Recently I spoke with a student who was strongly attracted to the view of marriage maintained by the natural law tradition. He told me, though, that he had been cohabiting with the same woman for five years, and “we consider ourselves married.” His question: Isn’t this the equivalent of marriage? Does it matter?
He wanted to do the right thing and he asked me to speak frankly, so I did. Sure it matters. One enters into the matrimonial commitment by mutual consent. If we were living in anarchy, with no laws or customs, then that would be it. Human experience has shown, however, that such an arrangement is unstable. For this reason – even apart from sacramental considerations – the legal recognition of marriage requires that vows be exchanged in the presence of witnesses, and publicly registered. This not only solemnizes them, but makes it possible for them to be enforced.
Cohabitation deliberately avoids these things. So here is how you know whether you have a commitment: If you’re married, you do. If you aren’t married, you don’t.
“I’m not suggesting that you intend to leave her,” I asked, “but what if you did? She would be left high and dry, and so would any children.” I suggested to him that by not marrying her, he was doing her an injury, even if neither of them thought of it that way.
The mainstream of the classical tradition links the reality of the natural law with the reality of God. Thomas Aquinas, for example, says that just as the authority of good human laws depends on the natural law, so the authority of natural law comes from the Eternal Law – from the Wisdom by which God made and governs the universe.
This doesn’t mean that whatever He could have commanded anything. “He would deny Himself if He were to do away with the very order of His own justice, since He is justice itself.”
My atheist students often ask: Can’t we be good without God? In one sense, sure. Just like everyone else, the atheist has a conscience, and with fair accuracy, he can work out the natural law.
But in another sense, no. The atheist faces at least seven obstacles in understanding and following this law.
1. Since he does not recognize God as the Supreme Good for which all created goods exist and to they are ordained, it will not make sense to him that although certain acts can be directed to the Supreme Good, others cannot. Consequently, he will find it difficult to understand how any act can be intrinsically evil. He will be inclined to think that for a good enough result, we may do anything.
2. Since he does not recognize Divine providence, the idea that he should do the right thing and let God take care of the consequences will seem senseless to him. It will seem to him that if there is no God, then he must play God himself. He may find it difficult not to do evil for the sake of good.
3. Since he does not recognize God as the Creator, he must regard conscience as the meaningless and purposeless result of a process that did not have him in mind. Because it will be hard to believe that a ragtag collection of impulses and inhibitions left over from the accidents of natural selection could have anything to teach him, he will be tempted to think that the authority of conscience is an illusion.
4. Since he does not have faith, he is likely to view his moral dilemmas as inescapable. For if there is no God, how can he believe the assurance of faith that “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it”?
5. Since he does not believe in divine grace, he will be unable to avail himself of its assistance. Certainly he will be able to perform naturally good acts. However, when he meets the wall that each of us meets, when he finds himself doing the wrong he does not want to do and not doing the right that he wants to do, he will be unable to cry out for assistance.
6. Since he does not believe in those spiritual virtues which depend on grace for their very existence, he will be unable to practice them at all. For example, though he may love his wife with natural love, he will fail in that supernatural charity which enables him to see that since she is made in His image, the only true way to love her for her own sake is to love her for God’s sake.
7. Finally, since only a person can forgive, the moral law will seem to him a harsh accuser with a heart of rock. When he has done wrong, as we all do, he will long to drown out the condemning voice of conscience. He will be tempted to tell himself that the law is a fantasy, that there is nothing to be forgiven, that the solution to the problem of guilt is that there is no such thing. Or perhaps he will just try to talk himself into a lower standard.
So yes, for all these reasons -- some logical and some psychological -- we do need God to be good.
A reader comments:
I hadn’t seen your important point about the woman being at a disadvantage in cohabitation made before in quite the way you did in your post “Cohabitation Is Not Marriage Prep.” A personal anecdote:
In January I attended the wedding of a distant relative. She had cohabited with the same partner for more than five years -- they told us they couldn't afford to get married because of the cost of the wedding -- and, when, a year or so later they did starting planning to marry, the relationship broke up.
Within another year or so she had settled down with a new man, with whom she had a baby. He had a child from a previous relationship. They planned ahead to marry the following year – again, I suspect, because of the money – and they did.
She had taken a year off work to stay with the baby, and wanted to work from home. Before long, though, her husband was urging her to go out to work and earn what he considered real money.
I hope it works out for them, but the omens aren’t good.
Thanks. Your story illustrates not only how women are at a disadvantage in cohabitation, but also how a couple’s history of cohabitation tends to hurt their subsequent marriage.
Strange that increased vulnerability should be considered liberation, but men have also diminished themselves. A man who uses a woman is not much of a man.
And isn’t it odd to think it is more important to have a lavish wedding than to get married at all?
I usually post on Mondays.
Never underestimate the brutal power of desperation, on either the right or the left.
Early in the previous presidential administration, a young man showed up during my office hours to tell me his strategy for overcoming the other side in the culture wars. He wasn’t one of my students, and I don’t know why he sought me out. I suppose he thought I would be sympathetic.
Having learned about the lessons the then-president is supposed to have learned from community organizer Saul Alinsky, he said “Our side has to do that stuff too.”
What sort of stuff? He meant things like threatening, lying about one’s goals, misrepresenting the other side’s positions, assassinating the character of opponents, and deliberately provoking crises in order to make people frantic for change.
As you may know, a lot of people since then have taken the same view. Culture wars ignite cultural arms races.
I told him I didn’t believe in doing evil so that good would result.
But they’re destroying the country. We have to save it.
How would it save the country to become just like the people he viewed as destroying it?
But they’re winning. We can’t let them win.
What would he expect to win by destroying the moral order of the republic he claimed to love?
He demanded to know what I proposed instead. I said he might try bearing witness.
I’m afraid he found me disappointing. He seemed to think that I sympathized with the other side.
Curiously, many people today think that God pays attention only to big things that affect everyone at once.
I guess this means He keeps the galaxies in their orbits, but doesn’t listen to the prayers of Aunt Lucy.
If we claim God as Father, shall we not at least be consistent?
For to say that God exercises only general care for the universe, not particular care for individuals, is to say that His attitude toward His children is more like a father frog than like that of a human father. Humans care for their young. Once the frog spawns, his job is done.
If I were still an atheist, I would be tempted to use this point against Christians.
Are we better fathers than the One from whom all fathers take their names? I have had too much experience of mercy to think Him no better than that.
I have a question about the role of men in society, particularly in the case of a hypothetical war. While I believe that we, as men, do have a role to play in society (protectors of our family would probably be just one easy guess), my understanding of our role in society is still a little limited and ambiguous. As a male, is it my duty to fight in a war for a just cause? Particularly, is it my God-given duty to say, go overseas and put my life, body, and mind on the line in an event that will, no doubt, be horrific? And if not, does that make us cowards? Would it make us non-virtuous and sinful in the eyes of the Lord?
As you say, men do have a natural role as protectors of the family. Persons who protest that this is “gender stereotyping” are not thinking clearly; men don’t bear children, and it is irresponsible to overlook such a profound difference. I would also say that if there were no other way to protect your family but to fight against someone, then you would be obligated to fight. If someone pulled a knife on your wife and children and the only way to stop him was to fight, you would do so.
The question of just war, though, is a little different. Obviously, one difference is that in war you are protecting not just your family, but the society which includes your family. Granted, some wars need more fighters than others. But for the protection of society against enemy soldiers, it is not necessary for everyone to be a soldier – just as for the protection of society against criminals, it is not necessary for everyone to be a police officer. In fact, it would be detrimental to society if everyone were a soldier, because while the soldiers were off protecting society, there would be very little society left for the soldiers to protect. Not to mention the fact that the soldiers would need someone else to send them food, weapons, and medicines.
I think some people are especially suited by talent and inclination to be soldiers (just as some people are suited by talent and inclination to be military wives). But others are especially suited to be such things as schoolteachers, engineers, carpenters, farmers, and ministers of religion. Suppose you ought to be a soldier and would make a bad farmer, but decided to be a farmer anyway. You would be making a poor decision. But suppose you were someone who ought to be a farmer and would make a poor soldier, but decided to be a soldier anyway. This decision would be just as bad.
By the way, when I speak of being “suited by talent and inclination,” to be a soldier, I don’t mean only being aggressive and being able to shoot straight. Just as there is a certain moral discipline in teaching, so there is a certain moral discipline in soldiering. For example, just as a teacher must teach only what is true, a soldier must target only enemy combatants, not innocents or prisoners.
One more thing. You said you were asking only about war “for a just cause.” A just cause is the first condition for a just war, but it is not its only condition. For example, the war must be waged with a right intention, at the direction of competent public authority, and with reasonable grounds to believe that it will help more than hurt. Even when it is right to go to war, justice also requires waging it in the right ways. That’s why I mentioned the moral discipline of not targeting noncombatants, and there are other conditions concerning how to fight too.
I think an honest relationship is a better one. Even a high-spirited argument between two people can be friendly and courteous. By bringing their errors to light, the frank exchange of differences helps both parties advance toward the truth. It also helps each fellow avoid mistaken assumptions and gross misunderstandings of what the other fellow actually believes, because neither of them has to guess.
But some people don't think see it this way. Quite a few dislike discussing important questions, such as how to live, whether war can ever be justified, or whether there is a God -- the very ones which are most in need of discussion.
Why? For lots of reasons. Some claim to find these topics boring. Some are afraid of seeming unintelligent or uninformed. Some have no patience with persons who disagree with them -- or they fear that the other persons will have no patience with them. Some are terrified of stepping outside of mainstream opinion. Some are afraid that frank discussion may call to their attention things they would rather not think about.
Again, some like to keep what they think secret; for instance they may be afraid of getting in trouble or being thought odd if people find out. And of course a great many people simply can’t stand the possibility of conflict. To them, even a polite disagreement is like the screech of nails across a blackboard. All they can think is “make it stop.”
With courtesy, such obstacles can often be hurdled. In our day, though, the main reason for reluctance to discuss the important things in life seems to be different, and is much more difficult to overcome. For many people today hold the view that there are no rational grounds whatsoever for opinions about the important things in life. This might be viewed as a kind of pop culture solipcism.
It isn’t that such folk have no opinions. It’s that their opinions aren’t precisely opinions. For if there are no rational grounds for deciding what is the case, then what a person calls his opinion of the world is not, precisely, about the world; it’s merely a personal characteristic. His watchword could be “It’s all about me.” Since he thinks your opinion is about you, and his is about him, disagreeing with his opinion seems to him like criticizing the size of his nose. He sees it not as disagreement but as disapproval, not as a challenge but as a discourtesy, as if the one who disagreed with him had said “I’m better than you.”
By taking this attitude, he also shields his opinions from all possible refutation. "I think these devilled eggs are safe," he says. "I wouldn’t be so sure,” you say; “the last three diners who ate them got sick." "Well,” he replies, “I just think they're safe." “I just think” is his conversation-stopper, for the test of an opinion is its correspondence with reality, but the possibility of such a test is just what he denies.
Or thinks he denies. For it is easy to be a solipcist, but impossible to be a consistent solipcist. The way things really are keeps crashing in on us. And that is why -- if you wait long enough -- it is sometimes possible to speak with these people too.