Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Marriage as a Social Justice Issue - Paul Adams

This is the paper I am to give at the 2013 Convention of the North American Association of Christians in Social Work (NACSW) in Atlanta, GA, Saturday, October 19.  I plan to revise it for a wider audience and in light of feedback, so comments are more than welcome.

Depending on how you understand the concept of social justice, you can see marriage from several angles as a social justice issue, indeed as central to the possibility of a just society.  Historically (and universally) our most child-centered institution, marriage and the marriage-based family reduce the risk of poverty, crime, mental and physical illness, poor educational outcomes, domestic or intimate partner violence, and so on.  The marriage gap between the more educated and affluent on one hand and the poor and middle class, both Black and white, on the other is widening and that is increasing inequality (DeParle, 2012; Hymowitz, 2006; Murray, 2012).  Amato (2005) shows the profound impact on children of changes in family structure since 1970 when the sexual revolution took off. It included the explosion of divorce, increase in non-marital births, cohabitation, and fatherless and blended families.  The revolution’s defining feature was the destigmatization and increased incidence of almost all kinds of sex inside and especially outside of marriage.  If U.S. family structure were as strong today as it was in 1970, he calculates:

643,000 fewer children each year would fail a grade at school

1,040,000 fewer children each year would be suspended from school

531,000fewer children each year would need psychotherapy

453,000 fewer children each year would be involved in violence

515,000 fewer children each year would be cigarette smokers

179,000 fewer children would consider suicide

71,000 fewer children each year would attempt suicide.

[Amato, P.R. (2005). The impact of family formation change on the cognitive, social, and emotional well-being of the next generation. The Future of Children, 15(2), 75-96.]

Children's experience of repeated family structure change has a robust association with compromised development across the early life course.  In a recent study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family (Volume 75, Issue 5, pp. 1266–1287), Fomby and Bosick (2013) investigate the relation between family structure instability during childhood and adolescence and children’s transition to adulthood, up to age 24. Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health N=8,841), the researchers find evidence of associations between early and later family instability and low rates of college completion, early union formation and childbearing, and an early entry into the labor force. The researchers find that these associations are explained by family structure, delinquency, and academic performance in adolescence.

The considerable benefits of marriage, attested to now by decades of social science research and recognized by scientists across the political spectrum, cannot be reduced to a selection effect.  That is, it is not simply that healthier or more affluent people are more likely to get married in the first place regardless of any independent effect of marriage itself.  Of course marriage does involve this kind of selection.  That’s part of its purpose and function - as personified in the young woman’s father who questions the young man about his prospects. But we know from longitudinal studies that follow subjects as they enter, leave and re-enter marriages, that marriage has benefits from the start compared with other kinds of relationship status.  These begin even before the wedding, with the increase in earnings and decline in risk-taking behavior of young men when they get engaged (Akerlof, 1998; Killewald, 2012/2013; Townsend, 2012).  The benefits for women and men and their children - in income, health, mental health, and so on - are lost with divorce  and regained with remarriage (the more so the shorter the gap between marriages) (Waite & Gallagher, 2000).

So, given that marriage is a key protective factor, and as such of key importance for the lives of young people, including students of social work and related fields, what do we teach them?  The Institute for American Values published a report under the direction of the late sociologist of the family Norval Glenn (1997), Closed Hearts, Closed Minds: The Textbook Story of Marriage.  Glenn analyzed 20 textbooks used in some 8,000 courses across the country to teach hundreds of thousands of young people.  “The college instructors who are training the next generation of counselors, nurses, therapists, social workers, and teachers often rely on precisely these books for their own understanding of the scientific consensus on family matters.”  But the books are riddled with errors, show little interest in the effects of marital disruption or single parenting on children, devoting an average of only 3.5 pages to this topic.  Three times as much space is devoted to adult relations, without regard to how they affect children.  Current textbooks convey a pessimistic view of view of marriage. These books repeatedly suggest that marriage is more a problem than a solution. The potential costs of marriage to adults receive exaggerated treatment, while the benefits of marriage, both to individuals and society, are downplayed.

Mary Eberstadt (2012) described the “will to disbelieve” the empirical evidence on the negative impact of the sexual revolution and benefits of marriage and monogamy for children and adults, including those in disadvantaged families.  The blindness to evidence she describes has perpetuated in classrooms and textbooks across the country a view of marriage that had long been disproved by research.  A big gap opened up between research and researchers on one hand and textbooks, teachers, and the ideology in which social workers and other “helping professionals” were trained for decades on the other.

For social workers, who deal with populations where marriage has largely fallen apart, the tendency rightly has been to focus on helping those who suffer most from the collapse: abandoned mothers and their children, “blended” families, single parents, children in chaotic homes living without emotional or economic security, and so on.  But as with welfare policy, there is a dilemma.  Do the policy interventions supported by social workers help promote marriage and prevent its breakdown, do they support policies that incentivize marriage and encourage the virtues and norms on which its success depends?  Or do they promote and reinforce the sexual revolution and its effects in the name of celebrating family diversity or destigmatizing or being non-judgmental or providing income to those in need?

I want to suggest that a virtue-based understanding of social justice may help us toward a different, more empowering orientation that helps us build and sustain a culture of marriage, one that makes it easier for individuals to develop the virtues needed for marriage, even while helping those in problematic (to themselves) non-marital situations.

Social Justice as a Virtue

Benestad (2010) says this:

The contemporary concern for social justice leads primarily to a stress on public-policy initiatives, to a reorganization of “the system,” and to social reform.  In addition, there is a tendency to to regard social justice as a principle of rights against society rather than as a virtue inclining a person to fulfill duties toward society.  There is a stress on the demand for just treatment for others rather than the duty to act justly oneself (p.151).

Here I do not want to discount the injustices cited above, a state of affairs in which marriage has largely collapsed for a large part of the population, or to deny the need for public-policy initiatives.  Instead I want to suggest how a virtue-based understanding of social justice offers a fuller, more complete understanding of the challenge we face as social workers and as a society.  Implicitly I want to suggest how an approach to social justice that looks primarily or exclusively to asserting claims on the state by or on behalf of others rests on an impoverished understanding of the human person, tends to utopian statism and authoritarianism, and contradicts the best, most empowering traditions of social work.

In the understanding of social justice proposed here, society will not be just unless individuals are virtuous.  Political and economic structures in themselves can neither achieve this nor provide the love and support that humans, as naturally social, “reciprocally indebted” “dependent rational animals” (MacIntyre, 1999) need and for which the human heart longs.  This is the claim of the whole of the central Christian tradition from Augustine and Aquinas to the present.  Its  roots lie in the Christian understanding of the human person, of human dignity as derived from our creation in the image and likeness of God.  It draws on the ancient Greek understanding of the cardinal virtue of justice.  In this classical Aristotelian-Thomist tradition, justice is rooted in natural law and what is objectively necessary for humans to flourish as they order their lives together. 

In this tradition, justice and natural rights are, as Feser (2005) says,

...safeguards of our ability to fulfill our moral obligations and realize our natural end.   It follows that anything which tends to frustrate our ability to fulfill those obligations and realize those ends violates our rights and amounts to an injustice. 

So justice is the cardinal virtue by which, as a matter of habit and will, we give others what is due them.  As Aquinas defines it, following Aristotle and Cicero, justice is “the habit whereby an individual renders to each one his due (ius) by a constant and habitual will.” If we frustrate the ability of another to fulfill her moral obligations - say to worship God (which implies the right to religious freedom, as the American Founders argued) or to preserve her life or that of her child, we act unjustly.  

How do we get from this classical concept of the virtue of justice to social justice as a virtue?  Feser (2005) continues thus:

 And if that which frustrates this ability [to fulfill our moral obligations] is not merely the actions of a particular individual or group of individuals, but something inherent in the very structure of a society – in its legal code, its cultural institutions, or the tenor of its public life – then what we have can meaningfully be described as a social injustice.  In particular, any society whose legal framework fails to protect the lives of its weakest members, whose popular culture is shot through and through with a spirit of contempt for and ridicule of the demands of the natural law, or whose economic structure makes it effectively impossible for a worker to support himself and his family with his wages, is to that extent an unjust society, a socially unjust society. 

Social justice, then, can be defined as the virtue that inclines individuals to work with others for the common good.  It is justice in directing the virtues to giving others their due and social, as Novak (2000) argues, in a double sense.  It aims at the common good rather than what is due another individual (as in the commutative justice that inclines one to equitable exchanges between individuals) and it involves joining with others to achieve a common purpose that individuals cannot achieve on their own.  In that sense, it is the virtue of association, the virtue par excellence of civil society.

Marriage Does Not Just Happen

The collapse of marriage and the erosion of a culture of marriage is perhaps the cardinal social injustice of our time.  As we saw and as research clearly documents, most social injustices that social workers confront in their daily work at any level hinge in some way on this one.  What then would it take to sustain an environment or ecosystem in which marriage and marriage-based families could thrive?

In a symposium on the future of marriage following the recent Supreme Court rulings on its redefinition, philosopher Michael Pakaluk (2013) offered what even those who disagree with his vision might consider as a thought experiment.  His brief essay offers an opportunity to open oneself, at least temporarily and with tentative sympathy, to a view very different from that of the Court or the textbook writers.  Simply in the name of fairness, it is good to grasp the power of a quite different vision -- a set of propositions which others hold to be true. Pakaluk does not discuss the decisions or dissents of the Supreme Court, but says this:

Here is marriage, considered in context. A young man and woman remain chaste, and they have the virtue of “purity” (an old-fashioned word, but it is real). As a result, they have joy, and an ideal of the complete gift of self is readily understandable to them. They fall in love but do not “date” so much as “court” with reverence, each viewing the other as an almost divine gift.

They don’t have the baggage that comes with sleeping around. They don’t cohabit. They don’t think that oral sex is a sign of love, or even that it’s sex.

The death to self and complete binding of each to the other which they gleefully accept on their wedding day makes it also easy for them to accept their complete and total binding to a child for life, who incarnates their love into a single being. That is to say, they are “open to life.” They so cherish their bond that they have no private good except what comes through their union, and they place the safeguarding of that bond so high that it is a priority, for them, equivalent to faith, honor, religion, worship, and life itself.

What Pakaluk describes here is not a utopian ideal made out of whole cloth in the imagination of a social reformer.  It is, as he says, “in Shakespeare and other classical authors and, in Christendom, it used to be something like the ordinary experience of (how can I put it?) people who were well brought up. (Think: Song of Songs.)”  It rests implicitly on an understanding of man’s nature and destiny as the creature God who is love created out of love, for love, who “cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (G&S 24:3).

The point here is not to look back with nostalgia on an imagined golden age when there was no fornication, adultery, or other sexual vice.  It is to remind us how completely the possibilities and understandings of marriage depicted by Shakespeare in As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing or in the novels of Jane Austen, have ceased to be socially available.  What Pakaluk describes “is lived today, is even attainable, by only a handful of persons.” Yet, he continues, “anyone who understands historic Christianity, and is well read, must hold (I think) that it would be desirable for culture once again to make such a way of life generally attainable.”

What Pakaluk diagnoses is a grave social injustice in the sense defined by Feser, “something inherent in the very structure of society - in its legal code, its cultural institutions, or the tenor of its public life - that tends to frustrate our ability to fulfill our moral obligations and realize our natural end.”  The kind of life-affirming marriage and marriage-based family culture Pakaluk describes has been swept away, above all for the lower socio-economic strata, by the cultural and legal changes of the past half-century.  

So how is such a marriage, one consonant with our nature and destiny and corresponding to our deepest longings, possible today?

But a culture cannot be created or sustained by a single person; it can barely be kept alive by a family; and it certainly cannot be created or transmitted without sound education. So, the immediate path forward for marriage, regardless of the Supreme Court, is the creation and fostering of institutions where modesty and purity are practiced with full confidence and self-knowledge.

Is Marriage Possible?

There are two main responses to this state of affairs.  One is to normalize and even celebrate the collapse of marriage in the name of diversity of family forms.  We talk not of the family, but of families.  The aim is to offset the negative effects of this social breakdown on children and women both by destigmatizing non-marital births, divorce, sex of most kinds delinked from marriage and children, and also by using government programs to meet the needs of low-income women and children. 

Another response is to seek, by policy incentives or personal influence, to change the behavior of “target populations.”  The 1996 welfare reform, with its marriage promotion measures and time limits, did this.

The first approach offers direct relief, but at the risk of legitimating behavior and situations that harm children, society, and the institution of marriage.  It maintains the poor in their poverty and reinforces the very cultural forces in the structure of society that undermine marriage and the marriage-based family.  These are the forces that celebrate the unencumbered autonomous self and the rights (i.e., claims) of adults at the expense of their obligations to children.

The second approach runs the risk of dividing society into sinners and saints, those whose behavior needs to change and those who want to bring about the others.  One approach calls evil good and good evil (Isa. 5:20); the other inclines to a priggish moral superiority.

Is a both-and approach possible, one that recognizes the need for immediate help for those plunged into or maintained in poverty by the collapse of marriage and at the same time strengthens and rebuilds a culture of marriage rather than assuming and even incentivizing its breakdown? In one way, this is the perennial problem of social policy and social work, and indeed helping in general - the problem that the English Poor Law reformers of the 1830s wrestled with.  A social justice perspective, with its emphasis on the personal virtues and on the associations or mediating structures of civil society, offers a different way of looking at the problem.

Social justice cannot be reduced either to redistribution or to reform of government policies or institutions, though it does not exclude either.  It requires virtue on the part of each individual in society and finding ways for all to contribute to the common good, remedying those social injustices in law, culture, and the tenor of public life that put a healthy marriage beyond reach for many. 

A social justice perspective, so understood, takes sin seriously, seeing, as Solzhenitsyn put it, the dividing line between good and evil not as running between social groups or political parties, but as going through the human heart.  It begins, not with priggish finger-wagging, but with the recognition that we are all sinners and all affected by sin, not least that associated with the breakdown of marriage and its effects on children. 

In a provocative and startling essay, Esolen (2013) draws our attention to the moral harm caused by the shift away from a child-centered view of marriage and the marriage-based family as providing the optimum setting for children to be born into and be reared in.  In its place we have an adult-centered view of marriage as about adult relationships, as an intense form of friendship.  He shows us how our failure to give children their due penetrates deep - far more deeply and pervasively than the most obvious and appalling cases where the claims of children are subordinated to the desires of adults.  It permeates  the cultural institutions, laws, and public life that form and constitute our social practices.  

Esolen does this by asking how pedophilia differs in our minds from other kinds of sexual expression.  Its moral structure, he says, “is simply this: the welfare of children is subordinate to the sexual gratification of adults.”  He points out that lack of consent cannot in itself be morally decisive when we compel children to do all kinds of things to which they do not consent.

If we altered the question, and asked not how many people have done sexually abusive things with children, but how many people have done sexual things that redounded to the suffering of children, then we might confess that the only thing that separates millions of people from Jerry Sandusky is inclination. Everything that was once considered a sexual evil and that is now winked at or cheered, everything without exception, has served to hurt children, and badly.

Divorce is a case in point.

Unless it is necessary to remove oneself and one’s children from physical danger and moral corruption, the old wisdom regarding divorce should hold, if children themselves have anything to say about it. Parents will say, “My children can never be happy unless I am happy,” but they should not lay that narcissistic unction to their souls. Children need parents who love them, not parents who are happy; they are too young to be asked to lay down their lives for someone else. It is not the job of the child to suffer for the parent, but the job of the parent to endure, to make the best of a poor situation, to swallow his pride, to bend her knees, for the sake of the child.

The same applies to births out of wedlock.  

 The child has a right to enter more than a little nursery decorated with presents from a baby shower. He should enter a human world, a story, a people. He should be born of a mother and a father among uncles and aunts and cousins and grandparents, stretching into the distant past, with all their interrelated histories, with his very being reflected in all those mirrors of relation, not to mention his eyes and his hair, the talents in his fingers and the cleverness in his mind. This belonging to a big and dependable world can be secured only in the context of the permanent love of his mother and father, declared by a vow before the community and before the One in whom there is no shadow of alteration.

This neglect of the needs and interests of children is endemic in our culture.  It is in the way we talk, not only about marriage, but also about things like artificial reproductive technology or surrogacy. (For a social-scientific account of the phenomenon, see The Revolution in Parenthood: The Emerging Global Clash Between Adult Rights and Children's Needs.)

What is to be done?

What is to be done?  Feser argues that the “duty of remedying such injustices rests, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, primarily with individuals, families, and private associations.”  That principle also recognizes, as part of natural law, the state’s duty to deal with those injustices which cannot effectively be remedied in this way.  But when the state confirms in law “what was already the practice, trend, and effect of an alternative culture that had its immediate origin in the 1950s and ‘60s” (Pakaluk, 2013),  then the task falls all the more heavily on the associations of civil society.

As Girgis, Anderson, and George (2013) concluded the day after the Supreme Court decisions about the definition of marriage in the DOMA and Prop 8 cases:

If you believe, as we do, in the importance to children and to society of the marriage-based family, then of course you were hoping for different results in yesterday’s marriage cases. But you probably also put your trust in the institutions of civil society—in that vast arena between man and state which is the real stage for human development. And in that case, you never expected a court of law to do our work for us, to rescue a marriage culture that has been wounded for decades by cohabitation, out-of-wedlock child-bearing, and misguided policies like no-fault divorce.

Whatever one’s opinion about those decisions, or the scope for any legal measures to address the collapse of marriage, the task remains for social work what it was.  In line with its historic emphasis since the Charity Organization Societies and the Settlement House movement, its task of empowerment is still to combat social injustice by strengthening families and communities.  The challenge is to work out how to help rebuild a culture of marriage in civil society, especially in the poorer half of the population where the disintegration has been most complete and devastating in its effects.

Attempts to promote and strengthen marriage come in various forms.  At the policy level, there are attempts to remove disincentives to marriage like the marriage tax penalty on the poor and to incentivize marriage and make it easier for people to meet their moral obligations - of spouses to each other, to their children, and to society.  In 2004 a group of social scientists produced a list of policy proposals under the head, Can Government Strengthen Marriage?  They proposed a shift of emphasis from preventing teen pregnancy to preventing unwed pregnancy since the science revealed no benefits to delaying nonmarital birth into the twenties, but considerable benefits to getting married before having children.   They recommended support for marriage preparation education to reduce violence, conflict, and unnecessary divorce; lengthening the waiting period for no-fault divorce; removing perverse incentives to cohabit rather than marry; and evaluating and strengthening the pro-marriage aspects of the 1996 welfare reform; among other things.  All these measures can be understood as fostering an ecology that fosters the virtues required for and developed by marriage.

Such efforts flew in the face of the sexual revolution and its increasing adoption as law and official government policy. One driver of these developments, Alvaré (2012) argues, is the vigorous promotion by the Federal government of a new moral orthodoxy, an ideology she terms sexualityism or sexual expressionism.  Against what classical ethics and modern social science tell us about human happiness, as well as against the defense of religious freedom, “the government is promoting sexualityism—a commitment to uncommitted, unencumbered, inconsequential sex.” 

Government, not least through its imposition of an HHS mandate that requires that employers enable access to contraception, even abortifacient drugs, as well as sterilization, is promoting the destruction of marriage by normalizing and promoting the delinking of sex from marriage and both from the bearing and rearing of children by the two parents who made them.

Little wonder then, that the supporters of marriage and marriage-based families put little faith in government and its capacity or interest in promoting a culture of marriage. I will leave aside, consequently, further discussion of the kind of social policy measures that have been my bread and butter as a policy analyst.  Instead, I will look at some approaches within civil society to promote and sustain the kind of culture that makes the vision of marriage described by Pakaluk socially available to and attainable by those who want it. I will also look at what is involved in promoting the virtue of social justice in social workers themselves as well as the families and communities they work with.

Building an alternative: Reculer pour mieux sauter

In the famous ending of his After Virtue, MacIntyre (1981/2007) recalls the example of St. Benedict as he considers a way forward in our own dark ages.  “What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.”  In our own dire times, “the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have been governing us for quite some time” (263).  “Benedict’s greatness,” MacIntyre explains, “lay in making possible a quite new kind of institution, that of the monastery of prayer, learning, and labor, in which and around which communities could not only survive, but flourish, in a period of social and cultural darkness” (34).

The similarities notwithstanding, our own times are very different from Benedict’s, and a Benedict for our times would, as MacIntyre says, doubtless be very different. Combined with MacIntyre’s call for construction of local forms of community, the monastic example suggests the need - not instead of local or parish-level initiatives to support marriage in a hostile environment but in addition to them - the importance of distinctly Christian communities centered on faith and family.   

MacIntyre’s call to construct local forms of community, combined with the need in our time to rebuild an authentic culture of marriage and Benedict’s example of a strong community of faith and learning, brings into focus the promise of a small seriously Catholic Christian university and community like Ave Maria.  To what extent can a modern day analog of sorts to the strategy of St Benedict possible in building, not only  a center of learning, culture, and faith in contrast to the received wisdom of the contemporary Zeitgeist, but specifically a culture of marriage closer to Pakaluk's vision?    Can it serve both as a beacon to attract or guide others, keep things alive that would otherwise be lost, and  prepare people to go out into the world and, in the current phrase, "evangelize the culture?"

To this combination of university and community we may add the path-breaking work of Mary Eberstadt (2012; 2013) on the profound impact of the pill as the technological base of the sexual revolution and on the relation between faith and family.  With regard to the latter, Eberstadt (2013) confirms the strong link between the religiously observant and high fertility, but she emphasizes the ways in which large families foster religious observance and not simply the other way around.  Children drive their parents to church, as she puts it.  She notes how Christianity in particular, with its Holy Family, its God the Father who loves, guides, and protects, with a Son who addresses God the Father as Abba (Daddy), and so forth, is near to unintelligible in communities where fathers who love and protect their families are rare.  Christianity and the family, she argues and shows empirically, rise and fall together.

Ave Maria is a community of large families and strong faith, each reinforcing the other. It is a source of attraction, as a faithful Christian community and locus of Catholic learning and culture, to many who live in isolation from these things.  It is home both to Pakaluk, chair of the university’s philosophy department, and to me.  The marriage he describes could be that of his own daughter and the reference to Shakespeare recall students’ involvement in the plays, As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing, that  a class on Shakespeare in Performance presented in each of the past two years, playing, as Michael Novak put it, “characters their own age, with the distinctively tender and fragile feelings, high excitements and crushing blows of that gloriously vulnerable time of life.”  In the exhilaration of the performances, one could sense the identification over the centuries of a shared culture of marriage, a shared understanding of the sincere gift of self it involves.  It is a gift of the couple to each other and to the children that may result from their comprehensive union, a union at once emotional, bodily, and a matter of will.  It is an understanding of marriage as the institution through which each generation sacrifices itself for the next.

Patiently explain: In hostile territory

Serious Catholics and other Christians, social workers not least, live and work amidst a hostile liberal-secular media, academia, legal and political elite (and social work profession).  It is an aggressively secular world to which sexual expressionism, the ideology of the sexual revolution, is absolute dogma and state religion, dissent from which is not to be tolerated.  For this cultural elite the Catholic Church, insofar as it maintains its organized structure and presence in the public square, is the main obstacle to their vision of the future, which they seek unrelentingly to impose on the entire world, all talk of respecting other cultures notwithstanding.

Most families in Ave Maria chose to live in this Florida swampland far from a major city or other centers of learning because they had experience of a beige, accommodationist Catholicism in former parishes and saw the erosion of faith and family around them.  For many others who remain behind, Ave Maria is one beacon reflecting and keeping alive the light of faith amidst the powerful forces that seek to extinguish it as a public presence in their world.  It does not substitute for other strategies for building a strong culture of marriage, of faith and family.  But it helps.  It is an example of the virtue of social justice practiced by members of a community, joining together in many groups and projects to further the common good, not least creating and fostering a culture of marriage that corresponds to the nature and destiny of the human person as imago Dei.

While Ave Maria as a community attracts intense hostility from comment box writers whenever it is mentioned, most faithful Christians who remain within the orthodox Judeo-Christian tradition in matters of life, death, sex, and marriage (George, 2002) face hostility without such solid community support, as individuals or congregations, as employees, parents, or small entrepreneurs trying to make their way and retain their integrity, often condemned, in Justice Scalia’s words describing the effect of the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision, as hostes humani generis, enemies of the human race. 

Navigating this hostile terrain is a different challenge that has elicited many initiatives, mostly lay-led, at parish or cross-parish level.  The Stand With Children movement in California, with its Faith and Action Circles, offers one outstanding example of a grassroots effort.  The people involved in these activities exercised the virtue of social justice by joining together for the common good, the good of marriage and marriage-based families, in face of overwhelmingly powerful forces tending toward their dissolution.  These forces include both political and cultural movements and the pressures on individual families of the sexual revolution  Among the effects are the normalizing and increased incidence of divorce, including the devastating impact of no-fault or unilateral divorce, pornography, sex before and outside marriage presented as the norm by media and ‘enlightened opinion,’ cohabitation, children raised without one or both of their parents.  As I have suggested, social work has done much harm in promoting and normalizing some of these developments.

Social workers, indeed, have had little to do with the developments I have described that serve or are intended to build a positive culture of marriage.  Despite our literature and tradition of empowerment-based practice, we have tended to think of social justice, not as a virtue at all, not as rights derived from God or moral obligations or duties, but as claims on the state in the name of equality.  Social justice becomes a series of demands on government aimed at a desired state of affairs, with no connection to character or the other virtues, which is at best a very partial understanding.  

The professional challenge

Possibilities for practicing and promoting the virtue of social justice in oneself and one’s clients vary for social workers according to employment and funding constraints.  There is no straightforward answer to the question of what is to be done, the “practice implications.”  Here I want to discuss some of the challenges social workers face in trying to orient their own practice to social justice.  What principles might guide us  in meeting our own moral obligation to the common good and helping those we work with to meet theirs?

In Aristotle and Aquinas, justice is the virtue that orders all the virtues to the common good.  Habitually giving others their due requires, in Benestad’s (2010) words, “the laborious effort to prepare one’s soul for action through the cultivation of the virtues and the acquisition of knowledge.... Some works of justice require very sophisticated knowledge and very great effort to control pride, anger, and fear as well as love of pleasure, money, honor, and power” (p.151). In the language of the virtues, we recognize the dual emphasis in social work education on acquiring knowledge and the qualities of character, like those of self-effacement, prudence, courage, self-mastery, needed for the “professional use of self” in practice.

Marriage and its breakdown present particular challenges to social work.  Marriage requires virtues on the part of the couple, their families, and the community, a culture of marriage to support the gift of self that is comprehensive, permanent, faithful, and that assures any children that result from their union the emotional, financial, legal support, and kin of the two parents who made them.  Marriage doesn’t just happen and the cultural, political, and economic structures needed to support it, or even understand it, are in disarray.  

These conditions for healthy marriage barely exist for most of the people social workers work with or, in many cases, for themselves for that matter.  I have found MSW students incredulous at research that shows that cohabitation is not equivalent to marriage, that women are safer from intimate partner violence in marriage than other kinds of relationship, that children do better when they are raised by their own married mother and father, and so on.  Part of the reason, no doubt, is the ideological miseducation that students of marriage and family routinely received as undergraduates.  Part is that many of the MSW students sitting in the classroom live with partners and/or children outside of marriage and marriage-based families and their discernment of reality is blurred by cognitive dissonance, denial, or defensiveness.

The task of social work education, after decades of promoting, normalizing, and celebrating alternatives to marriage, in helping students acquire the knowledge and the virtues, the habits of the heart, they need to be effective, is formidable.

Three Principles

I conclude with three principles to guide a way forward.

  1. We have to face the reality of marriage’s disappearance as a socially available, attainable choice among much of the population.  We need to acknowledge at a deep level the effects of that destruction in widening inequality, perpetuating poverty, and damaging mothers’ and fathers’ ability to meet their moral obligations to each other and their children.  We need a sense of the sin through which we have corrupted marriage even as an ideal, of the social injustice perpetrated in particular against the poor and children.
  2. We need a sense of the joy of marriage as understood in Christian tradition, as described by Pakaluk (and Shakespeare and the Song of Songs), as rooted in a chaste longing in the human heart.  Marriage offers an opportunity for the sincere gift of self through which alone humans find fulfillment.
  3. As Christians, we understand that God’s mercy and forgiveness are greater than our sin, including social sin.  As social workers, we have to find ways to offer hope and support for initiatives in civil society through which people exercise the virtue of social justice, joining with others to rebuild a culture of marriage.

No comments:

Post a Comment