“Broken families cost taxpayers £46bn a year” read a headline in my newspaper this Monday morning. Apparently that is £1,541 per taxpayer. It includes benefits, child care, and vandalism in school. The total sum has increased by £9bn since 2009. Expensive though this may be, we all know that the real cost is to the coherence and stability of society. It is a cause of great unhappiness in adults, and of tragedy in children. And, because of the cycle of deprivation the effects are carried on to the next generation and compounded.
The figures are menacing. Currently about a third of children live in a one parent family. The number of adults who do not get married will soar by almost half in the next 25 years, and will be accompanied by a 65 per cent increase in the number of cohabiting couples. 20 years from now, our population will have more unmarried than people who have married.
There is little sign that the powers that be are alive to these long term effects. Topically, people have noticed the Tory reluctance to honour their pledge to recognise married couples in the taxation system, and their modification of child benefits have the effect of discouraging mothers from going out to work. Michael Trend of the Relationship Foundation, who reported these figures, referred to the ‘scant attention’ politicians paid to the catastrophic costs of family breakdown.
Although we are, happily, going through a bit of a baby boom, it has been suggested that the question of homosexual marriage would never have been on the agenda if our society had not psychologically separated the procreative purpose of marriage from the relationship purpose and turned it into a voluntary option.
But while our first, defensive, reaction is to look at the faults of others, it may be more constructive to ask ourselves what contribution we may be making.
The Church has never hesitated in its defence of marriage as a necessary unit in society, and argues constantly that, whether sacramental or secular, it is an essential part of God’s plan for the survival and flourishing of humankind. But there seems no doubt that increasingly few of her own members listen to her in such matters.
There has been a polarisation between a rearguard which holds firmly on to the radical connection between marriage and procreation and those who, in rejecting the teaching on contraception, allow all the emphasis to be put on the aspect of relationship, at the expense of procreation. Rejection of the ban on artificial contraception seems to be shared by nearly all the married Catholic laity, as well as a majority of the clergy. The Church’s witness to the world is confused.
We seem to have the worst of both worlds. If the laity had wholeheartedly accepted the contraceptive ban we might not have been popular with the rest of society, but our witness would have been clear. Had the Church changed its teaching it would still have been possible to demonstrate the radical connection between procreation and sexual intercourse. In such a context, Natural Family Planning would have been seen as a vocation of perfection in its own right and not a lame device to get us out of a difficulty. Certainly I have always seen NFP as an ideal in that way.
In such a context I wonder how we would describe chastity as we might see it nowadays. At the most fundamental level it would seem to demand a basic control over our sexual instincts, directing them exclusively to be at the service of the married relationship. But, even as I write that, I realise its inadequacy. Elizabeth Anscombe, who figured in our last discussion, put her emphasis on the virtue of chastity, in the sense that the chaste person will, by reason of that personal quality, behave chastely.
How would we describe that personal quality, and in what ways would it express itself in behaviour? Has the Church any help to give us, or must we nowadays work it out for ourselves?
I have put five questions here. This is not a quiz or a survey, but you may like to think about what you really believe in your heart of hearts about such issues.
1 Artificial contraception is inherently evil and can never be excused.
2 Full sexual relations before marriage, even for a seriously engaged couple, are never permissible.
3 While divorce is highly undesirable, in some circumstances Catholics are justified in divorcing. If they remarry they should normally be able to remain in full communion with the Church – attending Mass and the Sacraments.
4 For people of an inbred homosexual temperament, homosexual activity is natural, and therefore permissible.
5 Any method of conception which takes place artificially, e.g. artificial insemination – husband or donor, is an affront to the dignity of sexual intercourse, and therefore always forbidden.