First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.
Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.
Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.
I’m adopting these three ancient reasons for marriage as a structure to talk about marriage and the natural law.
What is the natural law?
Let me start by defining the term ‘natural law’. Natural law is the view that certain behaviours and values are inherently part of our nature as a species, and that we can deduce these behaviours and values by using reason.
Some people seem to think that if they can show something has happened in nature they can rest their case; it must be natural. But natural law is not about whether or not something occurs, but whether it operates to the good of the individual, the community, and the species.
Natural law theory goes back to the Greeks, but was became a foundation of Western jurisprudence because of the work of Catholic philosophers – primarily St Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas explains that:
…there belongs to the natural law, first, certain most general precepts, that are known to all; and secondly, certain secondary and more detailed precepts, which are, as it were, conclusions following closely from first principles. As to those general principles, the natural law, in the abstract, can nowise be blotted out from men’s hearts. But it is blotted out in the case of a particular action, insofar as reason is hindered from applying the general principle to a particular point of practice, on account of concupiscence or some other passion, as stated above (77, 2). But as to the other, i.e., the secondary precepts, the natural law can be blotted out from the human heart, either by evil persuasions, just as in speculative matters errors occur in respect of necessary conclusions; or by vicious customs and corrupt habits, as among some men, theft, and even unnatural vices, as the Apostle states (Rm. i), were not esteemed sinful.
The overwhelming precept of natural law has been expressed as ‘do good; avoid evil’. St Thomas’ five primary precepts are:
- to live
- to have an orderly society
- to love God
- to educate
- to procreate.
The role of marriage in society’s future – openness to children
We don’t feel any need to legislate the living arrangements of other flatmates. But when the procreation and education (in the broad sense) of children is in question, most cultures with a legislative code have felt the need – indeed the responsibility – to legislate. Why? Because the future of a society depends on how its children are raised today.
Society benefits when children are raised in an environment that meets their social, physical, emotional, and intellectual needs, and transfers to them socially acceptable beliefs and skills. On a statistical basis, a married couple raising their own biological children come out ahead on all of those measures.
Examination of English court records between 1982 and 1988 found that children living with their mother and her cohabiting boyfriend were 33 times more likely to be abused than those living with their married, biological parents. In turn, the risk of abuse for children whose mothers were cohabiting was five-and-a-half times greater than for children with remarried parents.
Ref: Robert Whelan, Broken Homes and Battered Children: A Study of the Relationship between Child Abuse and Family Type (London: Family Education Trust, 1993).
Out of 52,000 child abuse cases reviewed for the US, 72 percent involved children in a household without one or both biological parents, even though these households comprised roughly a third of all households with children.
Ref: 12. Malkin, C.M. and Lamb, M.E., Child Maltreatment: A Test of Sociobiological Theory, Vol. 25, 1994, p121-30.
Toddlers living in Canadian step-households in 1983 were about 40 times more likely to become registered victims of intermediate physical abuse than their two-genetic-parent counterparts.
Ref: Patricia Morgan, Farewell to the Family in NZ, 2003, p248
In Australia, the rate of sexual abuse of children in de facto couple families is more than three times the rate in natural or adoptive families. A high proportion of child killers are either step fathers or the mothers’ boyfriends.
Ref: Buckingham, J., “Boy Troubles: Understanding Rising Suicide, Rising Crime and Educational Failure”, Sydney: Centre for Independent Studies, Policy Monograph No.46, 2000
For every dollar spent on a child brought up in a two-parent family, the government spends $10 on a child brought up in a single parent family.
Ref: To Have and to Hold. House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs (Australia). June 1998
Fatherless children are worse off in terms of health, educational attainment, work ethics, income and lifetime wealth. They are more prone to crime, drug addiction, divorce, unemployment, illness, truancy, suicide, poverty and depression.
Ref: Why Marriage Matters: Twenty One Conclusions from the Social Sciences – A Report from Family Scholars (USA), 200
Yes, there are step-parents, single parents, same sex parents, and adoptive parents who do a great job of raising their offspring, and there are biological parents who do a lousy job. But there is plenty of evidence that – across society as a whole – children have a greater likelihood of doing well in the care of their married biological parents, particularly when both parents are involved in the lives of their kids.
It seems to me that the case for a natural law basis for the link between marriage and openness to children is proven. Marriage is the ideal foundation for procreating and educating children – two of the primary precepts.
The role of marriage in social order – exclusivity
I’ve often heard the claim that women are monogamous, and men are polygamous. In my view, this is nonsense. Indeed, current scholarly thinking seems to cover the range between mildly monogamous and mildly polygamous.
I believe that we have a range of reactions to multiple or sequential partners, with some members of the species desiring multiple partners, some strongly pair bonding, and most somewhere between. While men have been more likely than women to cheat (or to admit cheating) in the past, this is by no means the case today.
There are heaps of reasons, including our brain chemistry, to deduce a tendency to pair bonding. But let’s just look at the mythologies and folk tales of thousands of earth cultures, through space and time. Whatever our particular culture’s practical rules about polygamy, divorce, prostitution, or any of the other variants on sexual morals, our idealised love story – as shown the stories we treasure – is one man and one woman, focused on one another to the exclusion of all others.
That we’re (mostly) weakly pair bonded and also able to ignore our instincts causes us issues when a relationship comes under pressure. Maybe the bond isn’t strong enough to compel both spouses to make sacrifices for the sake of the relationship. Maybe one spouse loses their attraction to the other, or feels an attraction outside the relationship. In these cases, for the marriage to survive, the couple need good luck, a good dollop of the cardinal virtues, a strong social system that disapproves of marital cheating and approves of exclusivity, or all three.
Depending on the survey you look at, between 40% and 70% of spouses claim never to have cheated on their marriage. Certainly, most of the couples in my social circle (including all of my siblings and my husband’s siblings) have clocked up between thirty and forty years of marriage to their first spouse, who is usually their first and only sexual partner.
That said, sexual cheating is not the only – or in many cases the most important – type of cheating. Any relationship that channels time, love, and attention away from the spouse and towards someone else may be considered to be infidelity. Thus, internet sex, although it doesn’t involve physical connection, is a betrayal of the primary relationship. In many cultures, a spouse (usually the male spouse) can be free with sexual favours, but is not considered to be unfaithful as long as he grants his wife respect, support, and attention.
When you consider that 90% of first divorces involve infidelity, and that divorces are bad for children and therefore for society, you have enough evidence, I suggest, that exclusivity is best for society, and meets the primary precepts to live, and to have an orderly society. There is a natural law basis for the link between marriage and exclusivity.
The role of marriage in the health and wellbeing of the couple – life-long commitment
Last but not least is the commitment to be together for life. Clearly, as the statistics I repeated earlier show, society gains a strong advantage if a couple stay together to raise their children. But life? In this day and age, in Western society, even with women bearing children in their thirties rather than the more traditional teens or twenties, two people can expect to live thirty or more years after their youngest child is an independent adult.
So is it possible for a marriage to last a lifetime? And do the participants in a lifelong marriage receive benefits from staying together?
The answer to the first is a resounding yes. Not only can marriages last a lifetime, they can get better, richer, and stronger over time. My beloved and I celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary this year, and are more in love now than we’ve ever been. And we know many couples who say the same thing. When we co-ordinated marriage preparation classes for our diocese, we used to tell our couples about research that showed most people fall in love nine times in the course of a lifetime. The trick of a successful marriage is to keep falling in love with your spouse (we’re up to about time seven).
And on all sorts of indicators: health, wealth, well-being – happily married couples ace all other categories.
“The benefits are better physical health, more resistance to infection, fewer infections, and a reduced likelihood of dying from cancer, from heart disease, from all major killers,” said psychologist and author John Gottman, PhD. “The other health benefit is longevity: People live longer if they are in marital relationships, particularly if they are in good, satisfying relationships.” Gottman, considered by many to be a pioneer in the field of marriage research, is the James Mifflin Professor in the department of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle. “There are physical benefits and mental health benefits,” says Gottman. “You have less depression, less anxiety disorders, less psychosis, less posttraumatic stress disorders, fewer phobias. You also have fewer injuries due to accidents.” [http://www.beachpsych.com/pages/cc110.html]
(By the way, research suggests that women on average benefit from a happy marriage; men on average benefit from any marriage, whether happy or not.)
Lifelong commitment meets the primary precepts to live and to have an orderly society, so that gives us a natural law basis for a link between marriage and lifelong commitment.
At most, what I’ve done here is explain the relationship between traditional understandings of the natural law, and traditional understandings of marriage. We could talk about whether natural law is the way to understand marriage. We could also talk about whether and why the State has a role in registering marriage – and if so, whether natural law marriages should be treated differently to others. But this is already a long post. Let’s see where the discussion goes. I can always do another post.