We are relearning that marriage is not optional. The evidence started piling up in 1965 with Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report on the breakdown of the African-American family. In 2012, Charles Murray took us on a walk through Fishtown where we met a white (often non-)working class. In 2014, Kevin Williamson reminded us in National Review that cities do not have a monopoly on human misery with his vivid account of the social collapse in Appalachia. Sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox continues to produce clarifying scholarly work on marriage, family structure, and civil society. Free-range thinker George Gilder named the stakes: “If the family collapses, it will take a welfare state to take care of the women and children, and a police state to handle the boys.”
The diagnosis comes before the treatment. The welfare reforms of 1990s were a triage, but the patient is still at risk. What is the next course of treatment? The political left blames economic inequality, but paradoxically proposes a two-tiered system of dependency (and despondency) inducing welfare programs for the poor and pro-career perks for elites.
The political right waffles between tax-code tinkering uber-wonks, and those who prefer drawing elites out from their SuperZips with a vague call to “preach what they practice.” Count me as a skeptic. As I observe the ways many affluent and educated Americans teach their children about sex, relationships, and marriage, I’m not hopeful that others can learn much from them. Aside from a few Mormon families among my peers at Yale, the language used by elites is not religious or moral, but rather focuses on “safe,” “smart,” and “healthy” choices. This code is inaccessible and unclear to many working class Americans. If this is a fair reading of elites, I’m more interested in how other groups are working to build a marriage and family culture.
This Father’s Day weekend, our family spent a day with the Sisters of Life. A women’s religious community founded in 1991 by John Cardinal O’Connor, the Sisters take a special fourth vow (beyond the traditional three of poverty, chastity and obedience) to protect and enhance the sacredness of human life. In obedience to this vow, the Sisters welcome unmarried pregnant mothers to live with them in one of their convents. When asked “Do you hold the babies?” a Sister replied, “We hold the mothers.” They also offer practical assistance to pregnant women, often by connecting them with their thousands of coworkers. Perhaps most surprising to those who hear only media caricatures of pro-life Americans, they extend to those who suffer an abortion an open invitation for days of hope and healing on retreat with the Sisters.
In their service but also in their friendship, the Sisters work to affirm and rebuild a culture of marriage and family. It is nearly impossible for me to meet one of them without being asked how I met my wife. They want to hear the entire story, and they delight genuinely in it. They take marriage seriously and affirm that to become married is a real achievement. My wife and I are fortunate to come from intact families, but the Sisters are gently reminding us to be grateful and to be aware of the chaos that exists in the lives of others. The Sisters cannot forget it; they see too many women and children placed in peril by the retreat of boyfriends and husbands, often at the worst of possible times. They take a special interest in the single young men and women who come to volunteer with them. It should surprise no one that several volunteers have met and married.
To volunteer even briefly with the Sisters is to be put to work. Unlike more adversarial women religious orders, who seem more interested in seizing the sacerdotal means of production, the Sisters of Life are too busy assigning tasks to their male volunteers to spend much time complaining about gender equity in the Church. For men, this is usually manual labor. In a way, this too helps to build a culture of family by treating even the most inadequate of us men with dignity. The Sisters seem to know that a desk-bound man like me occasionally needs a few hours of installing air conditioners, carrying shelves, and raking leaves. There is something unexpectedly edifying about an experienced Sister, who has likely forgotten more about power tools than I will ever know, challenging me to assemble a cabinet simply because I was the most proximate man with a pulse.
One subtle threat to a peaceful and happy family is the anxiety parents can have about the future of their children. What are their prospects for happiness? As the father of a young girl, the Sisters are a living example of the joyfulness my daughter can find, regardless of power, wealth, or prestige. The Sisters draw from deep pools filled by love of Him and love of neighbor. May we draw from the same pools as we seek to recover what has been lost and to rebuild marriage and the family.
Stephen Schmalhofer writes from New York City.