No social system can survive without a sustainable system of production and of reproduction. These human activities, while perhaps not the most important, are certainly the most essential. (Using the language of Michael Naughton and Helen Alford, they are “foundational goods” to be distinguished from “goods of excellence.”)
In the Christian tradition, these two activities are the content of the first commands of God in Genesis 1, dominion and fruitfulness. (Without digressing, I will point out that both can be and have been misunderstood.) Genesis 1 can also be interpreted as indicating that it is precisely through the proper fulfilling of these commands that we are imago Dei. Genesis 1 says nothing about “reason” being imago Dei. Rather, it can be read (through the lens of the rest of the story) as suggesting that it is through loving cooperation with one another in these tasks of work and family that we come to realize our vocation as imago Dei. Creation, as we should remember on this feast of St. Irenaeus, is good, and is recapitulated in our redemption. We are not redeemed by escaping from matter. Of course, dominion turns into toil after sin, and fruitfulness becomes an occasion for jealousy and intense pain. But God’s invitations always persist, calling us to fulfill our purposes and ultimately follow in the path of Love incarnated.
For some centuries, in the face of Christianity’s betrayal of itself through decadence and violence, modern societies have sought to figure out other ways to make systems of production and reproduction sustainable. How can these projects be extricated from the viciousness and abuses of princes and priests? By what forces should we be guided?
The project is far advanced in the sphere of production, and the basic story involves the construction of an abstraction called “the economy” – more precisely, “the market” – in which, it is believed, an invisible hand allows the ordinary pursuit of self-interest to be transformed, as if by magic, into the production of the (economic) common good. Despite the fact that the Biblical text from start to finish is deeply critical of self-interest and constantly urges sacrificial sharing, Christian societies found ways to believe in the invisible hand mechanism.
A similar project has been undertaken in the sphere of reproduction, via the “invisible hand” of Cupid, eros, romantic love. Given my students’ incredulity at stories of arranged marriage and other social systems of family reproduction, this project is also quite far advanced. Since romantic love is the sine qua non of contemporary marriage, and since marriage is still ordinarily seen as the location where reproduction happens, the “romantic invisible hand” is supposed to work in the same way: follow your enlightened romantic desires, and (by magic?) you will sustain a lifelong partnership and do the hard task of raising children. (I’m not saying this always works out, any more than the market does. Nor am I saying that people don’t become cynical about the link of eros and lifelong love. I’m saying, “first comes love, than comes marriage, then comes X with a baby carriage… and they live happily ever after” is still the dominant aspirational narrative of the culture, and a narrative we celebrate and laud in countless cultural ways. It’s possible this is changing in some subcultures of our society. But, as Andrew Cherlin points out in Marriage-Go-Round, Americans have been relentlessly sunny optimists in their hopes for marriage. Indeed, its centrality to our identity and dignity is a huge reason why the rejecting of DOMA is so important.)
There will be many Catholic responses to the latest Supreme Court rulings (if I could recommend one, read Michael Sean Winters, who knocks it out of the park as usual), rulings that make virtually inevitable the recognition of same-sex marriage on equality grounds. At the heart of the rulings is the claim that the state can claim no legitimate public reasons for the restriction of marriage to opposite-sex couples, and thus to so restrict it is rooted in “a bare desire to harm” the dignity of a particular group of citizens. Amidst (from one side) celebrations and (from the other side) predictions of doom, what this ruling makes finally and luminously clear is something that has been emerging as a social fact for some decades now: there is no necessary connection between the social practice of marriage and the social practice of reproduction. Our social thinking about marriage no longer sees it as the essential system for reproduction. I do not mean this to imply anything about the ability of same-sex couples to rear children through adoption or other means. I only mean that the marriage – and by extension, the intimate sexual relationship – is no longer tied to the social project of reproduction. Rather, marriage is about romantic love, pure and simple. Marry who you love in this particular way. As long as we accept this understanding of marriage – and let’s be clear, Catholics by and large have accepted it – it makes no sense to exclude a particular group of persons and their genuine and authentic experience of romantic love. To celebrate romantic love in some cases and to vilify it in others – without demonstrating serious harm – just looks nonsensical.
Instead of discrimination and further polemics against a particular group of persons, maybe the Church can instead be inspired to a deeper, more important reflection: on the underlying “invisible hand” faith that has led us to worship both the market system and romantic love, regardless of the obvious massive harms and failings of such mechanistic “faiths.” For a long time, as Karl Polanyi narrated in The Great Transformation, the utopian attempt to create a “pure” market system has instead created situations of serious human suffering. In Polanyi’s narrative, the response has always been an attempt by societies to push back, to re-humanize and limit the invisible hand, by subjecting the process of market production to various kind of social norms and limits. Polanyi’s narrative leaves off at World War II – it seems reasonable to say that the push-pull cycle continues, whereby self-interest kind of works for a while, under certain regulations. Then our “faith” in the “free market” pushes up against the regulations, they are loosened, and after some initial economic fireworks, pure self-interest turns out to be what the Bible would lead us to expect: a disaster for society.
The problem here has not been completely resolved by Catholic teaching. While earlier CST seemed to pine for a medieval, pre-market order, later CST has increasingly accepted markets – though always with strong qualifications. It is really only in Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate that we have received a full integration, in which market activity itself must be constantly infused with reciprocity and “quotas of gratuitousness.” Markets work – but only if people are not purely self-interested. (That doesn’t mean, by the way, that they are somehow purely other-interested.) Or, as I would put it most clearly, markets are not mechanical, but are human relationships, and so reciprocity – those human relationships – are what should be maximized. Self-interest and love can be integrated – but it doesn’t happen automatically, by following some mysterious extra-human agency.
Let me suggest that the conversation on sexual ethics we really need right now is precisely how the “invisible hand faith” in romantic love can be and must be properly ordered to reciprocity, and most importantly the reciprocity of reproduction. I don’t mean here that we need to “reject eros” any more than we should simply “reject the market.” But maybe the romantic free market isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Perhaps I should be clearer: the scourges of our free-market sexual economy – the analogies to the awful Manchester slums that inspired 19th century reformers, or to the crumbling quasi-slave factories that still make our clothing – are rampant divorce (over 40%) and rampant single-parenting (over 40% of births). There is little dispute, in terms of sociological data, that children of divorce and children with single parents suffer harm (greater or lesser, from case to case, to be sure). There is no real dispute (within Catholicism) that abortion, a painful consequence of sexual freedom, involves grave harm. And now let me be even clearer: people of the same sex getting married has nothing to do with any of these scourges… except that it makes visible to us the underlying assumption that sexual feelings and desires are sacrosanct and must be honored, and that’s what we’re doing in our society when we celebrate marriage.
This is not a nostalgic post. The real issue in production is not how we restore the feudal system. It’s how we shape an economy of production that is really about reciprocal love, about caritas all the way through, and about how we can’t do that if we believe so supremely in pure self-interest and “invisible hands.” The real issue in reproduction is not restoring Leave It to Beaver. It’s what we do about the huge numbers of children born to single parents, devastated by divorce, and destroyed by abortion. Again, I don’t mean here to reject romantic love any more than I am rejecting markets. I do mean to suggest that our refusal to subject the question of sex to social control, instead assuming that eros will magically transform everything and make us happy if we just leave it alone, is idolatrous and harmful. And it is no more sustainable than our economic system.