What Good Is Marriage?

What Good Is Marriage?

Written by Allan C. Carlson |
Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Today, legal marriage is weaker than any contract and—except by coincidence—has no relation whatsoever to procreation and the rearing of children. Accordingly, relatively early marriage—designed to accommodate natural and healthy human fertility patterns—is no longer relevant. Indeed, judged against the Augustinian framework, legal marriage in America today means nothing…which may be why “same-sex marriage” crept in so effectively.

It is surely unhealthy to become depressed over statistics. As the modern proverb has it, there are lies, damn lies, and then come statistics. Still, I went into a funk six months ago after reading the results of a survey on parenting by the reliable Pew Research Center. The researchers asked two thousand active parents if it was important to them whether their children did certain things once they became adults. A stunning 88 percent said it was extremely or very important that they “be financially independent” and “have jobs or careers they enjoy.” In contrast, only 21 percent said it was extremely/very important that their grown children marry, and a mere 20 percent that they have children of their own.

One response is that perhaps the parents being queried will come to appreciate the merits of grandchildren a little later on (for as another modern proverb puts it, the only reason to endure parenthood is to gain grandkids). Or, on a perhaps more troubling note, we see here clear evidence of the triumph of capitalism over familism, of mammon over posterity. However, I prefer to see such numbers as signs of the repudiation of good St. Augustine.

These thoughts came back to me over the past weekend as I attended an extended-family wedding. The bride was lovely and glowing, the groom overflowed with joy, and the wedding was properly conducted, even in a “mainline” church dedicated, according to its pew cards, first and foremost to Diversity. Still, the event was, in a way, post-Augustinian. To begin with, and as is now normal, the couple had already been living together for several years. The post-Augustinian status could also be seen in the ages of the bride and groom: she was 35; he near 40. Today, that is only somewhat above the average for all first marriages. While I was told that they hope to have children, they probably know that for first-timers the biological deck is now stacked against them. In contrast, a half-century ago, when my wife and I were married, in the very last year of the Augustinian dispensation in America, I was 23 and she was 22; even then, we were on the old side for newlyweds. Children, moreover, were a reasonable expectation.

The Augustinian Tradition

Why drag Augustine into this? As in just about everything else of importance, Christian marriage owes its operational definition to his “mental universe” (a phrase borrowed from the legal scholar Charles J. Reid, Jr.). Writing at the end of the fourth century A.D., Augustine faced two challenges: the Manichaeans, a heretical sect which so focused on the spirit that they fully rejected reproductive intercourse; and the pagan Romans, among whom concubinage, adultery, prostitution, homosexuality, and easy divorce were common. Citing the innate “sociability” of humankind and “a natural companionship between the sexes,” the church father defined the “goods” of marriage as procreation, fidelity, and sacramental permanence. Rejecting both extreme asceticism and hedonism, Augustine affirmed that “the marriage of man and woman is something good.”

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