SSMYesterday, France legalized same-sex marriage, following Uruguay and New Zealand earlier this month. The Delaware house approved a bill doing the same and the Nevada senate passed a resolution repealing the state’s one-man-one-woman definition of marriage while recognizing all marriages regardless of gender. Rhode Island’s five Republican senators announced they would support same-sex marriage, making approval by the senate today — and thus the state — very likely.

In other words,  the SSM tide is rolling in. What are the poor Catholic bishops to do?

My friend the prolific NCR blogger Michael Sean Winters argues that they should throw in the towel, not because he supports SSM (he doesn’t), but because the marriage war was lost decades ago, when the bishops failed to stand in the way of no-fault divorce.

I can see why such an argument might be something of a balm for ecclesiastical potentates like Archbishop Vigneron of Detroit and Bishop Tobin of Providence, who can barely contain their apoplexy at this threat to civilization as they know it. After all, they weren’t bishops when the no-fault divorce laws went into effect.

Nevertheless, it’s a bad argument and one that teaches the wrong lesson.

Divorce rate2It’s a bad argument because no-fault divorce laws had nothing to do with the rise in divorce rates, which began their ascent in the late 1950s. Between 1970 and 1977, nine states adopted no-fault divorce. By 1983, all but two states had. Whereupon divorce rates began to decline.

Now it’s true that marriage rates too had begun to decline — though again, well before no-fault divorce became nationwide. I suppose it could be argued that the redefinition of marriage via no-fault divorce contributed to a devaluation of the marital state, such that the decline of the divorce rate was merely an artifact of a smaller portion of the population getting married in the first place. But in fact the divorce rate per marriage has remained constant at 50 percent since the mid-1970s, when only a handful of states had no-fault divorce.

Divorce rate3If it was not the introduction of no-fault divorce that brought about the decline in the marriage rate, what did? Arguably, this had to do with changing sexual mores and the fact that women, liberated to join the workforce as professionals, found they didn’t need to get married in order to obtain a decent standard of living. No-fault divorce came about because an increased unwillingness of couples to endure abusive and loveless marriages had led to intolerable fakery to prove “fault” in a court of law. The bishops could not have held back the tide if they had wanted to.

The bad lesson taught by Winters’ faulty argument is that bishops need only stand against changes in social norms at the outset in order to keep them from happening. As if, for example, their staunch opposition to contraception after the 1930 papal encyclical Casti connubii had been effective.

Rather than resolving to fight their battles sooner, the bishops would be better advised to figure out how to adapt their teachings to the times — as they have often done in the past (e.g. on usury and religious liberty), or to devote themselves to persuading their own flocks of the wisdom of standing apart from the norms of the society in which they live.

10 Comments

  1. No fault divorce was, and remains, a disaster for women, most of whom still depend on men to maintain a decent standard of living, given the persistence of occupational sex segregation and wage gaps. What is remarkable about conservatives’ campaign for marriage and the family is that, for reasons difficult to make sense of, they oppose same-sex marriage but don’t make a peep about liberal divorce laws, which trash women–particularly working class women who, if they work outside the home, have underpaid pink-collar jobs rather than unisex careers.

    I would have thought what I’m about to say was the silliest politically correct nonsense 5 years ago, but the more I follow the activities of the religious right, the more convinced I am that the core commitment is the maintenance of sex roles and the promotion of patriarchy. Divorce is good for men but bad for women (give the economics) so the right tacitly supports it. Same sex marriage, even according to conservative propaganda, muddles gender roles and so is unacceptable.

    • “No fault divorce was, and remains, a disaster for women, most of whom still depend on men to maintain a decent standard of living, given the persistence of occupational sex segregation and wage gaps. What is remarkable about conservatives’ campaign for marriage and the family is that, for reasons difficult to make sense of, they oppose same-sex marriage but don’t make a peep about liberal divorce laws, which trash women–particularly working class women who, if they work outside the home, have underpaid pink-collar jobs rather than unisex careers.”

      The first part of this is spot on. It’s a bit embarrassing that Prof. Silk completely ignores the quite large & growing research showing the harmful effects of “no-fault” divorce on women.

      Unfortunately, the comment goes off the rails in the second half. Not sure where the commenter lives, but here in Louisiana, it is religious conservatives who have been highly vocal about the detrimental effects of no-fault schemes, & they passed “covenant marriage” as an alternative scheme. It hasn’t proved a very popular scheme, but it was an attempt to remedy the problems nonetheless.

      • California. Home of Prop 8. And here conservatives haven’t made any attempt whatsoever to make divorce more difficult for opposite sex married couples–just to make marriage impossible for same sex couples. This seems to be the norm nationally–attempts to promote ‘covenant marriage’ haven’t been a major theme.
        Covenant marriage however is a non-starter if men have other options. If non-committal marriage is available, fewer men will accept ‘covenant marriage’; and if cohabitation is available very few indeed will accept even non-covenant marriage. Pardon my cynicism, but marriage rates are down and single parenthood is up because there’s no reason for men to get married if they can get sex, kids and housekeeping services without it.

      • That’s an interesting question, there are articles that points out reasons on why women have the highest rate of divorce acquisition. I’m gonna send you the link once I found the article I’ve read about your concern.

  2. I agree with the above reply. The market economy and the family economy are in opposition. Interestingly,even SSCouples have arrived at the same conclusion; it takes two adults to make a family run smoothly, economically– , Author Joan Williams, says, “wage- is actually the product of two adults; the employee and the adult who sustains child rearing obligations; benefits, however are awarded unilaterally.” We are seeing that divorce even among same sex couples- will have the same burdensome consequences which primarily impact the lives of children. Except, now the child of a same sex couple has four mothers instead of one. The concern really needs to be about the children.
    People will always get divorced, but not seemingly, more attention must be paid to the root cause of this generational contagion.

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