Rod Dreher’s book, “The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation,” recieved widespread acclaim and critiques when published from a host of Christian and non-Christian authors alike.
As important as this debate may be, I do not wish in these pages to lend my voice to either side but, rather, to note Dreher’s important insight into the question of the relationship between marriage and the common good, followed by a discussion of how Pope St. John Paul II’s teaching on the family can shed new light on this question.
Dreher’s book title comes from the last few lines of Alasdair MacIntyre’s decades-old but timeless work “After Virtue,” which presented a call for the renewal of virtue-based ethics over and against the ethical nihilism that pervaded — and still pervades — much ethical thinking. Put plainly, instead of a morality rooted in good habits and values understood to be inherent in the human person, morality and truth is left wholly to the creation of the individual. “After Virtue” concludes with a call for a new Benedict of Nursia, considered the founder of modern monasticism. Seeing the city of Rome in ruins, Benedict left the city and ultimately formed a community of Christians who shared in a common life of prayer and work.
Following this thought, Dreher posits the “Benedict Option,” inviting Christians to strategically retreat or engage culture in a different manner — analogous to the monastic life. Dreher identifies the assault on marriage and the family as the tipping point, illustrated in the backlash against Christians following Indiana’s religious freedom statute, which is later solidified in the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which legalized gay marriage in all fifty states.
Conversely, MacIntyre points to nihilism. I should note that Dreher and MacIntyre’s works are unconnected but, to be clear, a rejection of marriage and the family is a rejection of reality as it has been given — in a word, nihilism. Nihilism and the assault on marriage both represent a profound disregard of the natural order as it has been given to us by the Creator from the beginning. Why? Because it is marriage and family that brings about society and enables its authentic flourishing. It is for this reason that the Church must defend the truth of marriage and the family as the sine qua non even in the face of mounting criticism.
As Catholics, the relationship between the family and society is assumed, but, to echo Dreher, within a wider cultural context the family is both questioned and even attacked. Sociologically, this moral confusion is evidenced by the fact that large numbers of millennials cohabit in place of, or as a “test” of, marriage and see no connection between marriage and children, resulting in widespread acceptance of same-sex relationships.
The Common Good
And it is within this cultural situation that we ask the question: What does marriage have to do with the common good? Yet, the question itself suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of the family, society and the common good. A question of this sort necessarily implies that the family is only good insofar as it does something for the common good: encourage economic development, don’t kill or steal, create productive members of society, etc. Families do all of these things, but the family, simply as being a family, serves the common good in profound ways.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church pointedly explains, “The family does not exist for society or the State, but society and the State exist for the family” (No. 214). Somehow the relationship between the state and the family has become inverted, putting the family at the service of the state, which results from an elimination of the idea that marriage has constitutive elements that are rooted in creation and redeemed in Christ.
Through the remainder of this short discussion I will say a word about this created and redeemed order of marriage, and the family’s relationship to the state. However, I will situate this conversation within the context of St. John Paul II’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation Familaris Consortio, which has a lot to say about both this created and redeemed order of marriage and the family’s relationship to the state.
In this exhortation, St. John Paul identified the four tasks of the family: 1) form a communion of persons; 2) serve life; 3) participate in the development of society; and 4) participate in the life and mission of the Church. It is in living out these tasks — that is, being a family — that the family is able to enrich society and serve the common good.
Communion of Persons
Forming a communion of persons is at the heart of marital love and, to be sure, is the essence of marriage, which is why the other tasks are intimately connected with it and flow from this communion of love. In the Book of Genesis, God says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (1:26, RSV), and then it continues: “God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (v. 27). Husband and wife, as man and woman, are called to bear the image of the invisible God who is love.
As the First Letter of John exhorts: “Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. If we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us” (4:8,12). Read in conjunction with the passage in Genesis mentioned above, we realize that husbands and wives are called to image — albeit in a faint and imperfect way — the eternal life-giving love between the Father, Son and Spirit.
This relationship of love is the family, the fundamental cell of society, meaning the smallest unit of society. The person, then, is always a person in a relationship of love — a mother, a father, a child, a sister or a brother. We exist in a network of loving relationships. This is a seemingly banal statement that has the potential to enrich the manner in which we structure the state and live in society.
To say that we exist in a network of loving relationships can transform a society that sees the individual as supreme. Both the political left and right see the individual as absolute, whether through the Democratic National Committee’s recent pledge to only endorse candidates who support complete and unrestricted access to abortion or some Republicans’ unwillingness to welcome Syrian refugees into the United States.
Contrary to the natural or created order, these approaches see the individual as completely untethered from their neighbor, more akin to the tragic story of Cain and Abel. What if, instead, the state governed and structured in a manner that acknowledges that society is constituted of a communion of persons; or, put simply, that society is a society of mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, rather than individuals who have no responsibility for or relationship to their neighbor?
If the family is a communion of persons, the relationship between husband and wife is one that is naturally life-giving. Love constantly brings forth new life, and husband and wife have a special responsibility to serve life, indeed, because they are the wellspring of new life. Parents awaken their child to the world around them, as mother and father. Herein lies the tragedy of broken families.
Brad Wilcox, of the University of Virginia, points out the impact on children who have good relationships with their fathers: boys are less likely to engage in delinquent behavior, girls are less likely to become pregnant as teenagers, and both boys and girls are less likely to experience depression. Similar things can be said about the importance of a mother in the life of a child. Despite continued efforts to reject the sexual difference, the significance and impact of a mother and a father continues. Moreover, a child has the right to a mother and a father, which is rooted not just in the teaching of the Church but in the truth of nature. Too often, there are even attempts to completely circumvent the role of parents in the life of the child between surrogacy, in vitro fertilization or, now, even artificial wombs. Therefore, now more than ever, the Church must defend this perennial truth of marriage.
Impact on Society
The family, as a communion of persons, is always reaching outside of itself and is life-giving even beyond the gift of a new child. The family — precisely as a family — is called to go out and be leaven in the world. The family’s call to participate in the development of society and the life and mission of the Church are intimately linked. While one might be more secular and the other explicitly at the service of building up the Church, both tasks well up from this communion of love and extend outward.
At this point it should be clear that the family naturally engages in and enriches society, but the Church calls families to go further. The Church calls families to explicitly work for the betterment of society. The family cannot be an insular or isolationist unit but is a communion of love that desires to share this love. Moreover, the beauty of this task is that it is lived out differently by each individual family, with some giving particular attention to the unborn, others the elderly and still others to the impoverished. And the list goes on, but it is living out this task that results in a complementary enrichment of society.
The family is also called to be a domestic church, which means that it lives out the work of the Church in the home and in the world. As St. John Paul explains, the family is a most important agent of the New Evangelization. This means that the family can be a sanctifying agent for its members and the whole world. The family is transformed by being good brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers. But this witness extends beyond the bounds of the family. Through baptism, the Christian faithful are marked with a common priesthood, meaning they are called to consecrate the world to Christ. The sacrifice that the lay faithful offer is of themselves in the world, and the family is the unique place where this mission is cultivated and from which the person is sent.
The family, simply as being a family, serves to support the common good and enrich community life. So, to answer the question, What does marriage have to do with the common good? The answer is simple: everything. The family is the foundation of society, which builds up the common good and, indeed, makes the common good possible.
Here, it is worth returning to the words of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church: “The family does not exist for society or the State, but society and the State exist for the family.” Therefore, perhaps the better question becomes, How can society and the state serve the family in support of the common good? Or, better yet, how can you and I do this?
So we return to Dreher’s thesis. As families, communities and a Church, we are called to engage with a culture that has become increasingly hostile to our values, values that are rooted in nature.
We as a family of families, must find ways to live out these beliefs and build up the common good.
Archbishop William E. Lori is the sixteenth archbishop of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.