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Marriage In UK Is Imperiled . . . But Is The Time Ripe For Openness To Church Teachings?

May 12, 2018 Featured Today No Comments

By LOUISE KIRK

(Editor’s Note: Louise Kirk is an author and journalist in England, with specialties in Church teaching on the family and natural family planning. She covered the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 2015 for The Wanderer.)

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LONDON — Powerful voices in the UK are again calling for marriage reform and the Catholic world should be concerned. The close union between civil marriage and the Christian understanding on which it is based is crumbling, and too few people are noticing.
What makes the case in the UK unusual is that one of the loudest voices for reform belongs to a passionate champion for marriage. Sir Paul Coleridge, formerly High Court judge on the Family Circuit, was so distressed by the misery he witnessed from the “tide” of family breakdown that he set up his Marriage Foundation to do something about it.
As a committed Anglican, his Christian faith inspires his work though he warns of against using Christian arguments to make arguments in the secular world.
The Marriage Foundation broadcasts scary figures. It says that that the UK has the highest levels of family breakdown in the developed world. This is costing the UK some £51 billion a year, before counting the human cost.
The problem is not so much divorce, which is waning, but cohabitation and the growing number of parents who never marry at all. The effect on children is disastrous, with the majority of unwed couples falling apart well before children reach their teens. A further concern is that unbonded relationships are concentrated among society’s poorest: 87 percent of the top strata of society are still marrying but only 15-20 percent at the bottom.
Sir Paul regards all of the above as a national calamity which is why he addresses his subject with passion. However, here the lawyer in him appears to take a lead, since he is concentrating his public battle on softening the law. He thinks that this will attract more people into marriage or at least give couples the protection of a recognized status.
He has joined forces with The Times newspaper promoting reform in five areas: easing divorce proceedings by removing fault, giving legal recognition to prenuptial agreements, ending “meal ticket for life” alimony, regularizing and increasing the legal rights of cohabitees, and setting up civil partnerships for heterosexual couples.
Various of these reforms are in practice already happening in a piecemeal fashion, but he and a growing number of other senior lawyers and politicians wish to see them regularized through legislation.
The list raises eyebrows. One can see why cohabitees’ rights are included to protect vulnerable children, though administering this will be a minefield. But will changing alimony or legalizing prenups really help the poor?
The theory is that paving the way for easier divorce will make marriage less daunting. It could be that the real purpose is to lessen the load on our law courts which are at breaking point. Lawyers wade through ever-more impenetrable tomes, make judgments on the hoof, and obey legal niceties which only serve to prolong the trauma of the people before them.
The proposal to set up civil partnerships for heterosexual couples is at once the most dangerous and the most revealing of the reforms. Civil partnerships were hastily set up in the UK for homosexual couples before same-sex “marriage” was on the cards. Sir Paul thinks that there are men and women who, for financial or ideological reasons, are unwilling to marry but would be drawn to a civil partnership. There would need to be “clear blue water” between them and marriage, to keep marriage as the desired Gold Standard.
What would that “clear blue water” be? Our civil marriage arose out of Christian marriage and encompasses the free commitment of one spouse exclusively to the other, shared possessions, openness to children, and sealed by the ring of “till death do us part.” This is its beauty and also its romanticism. It is the solidity on which new families are founded and corresponds to a deep human longing for sexual fulfillment and lasting love.
It is difficult to see how another version of this could be created by law as a half-way step. You cannot by law insist that people are faithful to each other (except by penalizing them when they break up, which the reformers no longer want). You cannot supervise how they share their goods (again except in divorce proceedings, which would be done away with by accepting prenuptials and whittling down alimony). The state can certainly not insist that couples are open to children.
There is only one way, and that is to make them easier to get in and out of, which would do away with the very stability that society so desperately needs, not just for the sake of the children but also for that of the couple. A factor singularly lacking from current debate is the problem of the unattached old and lonely, which has already become critical and would be made worse if civil partnership grew at the price of marriage, as in France.
It is here that the reformers’ entire program shows itself up for what it is: an ending of popular belief in marriage as a lasting covenant, to be replaced by contracts of variable lengths and intensity. There is no reason to suppose that the law courts would empty, and everything to suggest that the law books would become fuller still.
Whatever terms might be drawn up for a civil partnership, or, for that matter, for cohabitees, they will change again when they are found to fall short of justice, which they will because once natural boundaries are lost there are no secure grounds for law. And into this mess will come the schools, under pressure to teach that civil partnerships equate with marriage.

Hope Springs Eternal

One thing Sir Paul has done is highlight the plight of poor, broken families, and he needs an answer on what can be done for them. Here he himself provides a clue. It is a myth that many couples used to cohabit. In mapping cohabitation patterns from the 1600s to 2002, it was found that until the late 1970s they never numbered from more than five percent. What changed everything was the advent of birth control. Cohabitation began to take off in 1975 followed by family breakdown a decade later.
So if birth control caused the problem, tackling birth control must be a large part of the answer. Would it make sense? Imagine that contraception was magicked away. Cohabitation and extramarital sex would plummet. Sexual activity would be reconnected with relationship and bearing children. Men would recommit to marriage and at an earlier age. Porn and dating apps would diminish. Abortion would drop, and so would STDs and infertility. The complementary roles of man and woman would be reasserted and, crucially, more children would be born into stable families.
The list goes on. Is it practical? In the UK, the Pill is unusual in being fully state funded regardless of the woman’s age or income. Cutting back on state subsidy and promoting Fertility Awareness Methods in place of contraception, especially at school, would have a big impact. With Pill scares gathering pace, and women already beginning turning away from artificial contraception, an optimist might see a change of mood on which to build.
Curiously, a boon has been the fertility industry complaining that girls are being unrealistic in postponing pregnancy and should have their families earlier.
Making so huge a change would of course be impossible without God’s grace. This is where the Church needs to take a lead, and there is sadly little sign of that yet happening. We are paying for years in which the Church’s teaching has been neglected.
However, hope springs eternal and who knows what new surprise our God may have in store?

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