The Marriage Debate II: what states really can’t do

In his acute analysis of the character and institutions of the United States, “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville, a 19th-century French liberal, stressed the importance of what we call “civil society.” American democracy, Tocqueville understood, wasn’t just a matter of the state, here, and the individual, there. “Between” the state (or government) and the people there were the many free, voluntary associations that formed the sinews and musculature of America. Those free associations also performed many essential social functions: they educated the young, served the poor, and cared for the sick.

Writing a century and a half after Tocqueville, Pope John Paul II also highlighted the importance of voluntary associations for the free and virtuous society. Those associations, the pope argued, shape the human personality of a political community—what John Paul called, in his philosopher’s vocabulary, the “subjectivity of society.” Thus, in a democracy—a way of self-government that depends on the character of a people—the institutions of civil society are schools of freedom: the elementary schools of democracy.

Think about it this way: Every 2-year-old is a natural-born tyrant, a beautiful bundle of willfulness and self-absorption who demands (sometimes winsomely and often loudly) that he or she get what he or she wants—now. Who, or what, turns all those 2-year-old tyrants into democrats: mature men and women capable of being democratic citizens? Where do we learn what Tocqueville called the habits of mind and heart, and what moral philosophers from Aristotle to John Paul II have called the virtues, that are necessary for the machinery of democracy to work well?

We learn them first in the family, which is the fundamental, irreplaceable institution of civil society. We also learn those habits of heart and mind in friendships and in school, in clubs and sports and in religious communities. Men and women who, later in life, take responsibility for making government work first learned how to do so, not from the state, but from the civil society institutions in which they grew up. Adults who take the responsibilities of citizenship seriously did not learn their sense of civic obligation from a governmental agency: they learned to be responsible and civil and tolerant, flexible but principled, in more humane schools: the free, voluntary associations that Tocqueville and John Paul II celebrated.

Democracy means, among many other things, that the government is not everything; thus Mussolini’s definition of totalitarianism (“Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state”) is the absolute antithesis of democracy—indeed, the very antithesis of freedom. Throughout history, just states (whether democratic or not) have understood that there are limits to their powers: there are certain things that just states simply cannot do.

With rare exceptions, the just state cannot interfere in the doctor-patient relationship or the lawyer-client relationship; it can never interfere in the priest-penitent relationship; it ought to be extremely chary of interfering in the parent-child relationship (save in obvious cases like abuse); and there are limits (always subject to debate and adjustment) about the state’s reach into the employer-employee relationship. The just state acknowledges the integrity of these primary, fundamental, civil society relationships and protects them legally. It has no business reinventing or redefining those relationships, for the just state exists to serve civil society, not vice versa.

Marriage is the primordial civil society relationship, for it is the basis of the family, which is the primordial civil society institution. That is why, for millennia, states have protected marriage, understood as what-it-is: the stable union of a man and a woman ordered to the begetting and raising of children. When a state claims the right to alter the definition of “marriage” to include same-sex relationships, it is tacitly claiming the right to redefine the number of persons who may make a “marriage” (why stop at two?); it is also tacitly claiming the right to redefine, by governmental fiat, every other pre-existing free association of civil society.

That claim is antithetical to the freedom of individuals, families, and society.

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.