Marriage is a universal human institution, defined—until recently—as the preferred context for both sexual activity and child-rearing. Until the last forty years, every society understood that some contexts for sex and childbearing were preferable to others.
Opposition to this traditional view of marriage has increased in recent times. We are told that society should not “privilege” one form of relationship or family over any others. But “privileging” is, by definition, the exact point of the marital institution: the very existence of the institution proclaims that some relationships are more socially significant, more socially productive, and more socially desirable than others. Since the Catholic Church offers one of the richest and most robust teachings about marriage, the Church has faced particularly strong criticism for her teachings.
In the current debate between the traditional view that marriage is Something, and the modern view that marriage is Whatever We Say It Is, the Catholic Church holds firmly to the view that marriage is something in particular.
The Church teaches that marriage is the lifelong, sexually exclusive, sacramental union of one man and one woman, established by the consent of the spouses, characterized by love and a common life, and ordered to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children.
In some cases, the Church teaches that the separation of spouses may be legitimate, and even civil divorce can be tolerated. But remarriage (without annulment) is always forbidden. According to Catholic teaching, sexual activity outside of marriage is always wrong. This includes both adultery (sexual relations between a married person and someone other than the spouse) and fornication (sexual relations between unmarried persons). Obviously, then, the Church objects to nonmarital cohabitation, and out-of-wedlock childbearing.
These, it is safe to say, constitute the “hard teachings” of the Catholic Church regarding marriage. Apart from her teaching on contraception, abortion, and possibly the all-male priesthood, no other teaching has caused the Church so much bad publicity and ill-feeling.
Over the past forty years, many women have become convinced that marriage is not in their best interest. Some women believe marriage is unnecessary. Others think that it is or has been harmful to them. The views of women like these, orchestrated, I will argue, by socialist and other secular feminists, have been instrumental to weakening the institution of marriage.
But the weakening of this foundational institution has also harmed women in some distinctive ways. Without a robust culture of marriage, women have been left with the burden of caring for children with far less support from men than would have been conceivable in prior ages.
Married women are happier, healthier, more sexually satisfied, and more financially secure than their unmarried, cohabiting, and divorced counterparts.
Moreover, the alternatives to marriage have been particularly harmful to children, quite apart from the loss of material support from their fathers. Since women on the whole care deeply about the welfare of their children, the negative outcomes to children caused by the decline of marriage must also be counted among the harmful effects on women.
[Excerpted from Dr. Morse’s contribution to the book Women, Sex & the Church: A Case for Catholic Teaching.]