The Corner

The Amazing Power of The Culture (Part 3)

As I said, the law creating unilateral divorce changed not only individuals’ incentives before the law, it privatized the older concept of marriage as a permanent vow — indissoluable in the Catholic tradition (which was never the law in this country) and severable only for serious cause in the Protestant common-law version. 

I can still hold the view that divorce is wrong — that I have no right to divorce because I made a vow to stay married. But with the advent of unilateral divorce, my views became a privatized view of marriage, not part of the shared reality defined by the law. We privatized this view of marriage precisely when the law privileged the progressive view of divorce.

Maybe you think this was a good change. I will not stop to argue the point now. What I’m trying to point to (for those geniuinely striving but challenged to understand my argument) is that the law mattered. And that the consequences of this legal change was not, in a simple sense, the expansion of liberty, but a change in power, driven in significant part by the cultural power of the law’s power to name reality.

I can maintain as a Catholic that my marriage is indissoluble. But if I or my husband wants a divorce, the law will consider my views, and even our original marriage agreement, irrelevant. I can maintain that I’m still married to him, even as the law divides my property, redefines his support obligations, gives him a legal right to separate me from my children for designated periods, and gives hearty consent to his right to engage in sex, bearing children, and marriage with someone else.

I know a few Catholics who have tried to maintain and act on in public the sacramental vision of reality (the purely religious view) after the law has endorsed and actualized their spouses’ right to divorce. Such religious people come perilously close to appearing mad in their insistence that somehow they are still married to the obviously divorced spouse. (Isn’t that what madness is — a private reality?)

So yes, if you follow the analogy to divorce, parents will still be able to teach their children their own views about what marriage is. But the law will be constantly repudiating that view in a number of public visible ways. Parents are having a very hard time fighting the progressive views of sexual culture, enshrined at law, in any number of ways. This will make it much harder.

When people say the “law is an educator,” that’s true, but it doesn’t go far enough. In this case, the law is an arbiter of reality: Who is really married? Who is really divorced? Who is having an out-of-wedlock child? Who, for that matter, is committing adultery?

The law’s power to name reality matters.

By the way, I do understand that is why the “name” matters to gay-marriage advocates. That’s what makes this battle difficult to compromise. But all I ask, of the intellectual class at least, is they stop saying therefore that the defintion of marriage in law (which matters so much to Adam and Steve) won’t matter at all to anyone else.

Particularly since gay marriage, as I mentioned above, is not like divorce in some key ways.  . . (to be continued)

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