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We need marriage equality now! The inequality is stark. Wealthy people tend to get and stay married. Their children go to good schools, get good jobs—and they in turn get and stay married. The social capital builds from generation to generation. Meanwhile, the rest struggle. Kids lower down on the economic ladder are more likely to grow up without a stable family. As adults they have trouble establishing stable relationships and, when they do marry, often end up divorced. They’re more atomized, disempowered, disoriented. Their social capital is depleted.

Charles Murray’s report on white America in Coming Apart gives us some of the vital statistics. In 1960, among top earners—the uppermost 20 percent—more than 90 percent of prime-age white adults (thirty to forty-nine years old) were married. Hardly any of them were divorced. The lives of the poor white population of America—the bottom 30 percent measured by income—wasn’t all that different. More than 80 percent of them were married, and although the number of divorced adults that age was a bit higher than among the well-to-do, it was only around 5 percent.

This relative equality is long gone. Beginning in the 1970s, the top and bottom began to diverge. There’s been a downward drift in marriage among the rich, but not by much. Today 85 percent of prime-age people among the winners in the global economy are married, a surprisingly modest decline given all the media attention to single professional women. Meanwhile, marriage has collapsed among the white poor. In 2010, less than 50 percent of prime-aged poor whites were married. That’s partly because fewer get married, and partly because divorce rates have skyrocketed—again, for them, but not for the rich.

In sum: Today the rich have the money and the social capital. They’ve got all the good jobs and the stable marriages that allow them to pass on those advantages to their children. This inequality is so extreme that even the poor people who get and stay married are ground down. Sixty-five percent of rich white Americans self-report that they have happy marriages. Slightly more than 30 percent of poor Americans say the same. Again, that reflects a stark divergence as compared with earlier decades—another growing inequality.

The Human Rights Campaign, a leader in gay rights, claims to promote marriage equality. If you’re part of the small minority of gays and lesbians in America that wants to get married, I suppose that makes sense. But viewed with any degree of objectivity, it’s an absurd claim, because it ignores the growing marriage inequality in society at large.

Unlike the supposed injustice of refusing to recognize a man’s union with another man as marriage, this inequality is profoundly consequential. Social scientists agree that family stability is a key factor—the key factor—for healthy, happy, successful lives. So our growing marriage inequality contributes to and reinforces the gap between winners and losers in America. Divorced and single people have more health problems. They’re more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. The self-reported happiness among unmarried adults is lower than for those in stable marriages. Moreover, marriage inequality means that poor kids are overwhelmingly more likely than rich kids to grow up without a mother and father, which social-scientific studies consistently show is strongly correlated to negative life outcomes for them.

The Human Rights Campaign and supporters of gay marriage from Andrew Cuomo to Alan Simpson also ignore an inconvenient truth: that the increasing elite support for sexual freedom in recent decades corresponds with the growth of marriage inequality. As the Human Rights Campaign succeeds in achieving its goals of normalizing homosexuality and securing same-sex marriage, poor Americans get a new, postmodern marriage culture that works for the rich but not for them. Elton John gets a husband and baby while the ordinary Jims and Janes in America get—nothing.

Culture is not a machine. You can’t directly trace a causal path from the sexual revolution or changes in divorce law or the redefinition of marriage to the growing marriage inequality. But is it really so difficult to see that gay marriage is today’s luxury good for the rich that’s being paid for by the poor?

There was a time when progressivism meant something akin to the Catholic emphasis on the preferential option for the poor. That’s changed. For all the chatter about income inequality, the actual politics of American “progressives” undermines the lives of the least advantaged. The abortion license, gay marriage, feminism, a fixation on free contraceptives, “empowering” sex education for middle-school students—with these and in other ways, the rich have deconstructed the moral universe for the poor (and increasingly for the middle class as well), almost always at little or no cost to themselves and their children.

Thus a paradox of history. In America today social conservatives are the ones who carry forward the best aspect of the progressive tradition in America, which is its concern for those ground down by the social arrangements that benefit the powerful. Marriage inequality contributes a great deal to the growing divide in our society between winners and losers. And it’s only social conservatism that’s concerned about the sources of the collapse of the culture of marriage among the poor and middle class.


There was a Solidarity movement in Poland. It played a crucial role in the fall of the Soviet empire. There’s been no Subsidiarity movement. That’s not surprising. The concept isn’t easy to grasp. The term comes directly from the Latin subsidium, which means “aid” or “assistance.” But it’s also related to sub sedeo, “I sit underneath.” These combine in Pius XI’s definition of the principle of subsidiarity in Quadragesimo Anno (1931): that the greater power of the modern state should not only be careful not to usurp or replace the proper function of social institutions “sitting underneath” its authority but should also offer aid and assistance to promote the renewal and flourishing of these nongovernmental, mediating institutions.

Quite a mouthful, which suggests why “solidarity” rolls off the tongue of many modern activists, but not “subsidiarity.” That’s a shame. By my reckoning, subsidiarity points to something just as important as solidarity, perhaps more so. The principle of subsidiarity aims to preserve and promote the social conditions for authentic freedom.

Modern political thinkers have seen this, though only partially. It’s implicit in James Madison’s observation that the tendency of government to extend its dominion must be limited by countervailing powers. This notion of a practical check on government can be found in Montesquieu as well: “So that one cannot abuse power, power must check power by the arrangement of things.”

It’s not enough to have declarations of rights. On paper, communist Poland provided various rights for its citizens. But it took the popularity and staying power of the Solidarity movement to force the Polish state to respect those rights. The lesson is clear: If we’re to protect freedom, we need to have a place to stand in civil society, a place not already occupied by the power of the state. But there’s more, much more, at work in the principle of subsidiarity, because there’s much more at stake in genuine human freedom than freedom from overreaching government power. Our freedom is fully realized when “the arrangement of things” encourages us to take responsibility not just for our own lives but for the common good.

God provides just such an arrangement. When he creates the man and woman, he gives them tasks: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” We’re under God’s authority—sub sedentes, sitting underneath. But we’re not inert subjects. Instead, God deputizes us, authorizing us to take limited but real responsibility for ruling over creation. Furthermore, he gives us a subsidium, reason and free will (and divine commands, as well, which after the Fall become crucial for the proper exercise of freedom). One could say, therefore, that in creation God works in accord with the principle of subsidiarity, using his infinitely greater governing power to create conditions under which we can exercise our limited, lesser governing power as free, rational creatures.

Put somewhat differently: God arranges things so that our social instincts can take on a political character, understood in the broad sense of deliberation and coordinated action that advances the common good. We don’t just live together, we take responsibility, we exercise dominion. This makes our freedom consequential. It’s not just a matter of free choice, with Adam wanting pineapples and Eve mangoes. Instead, exercising dominion involves thinking things through. What’s best for the flourishing of the garden? What’s most likely to promote the well-being of the original couple?

These sorts of questions are why Aristotle deemed politics the highest expression of our humanity (though he sometimes equivocates and opts for contemplation). He recognized that governance—dominion—engages our rational natures in profound ways that aren’t always true when we debate purely philosophical matters. Is reality finally material, or ideal? We can walk away from these sorts of theoretical questions. But should we go to war? In some circumstances, that’s a communal question that must be answered.

Aristotle thought only free Athenian males were up to the task of using their reason to exercise communal responsibility. The principle of subsidiarity takes a more optimistic and democratic view. It does so not by making everyone into a politician, something progressives tacitly seek when championing participatory democracy, a view that presupposes that the affairs of the state are the only or at least the primary form of governance. Instead, the principle of subsidiarity focuses on the many layers of communal life that require our free, responsible participation.

The family provides the most obvious example. Decisions need to be made about where to live, what job to take, how much money to spend. Children must be raised, and raising them well means exercising parental authority in responsible ways. The same goes for coaching a Little League team, running the parish festival, or sustaining the local Rotary Club. All the institutions and organizations that fill the space between our mere individual existence and the supreme political authority of the modern nation-state require us to exercise our political natures, not in the narrow sense of running for office or voting, but in the broad sense of taking responsibility for a living social organism—my family, a book club, the neighborhood association, my kid’s school, the parish, the local choral society, and countless other organizations.

America is undergoing deep and important changes. The great postwar middle-class consensus that provided the economic and political center of gravity for our society is coming to an end. The economic side of this wrenching change has been widely reported, often under the rubric of income inequality. Far less noticed is the equally important crisis of subsidiarity, which is transforming working- and middle-class culture in ways that cannot be measured by wealth or income.

Both marriage and religious participation have declined significantly among those in the lower-income cohorts. The same goes for labor-force participation and social engagement more broadly. Half a century ago it was easy to picture a dockworker who was married, a union member, lived in an ethnic neighborhood in Brooklyn, and participated in the local Catholic parish. His native aptitude for exercising responsibility was widely engaged. His grandchildren? They’re much more likely to be divorced or unmarried, not go to church, scramble to juggle work and the kids they may or may not have, and living in Babylon, Long Island, they aren’t as likely to be involved in civic organizations.

Today, mediating institutions are weaker, civic culture thinner, making us less likely to develop our capacity for exercising our reason and freedom for the sake of responsible participation. We’re more vulnerable to a narrowing of life, focusing on ourselves—consumerism and hedonism. We become depoliticized, not in the narrow sense of losing interest in national elections (though that can be true as well) but in the more important sense of no longer participating in the intimate, small, and local self-governing institutions that depend on us for their success. And thus we fail to flourish as free and rational creatures.

Modern liberalism focuses on the material needs of the poor. That’s important. But it’s much too limited. We’re not dogs who are happy when warm and well fed. We’re made to exercise dominion. Authentic freedom requires opportunities to take responsibility, opportunities to govern. The crisis of our time—the growing social and economic divide—stems in part from the erosion of those opportunities, especially among working- and middle-class Americans. This erosion has many causes: globalization, increased mobility, dissatisfaction with traditional roles for men and women, and more. But a neglect of the principle of subsidiarity has exacerbated them.

Catholicism and Emerging Adults

More than a decade ago Christian Smith and his colleagues launched the National Study of Youth and Religion, surveying and interviewing a sample of thirteen- to seventeen-year-olds. The study continued, and in 2007 and 2008 they conducted another wave of surveys and interviews. At that time the teenagers were eighteen to twenty-three years old: “emerging adults.” The results are analyzed in Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Church, which Smith coauthored with Kyle Longest, Jonathan Hill, and Kari Christoffersen.

Readers will not be surprised to learn that the data shows a weakened Catholic identity. Young Catholics are less knowledgeable about their faith, more individualistic, more likely to be “cafeteria Catholics,” and less involved in the Church. This fits with the standard Whiggish account that assumes a secularizing, liberalizing trend in history.

But the story’s more complicated. Using long-term government surveys, Smith and his colleagues were able to compare today’s young Catholics with those who came of age in earlier decades. They conclude that the big generational changes came in the 1960s. That decade marked the Great Disruption in Catholic identity, as it did in Western culture more broadly. Since then? Not much change. “Catholic emerging adults across four decades display very little change in their beliefs, attitudes, and practices. Eighteen- to 25-year-old Catholics in the 2000s look very much like 18- to 25-year-olds in the 1970s on a variety of measures.” (One exception is marriage and divorce: Today’s young adults are more censorious of adultery and more likely to want laws making divorces more difficult to obtain. The other is gay marriage, which young people now endorse. That’s an interesting and perhaps not finally consistent combination.)

This continuity isn’t good news for the Church, however. The religious beliefs and practices of parents strongly influence the religious identities of their children. This is especially true of fathers. And so, after the Great Disruption and the rise of alienated and ambivalent Catholic young adults in the 1970s, a negative trend developed. Disaffected or lukewarm, as they became parents they may have maintained some connection to the Church. But because of the significance of parental influence, their children were overwhelmingly likely to be disaffected or lukewarm as well, and the tenuous connections to the Church got even weaker. Now they are coming of age and are likely to pass down these same attitudes to their children. The result: a multigenerational trend from conviction to ambivalence to a loss of connection with Catholicism.

What’s to be done? Smith and his colleagues provide nuanced analysis of the possible effects of parochial education on the religious attitudes and practices of emerging adults. Their conclusion: It can enhance Catholic identity, but only in certain, limited circumstances. The influence of parents (and, again, especially fathers) overwhelms that of youth groups, faith-formation classes, and parochial schools. This isn’t a reason not to strengthen catechesis, but it’s a sobering reminder of the limitations of Catholic education. When it comes to Catholic identity, the sins of the fathers are visited upon their children.

Though perhaps not unto the third or fourth generation. When I finished Young Catholic America I found myself strangely cheered. Smith and his colleagues observe many striking similarities between young adults in 1975 and young adults in 2005—thirty years of continuity. Of course, that’s plain to see without data analysis. Today’s twenty-three-year-olds wear the same clothes, listen to the same music, use the same drugs, and speak with the same slang as I did in 1975. There are differences, of course. Today’s emerging adults exchange text messages. There is no single and dominant TV or FM culture, and there’s a great deal more irony and snark. But the continuities are infinitely greater.

Which gives me hope. Smith and his colleagues are surely right to emphasize how American cultural changes in the 1960s profoundly influenced American Catholicism. We can argue about the causes and implications of the Great Disruption in the Church and in the culture at large, but there’s no doubt it explains a great deal of what we’ve experienced over the past half century. My hope, however, flows from a basic law of history: Nothing lasts forever. At some point Mick Jagger will seem as irrelevant to a rising generation as Tony Bennett seemed to me.

Secularization’s Limits

Some decades ago Peter Berger became convinced that secularization theory gets it wrong. Science, technology, and modernity do not necessarily lead to the decline of religion. Secularization is the exception—a parochial Western and Central European phenomenon that is also characteristic of what Berger calls “an international secular intelligentsia.”

Recently, he revised his view. In “Further Thoughts on Religion and Modernity,” he writes, “I think that I held the misleading notion of some sort of unified consciousness, religious or secular. I had overlooked the (in retrospect obvious) possibility that an individual may be both religious and secular.” We’re complex animals, fully capable of operating in different ways at different levels, which explains why an Evangelical minister can tweet Gospel passages without somehow experiencing a conflict between his use of modern technology and his biblical faith. We live in plural worlds.

Secularization, therefore, is a matter not of replacement but instead of relative displacement. With modernity comes a robust secular discourse (science first and foremost, but also modern moral and political views that are not based in theology). This discourse both feeds on and advances the development of a secular form of life that supersedes religiously defined reality in many areas of life. For example, if my wife gets sick I call the doctor first. I’ll visit a church to offer a prayer later.

Because we live in plural worlds, calling the doctor does not preclude offering a prayer. We can alternate between secular and religious definitions of reality. But secular discourse, Berger thinks, is the default setting in societies that have become modernized, and religious faith becomes more a conscious choice. I think scientifically pretty much automatically. I’ve got to work at expanding and deepening my religious convictions.

That seems right to me. But Berger draws an irenic conclusion that I’m not sure will work. Given our ability to toggle back and forth between secular and religious ways of thinking, he advocates a “peaceful coexistence of a secular discourse in the public sphere with a plurality of freely chosen religious discourses.”

I agree that the plurality of worldviews does not require constant conflict. But I don’t think religious people can avoid significant collisions. True, I can toggle back and forth between my faith and scientific, technological, economic, sociological, and psychological ways of thinking. But I can’t live both the modern secular vision of human flourishing and the Christian one. As St. Augustine observed, we are members either of the City of God or of the City of Man. No peaceful coexistence there.

Sex and First Things

More than one reader wrote asking why I published Paul Griffiths’s review of Richard Rodriguez’s latest volume of autobiographical essays, Darling. One even called, spitting angry, accusing First Things (and, by implication, me) of betraying the Catholic faith. Their concerns were focused on Griffiths’s discussion of homosexuality, an unavoidable topic for someone engaging the literary gifts and spiritual imagination of Richard Rodriguez, an openly gay man who strongly identifies with the Catholic Church. In a few sentences toward the end of the review, Griffiths, while not denying the moral difference between homosexual acts and heterosexual ones, draws attention to their similarities: their profound damage by sin and their capacity to be motivated by love and to evoke it. He urged us to attend to and encourage this shared capacity—rare, he says, in a sin-devastated world.

When I read Griffiths’s review before publication, I shook my head. It’s not what I would have written. It’s true that sin taints all sexual acts. And it’s true that the intrinsically disordered sexual acts between men and men and women and women that are rightly condemned by both natural reason and the Catholic magisterium can, as he puts it, be “motivated by and evoke love.” But when our culture trumpets the equivalence of homosexuality and heterosexuality—when the CEO of an Internet company is forced to quit after being “outed” for the secular sin of thinking marriage is between a man and a woman—do we really need to buttress Richard Rodriguez’s views about homosexuality?

Griffiths wants to guide readers toward what he believes we can, and should, affirm rather than toward what we must—and should—deny. Again, that’s not the direction in which I would have gone. It seems to me that when it comes to sex, our culture is drowning in naive, incoherent, irresponsible, and ultimately cruel affirmations. When a driver is careening toward the precipice, yelling “Stop!” is the most profound act of love.

That said, I published the piece because I may be wrong about what’s needed today—and because the magazine would be painfully boring if all the writers had to agree with me. It’s an indisputable fact that we now have an openly gay culture in America that isn’t interested in our moral judgments; indeed, we have a sexual culture in general that’s not much interested in them. In that context, it may be that the moral wisdom of the Church can be widely heard only in careful, nuanced affirmations that don’t betray the moral truth. (I’m not at all sure Griffiths’s brief formulations are careful and nuanced enough, but that’s another matter.)

There’s precedent, after all. Pope Francis’s confusing (and perhaps confused) statements about homosexuality share Griffiths’s reading of the signs of the times. The pope seems to want to find the “yes” that gets us moving in the right direction, toward a recovery of a basic metaphysical sanity that allows us to see that the different physiologies (and psychologies) of men and women—and their fruitful reciprocity in sexual union—have moral relevance. I believe that’s Griffiths’s goal as well.