The Institute for American Values recently issued A Call for a New Conversation on Marriage. The current conversation, the 74 signers say, is going nowhere and children deserve better. It is not yet clear if Catholics will contribute, but I hope so.
The IAV is a right-leaning, centrist think tank, or at least it used to be. Led by David Blankenhorn, the organization brings scholars together and publishes reports on topics such as, “Why Marriage Matters,” “For a New Thrift,” and “Hardwired to Connect.” It has been in the forefront of efforts to raise concerns about children raised in broken and cohabiting families, and its leaders have sometimes spoken against same sex marriage, though this has not been IAV’s emphasis. (Full disclosure: I was a part of the IAV’s recent “Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith?” project.) But over the summer, Blankenhorn wrote a piece in the New York Times telling readers why he had changed his mind on gay marriage. The organization made a decision that they would welcome gay rights advocates to their pro-marriage work.
As a result of this shift to the center, signers of this statement are a mix of liberals and conservatives interested in talking about marriage because of their concern for children and civil society: Elizabeth Marquardt, Peter Steinfels, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Jonathan Rauch, William Galston, Richard Mouw, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, Stephen Post, Caitlin Flanagan, Linda Waite, among others.
The call makes five claims:
*We can do something to change the direction of current trends.
*Marriage can “help build affluence,” especially important after the Great Recession.
*The value of marriage throughout the life cycle needs to be explored. Worries about the decline of marriage and the rise of unwed childbearing should not be limited to the young.
*Today’s marriage problem extends to the middle class, dividing those households from upper class households. It is an inequality issue not a poverty issue.
*Most provocatively, “The new conversation does not presuppose or require agreement on gay marriage, but it does ask a new question. The current question is, Should gays marry? The new question is, Who among us, gay or straight, wants to strengthen marriage?”
This last plank will make it difficult for Catholics for join in this movement. Over at First Things, David Mills criticized the statement, saying, “the effort to strengthen marriage while redefining it is ultimately pointless . . . gay marriage is itself one of the problems the Call ought to engage.” Also this week, the Catholic News Service reported, the USCCB filed two amicus briefs in support of California’s Proposition 8 and the Federal Defense of Marriage Act.
Catholics could sit out this conversation and continue to channel most of their pro-marriage energy into fighting same sex marriage. But we would be missing an opportunity to build coalitions with people who are deeply concerned about the 40% of children born outside of marriage, the problems caused by the trend away from marriage in the working class, and the effects of cohabitation on children. Wouldn’t it better to come to the table and join the most promising pro-marriage movement of our day?