Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Indispensable Family

Thirteen years ago, William E. May wrote the book: Marriage: The Rock on Which the Family Is Built. Three years ago, Ignatius Press published a second edition, which includes a new introduction, as well as two additional chapters, one which delves into John Paul II's Catechesis on the Theology of the Body, and another, which covers Pope Benedict XVI's Teaching on Marriage and Family Life. These are much welcome additions to an already fine book.

Many of the arguments we have about divorce, or whether or not gays ought to be allowed to marry, start at the wrong end. Marriage and the family are primary, and must be discussed first, which May wisely does. Thus in his first chapter, he offers fourteen basic moral criterion for families with supporting argument. For instance: “the family must be rooted in the marriage of one man and one woman”; “children... are to be begotten in the loving embrace of husband and wife”; “spouses ought not... impede procreation”; “Church and State must both honor the primary right of parents as educators of their children and cooperate with them in this educative task”; “society must support the sanctity of the marriage bond if men are to be fathers to their children.”

The second chapter builds on this, exploring the complementarity of male and female. In our age of triumphalist feminism, it is verboten to suggest that men and women are different, and--worse--that this difference is intrinsic and natural. Yet as Chesterton remarked, “Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.” May takes this difference as a given, and indeed, illustrative, for it tells us something both about mankind as well as the God who made us. Our design is such that husband and wife participate in procreation, bringing new life to the world through an act of love. May quotes the philosopher Robert E. Joyce who notes that men: “give in a receiving sort of way” while women “receive in a giving sort of way.” One mild complaint, these wonderful phrases are used too frequently throughout the text, reducing their potency.

Another chapter is devoted to examining Pope Paul VI's prophetic utterances in the encyclical Humanae Vitae. Yet somehow May's defense here is a bit underwhelming. He accurately explains that the late pope was correct about the consequences of detaching, or rather, attempting to detach, sex from reproduction. Still, the critics were so disastrously wrong that one wishes May would hammer the point home with a bit more force. The mainstreaming of contraception has been so thorough that the idea that sex has a natural end is not so much considered outdated as simply ludicrous. 

In making his arguments about marriage, May uses a variety of sources. He relies heavily on Catholic references: philosophers such as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, encyclicals, the Catechism, and so forth. This allows him to make the Catholic case thoroughly. Unfortunately, this reduces the appeal of his book to a secular audience. Revelation undoubtedly guides the Church's understanding of marriage; hence she has elevated it to a sacrament. Yet marriage antedates the Church. If the author plans a third edition, I would like to see him to sketch an argument in defense of marriage that relies on secular sources.

Still, until Catholics adhere to their own Church's teaching, there is more work to be done. May's book provides a well structured look at the family and the role it must play in society. For as Pope John Paul II observed, “As the family goes, so goes the world.”

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