By Fr. George Welzbacher
December 26, 2010
As the New Year's toasts are about to be offered, it's as good a time as any to take stock of the problems that our nation faces today. And daunting indeed those problems are. In terms of visibility at the top of the list is the staggering (and steadily burgeoning) national debt, with far too many of the I.O.U.'s held by the not all that friendly government of China, whose rapidly proliferating military power will soon project a very real threat to our interests in Asia. Add to the list an unemployment rate that is officially cited at 9.8 percent, though that figure would have to be nearly doubled were account to be taken of those who in despair have given up their search for employment as well as those who, while hoping still to find full-time work, have had to settle for less. Then there is the prevailing and crippling uncertainty about what will be the final shape of our nation's taxation and regulatory structure, an uncertainty that chills the entrepreneur's willingness to undertake, and the investor's willingness to subsidize, new business ventures with all of their attendant risks, ventures that are the chief providers of new jobs.
Were all of this not enough, there's the looming insolvency (forecast for 2017) of the Medicare Trust Fund, with the likelihood that by 2025 the total revenue of the U. S. government will be just enough to pay for our entitlement programs - Social Security, Medicare and (thanks to Obama care) a greatly expanded Medicaid - plus interest installments on the national debt, with next to nothing left for other needs including national defense.
As we turn our gaze towards Afghanistan, perhaps the most troubling concern for us there is that, because of the conflicting and ambiguous policy statements our government has issued, the Afghan people, whose support is essential for victory, are confused and uncertain about the firmness of our commitment to stay the course, with the result that many of the Afghanis are withholding their support, watching nervously from the sidelines. And the last dash of bitters in our cocktail of woe is the growing likelihood that the Iranian crazies shouting "Death to America!" will be allowed to get their hands on The Bomb.
But in the long run the most alarming phenomenon of all, in terms of the moral vigor of our nation, is the evidence of spreading moral decay, attested both in the far-reaching plague of pornography, whose deadly rot has insinuated itself into hearth and home, where it can infect even innocent children, and the growing disinclination among so many of the young to make the kind of commitment that marriage requires - and greatly rewards - even as the alternative option gains the upper hand, with the "live-in" boyfriend replacing the conscientious and dependable husband and father, with ruinous consequences for the children involved. The character traits that we once took for granted as the expected product of American family life, character traits that are essential for a free society's ultimate survival - namely the sacrificial subordination of personal interest to the common good, with the habitual pursuit of socially productive goals - may in years to come be in short supply as the environment which nourishes these virtues, that is to say, a secure and stable family life within the framework of a commitment that is vowed, itself is dwindling away.
With her usual insight into the heart of a problem, Katherine Kersten, the Star Tribune's perceptive commentator on societal trends, recently addressed (in the paper's edition of December 12th) this erosion of the institution of marriage, a decent society's irreplaceable foundation. Here is what she had to say.
* * * * *What On Earth is Happening to Marriage?
By KATHERINE KERSTEN, Star Tribune
The growing "marriage gap" is one of our nation's most important and troubling trends. For Americans with college degrees (30 percent of the population), marriage - our bedrock social institution -- is stable and getting stronger. But for the moderately educated (the 58 percent with a high school but not a college diploma), it's in precipitous decline. In fact, the family life of America's once -great middle class is quickly becoming almost as fragile as that of our poorest citizens -- the 12 percent who are high school dropouts.
The disturbing details are in a new study -- "When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America" -- by the University of Virginia's National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values. The conclusion is stark: "The United States is devolving into a separate-and-unequal family regime, where the highly educated and affluent enjoy strong and stable households and everyone else is consigned to increasingly unstable, unhappy, and unworkable ones."
Only 11 percent of college-educated Americans now divorce or separate in the first ten years of marriage, while 37 percent of their high school-educated peers do. Sixty-nine percent of highly educated married adults report a "very happy" marriage, while only 57 percent of the moderately educated and 52 percent of the least educated say the same.
The gap on non-marital child-bearing is jaw-dropping: Only 6 percent of college-educated mothers' babies are born out-of-wedlock, while it's 44 percent for moderately educated mothers and 54 percent for high school dropouts. In the 1980s, those figures were 2 percent, 13 percent and 33 percent, respectively. What explains this?
Americans of all backgrounds still agree on the value of marriage -- roughly 75 percent say "being married" is very important to them. But the meaning of marriage has changed dramatically in the last 40 years, according to the authors. A new model has greatly raised the bar, both emotional and financial, on what it takes to get and stay married.
In the past, our society adhered to the "Institutional" model of marriage. This model seeks to "integrate sex, parenthood, economic cooperation, and emotional intimacy" into the sort of "good- enough" marriage that our grandparents expected - and which most of us can still attain. Today, however, that model is being displaced by a yuppie-style "soul mate" model, which sees marriage primarily as a "couple-centered vehicle for personal growth, emotional intimacy, and shared consumption that depends for its survival on happiness and constant self-fulfillment". [In contrast with the Christian ideal of marriage, an ideal that is centered on finding one's own happiness through service to "the other", this new model is preeminently self-centered].
Many college-educated Americans are well- equipped to achieve a soul-mate-type marriage. They generally plan their lives using what the report calls the "success sequence:" a focus first on education and work, then on marriage, followed by child-bearing. This requires developing such virtues as delay of gratification and hard work. It also minimizes such stresses as out-of-wedlock birth, and maximizes financial resources that can be used for self-fulfillment.
But a "soul mate" marriage is beyond the reach of a growing number of moderately educated and poor adults. Today, these Americans tend to have more sexual partners, substance abuse, infidelity and unplanned pregnancies than do their college-educated peers, according to the report. Men in particular tend to embrace a "live-for-the-moment" ethic, and to have "long periods of idleness." This is hardly a recipe for marital success.
Moderately educated Americans are also disengaging from institutions of work and civil society to a much greater degree than are those with college degrees. In the last 40 years, high school-educated men have become significantly more likely than college-educated men to experience bouts of unemployment, the report says. At the same time, the moderately educated are abandoning churches, Lions Clubs and VFW groups that supported their grandparents' "institutional" marriages and that teach "the habits of the heart" that sustain strong marriages.
Americans increasingly see marriage not as the gateway to adulthood but as a "capstone" that "signals couples have arrived, both financially and emotionally," according to the report.
The marriage gap is bad news for all. Young people without married parents are at risk for a host of social pathologies. Single mothers are more likely to live in poverty, while single men risk detachment from their children and from what the report calls the "civilizing power" of marriage.
If marriage becomes "a luxury good," in the report's words, consequences will be severe. This fundamental social institution "has long served the American experiment in democracy as an engine of the American Dream, a seedbed of virtue for children, and one of the few sources of social solidarity in a nation that otherwise prizes individual liberty."
* * * * *Where is the remedy for so alarming a sickness of soul? Today's Feast of the Holy Family offers the one and only remedy that works: family life centered in God. This is a remedy that is universally available. But will it be the remedy of our choice?
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