By DONALD DeMARCO
A colleague in philosophy who taught at the same university in Canada where I labored for many years achieved the nadir of cynicism when he had this to say about marriage:
“Marriage is an archaic institution that has lost its moral force. But if we wish to provide a healthy, loving environment in which to reproduce our species, we’d better think up something quick to replace it.”
Obviously, he finds marriage in the modern world to be meaningless. He avoided, however, directing such cynicism to his own profession. He did not say, “The university is an archaic institution that has lost its intellectual force. If we want our young people to be properly educated in a creative atmosphere, we had better think of a more effective form of education, and fast.”
Now I fully understand how any sensible person would dismiss this view as the ranting of a very desperate person who knows nothing of marriage, love, or family life (though that does not prevent him from getting published). Nonetheless, I find it most intriguing because it provides a kind of window to Bedlam, a valuable insight into the mind of a misguided secular world.
The fundamental error here, at the core of several peripheral errors, rests on confusing structure with content. If there have been failures in marriage, is it because of the institution of marriage, or because of married couples themselves? Marxist philosophers put the blame for things going awry on systems or structures rather than on people.
Yet, to take a more commonsense view, when a person consumes too much alcohol and then drives his car into a tree, we usually blame the driver and not the vehicle for the mishap. Hence, the popular expression, “Don’t drink and drive” lays the blame on the driver and urges more responsibility. It is not the structure of the vehicle that is at fault, but the one who operates it.
Aristotle, whose ethics is a model of common sense, understood the naturalness and the primacy of marriage. “The friendship between man and wife,” he wrote, “seems to be inherent in us by nature.” For “man is an animal more inclined by nature to connubial than political society” (Nicomachean Ethics, vol. VIII, 12, 1162a). In a marvelous understatement, the great disciple of Plato is pointing out that since nature precedes politics, marriage provides a stronger and more intimate interpersonal bond than does politics or, in fact, any other kind of arrangement.
Scripture adds that the bond between husband and wife is sufficiently intimate that it is properly characterized as “two-in-one-flesh.”
Moreover, children are conceived as the incarnation of the intimate love between husband and wife. There are no other bonds that are more intimate than those between husband and wife, parents and children.
Consequently, there cannot be another form of conceiving and raising children that would be naturally superior to marriage.
Marriage is not something that can be separated from the married couples. The married partners themselves will determine whether their marriage will succeed or fail. There is no magic structure that will guarantee connubial bliss. Prospects for a successful marriage lie in the awesome responsibility between husband and wife.
In the world of computers, we can distinguish between “hardware” and “software.” A failure in the hardware department (such as a breakdown of the “hard drive”) can have an adverse effect on the software. But in a true marriage, the unity of the partners does not allow a comparable distinction to be made.
Furthermore, children born to married couples are not raised in an “environment,” but in a family. Nor do we “reproduce our species,” a rather cold-blooded biological expression, but we procreate individual human beings. Nor is it even remotely possible that we could replace marriage with something better, let alone do it quickly. Under the inconceivable circumstances that our misguided philosopher proposes, it is hardly likely that “love” would flourish. His notion of love is purely sentimental.
Finally, referring to marriage as “archaic” does a great injustice to the many married couples who are living in the present world and are both enjoying their married state and raising fine, healthy children.
It is always easier to blame the structure than ourselves, curse the stars rather than take responsibility for our actions. Marriage is demanding. It is not like a player piano that is programmed to play by itself. It is more like a real piano that demands commitment, practice, and patience, before it produces beautiful music. A person should not blame the piano if he has a tin ear. Nor should anyone fault the institution of marriage for a married couple’s lack of responsibility.
Rather than put the blame on marriage, we should strive to make good the promise inherent in the prototype.
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(Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn., and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth & Charity Forum.)