wealth, and happiness inherent in this decline of conjugal marriage looms even larger for children. As Sullins stresses, “the proposition that the natural family comprising joint married biological parents offers the best context for child wellbeing and development is among the most strongly attested assertions in all of the social sciences.” In a large-scale study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics, researchers confirm the advantages for children of living in an intact family by examining a wide range of measures of physical and emotional health. “On every indicator examined,” Sullins reports, “children being raised in single mother or blended families exhibited poorer health than those in nuclear families.” And unfortunately, children who grow up outside of the conjugal family continue to labor under disadvantages into adulthood, as the status of their “parents’ marriage has a strong and persistent effect on [their] well-being throughout the life course.”
Things are no better for the growing number of children in households headed by cohabiting couples. The data cited by Sullins indicate that such children are “generally disadvantaged relative to children in nuclear families, and [are], for the most part, comparable to children living in single-parent families regarding most health status and access to care issues.”
The disappearance of the traditional conjugal family threatens not only the well-being of children; it threatens their very existence. As Sullins remarks, “The conjugal family is the most fertile form of family arrangement in America. . . . Although alternative family forms are becoming more common, these forms contribute far fewer children to the society.” Many demographers and economists now worry about the way changes in the nation’s family life have driven fertility below replacement level for decades. Because fertile traditional families have grown relatively rare, America would now be teetering on the edge of overall population decline were it not for immigration and increased longevity (a temporary phenomenon).
Among the too-few American babies now being born, only the dwindling number still living in traditional conjugal families are growing up in the kind of environment most likely to instill in them the personal attributes that will make them strong and productive members of the community outside the home. As Donati remarks, “The data are clear: the weakening of the normally constituted [conjugal] family is accompanied by a decrease in the ability to convey the moral virtues to their children,” especially “honesty and respect for the law . . . as well as an ability to sacrifice for others.” Sullins identifies “the pro-social attitudes of trust in others and uncompromising integrity” as values particularly in jeopardy in the United States when children grow up outside the conjugal family. And like their moral development, children’s academic progress depends heavily on the type of family in which they grow up: a 2014 study cited by Sullins found that “three times the proportion of those whose parents were continually married attained a [bachelor’s] degree than did those whose parents were not married.”
With good reason, Sullins asserts in his conclusion that “conjugal marriage . . . offers benefits to society, both to its participants personally and to the collective common good that cannot be replaced by any other family arrangement,” adding that “a social-policy regime that encourages conjugal marriage thus serves the best interest of all members of society.” It is perhaps dangerous to dwell too long on the idea of the family as a resource for society, as though society were something separate and distinct from the family, something which can use the family as mere raw material for developing something better. Better to remember, as Sullins does, that conjugal marriage is the “vital cell of society,” that “the family builds up society” (emphasis added). As conjugal families disappear, that abstraction that we refer to as societydecays into nothing but an aggregate of deracinated and demoralized individuals poorly held together by government bureaucracies.
Despite the wealth of empirical evidence they have collected to advance their perspective on the conjugal family, the authors and editors of this volume appear uncertain about how those in positions of power and influence will respond to their views. “We hope,” writes Donati, “that our analysis, based on the objective reality of the facts, . . . will not be rejected for purely ideological reasons.” And Sullins concedes that he and his colleagues are trying to advance their perspective at a time when “Western culture . . . displays clear signs of resistance, even hostility, to the notion of conjugal marriage.”
Not a few of those likely to resist this empirical analysis of the costs of losing the conjugal family act out of sheer self-interest, political and economic. For when the conjugal family fails, many essential services previously provided within that family and outside of the cash nexus (and the tax nexus) now must come from dubious surrogates—including lawyers, bureaucrats, child-care providers, political activists, and therapists. Only a cynic would assert that these parties actively undermine the conjugal family. But only a naif would not recognize the effects of self-interest in shaping their attitudes toward the family.
Of course, this volume makes it abundantly clear that strong conjugal families actually advance everyone’s long-term best interest. With good reason, Sullins reminds his readers that all of the secondary loyalties that sustain our social order in law, economics, and politics depend ultimately on “a greater loyalty to the family (and to God).” Forgetting this fundamental truth while enacting social and legal policies that “burden or inhibit this particular institution,” he warns, is like “society . . . sawing off the branch on which it is sitting.”
Sullins seems to be identifying an instance of such branch-cutting when he notes the “loss of the family wage ideal” which once made it possible for a male breadwinner to “sustain a family with children.” For though he acknowledges that “the entry of women into the sphere of labor is universally regarded as an improvement in their prospects for a meaningful and fulfilling life,” he notes the problematic consequences of “the departure of women from the sphere of the home and family,” consequences that surely include declining numbers of weddings and of child births, elevated numbers of divorces and of children in daycare. Donati calls for the “mature reflection” necessary for “clarifying and strengthening the capacity to connect the private and public dimensions of the family”—perhaps such reflection might lead to attempts to renew the family-wage ideal. It might involve finding ways for women to reclaim home-based motherhood while still doing economically meaningful labors part-time through the Internet. Certainly, such reflection will seek strategies for reversing shifts in “government policy and social mores regarding women serving as full-time housewives and mothers . . . from support to stigma.”
Offering a wealth of what Donati labels “science-based knowledge,” this volume will help defenders of the family to expose the high social costs of family disintegration and to challenge public policies that foster such disintegration. But utopian True Believers will not be swayed by social science. The convictions guiding them are ultimately too metaphysical to yield to merely empirical evidence.
So while defenders of the family have good reason to value this volume of social science, they must recognize that they are up against an anti-family metaphysical vision. In combatting such a vision, they must adhere to their own far more transcendent and substantive metaphysical vision. They must, like Sullins, interpret the love manifest in the conjugal family as “a love like the love of God.” Donati notes that “religion still has the task of supporting the prosocial moral virtues . . . of the family.”
Secular-minded utopians will, of course, reject religious teachings about marriage and the family even more readily than they reject empirical social science. These utopians are impelled not by religion but by (to steal a phrase from English critic T.E. Hulme) “spilt religion.” It was no accident that B.F. Skinner considered a utopia without the natural family as “rather an improvement on Genesis.” Timely and cogent, this excellent volume casts serious doubt on all such utopian attempts to improve life by abandoning both scriptural faith and family commitments.
Bryce J. Christensen is Professor of English at Southern Utah University and Senior Editor of The Natural Family. Republished from The Natural Family with permission.