Recently, I was listening to a serious discussion on the radio about changing moral values in our society. Professor Dawkins gave an example of this: it was once taken for granted that sexual activity outside marriage was forbidden. The reason, he suggested, was that the danger and disaster of irregular pregnancy made such a principle inevitable. But the modern facility to separate sexual activity from conception had removed this need. And so our moral value has changed. As Lord Justice Munby said, in a lecture to the Law Society last week, the accepted sexual mores of the 1960s are as distant to modern Britain as ancient civilisations such as “Nineveh or Babylon”.
Of course, Dawkins is right. The shared moral rules in a society are related to how that society gauges the consequences of different activities. The Catholic approach takes a deeper view of human nature. It argues that sexual intercourse is a symbolic and actual way through which the bond of marriage is expressed. It brings about a condition which the Bible describes as two in one flesh. Such a union requires the total and lifelong commitment of a man and a woman, even if we disregard the potential of procreation. If the Catholic Church is right, then we should expect that breaking this moral rule will bring damage to our society.
In examining this, I am, first, indebted to a 2010 paper by Harry Benson of the Bristol Community Family Trust. This is published under the auspices of National Statistics.
Family breakdown is always an issue for the children. There is certainly an argument that, in some cases, breakdown relieves the children from living in an atmosphere of family conflict, but it is clear that overall breakdown disadvantages children, through lack of parental resources. Who is surprised by that? The number of lone parents has doubled over the last 30 years, but marriage itself has not done too badly. While 75 per cent of marriages were for life in the 1960s, and this has dropped to about 55 per cent, it is still the norm for marriages to last. Divorce rates have been reasonably stable, and divorces tend to be concentrated in the early years of marriage.
Cohabitation presents a different picture. In couples where cohabitation has occurred before marriage, men tend to remain less committed than women in the subsequent marriage. This suggests an element of dishonesty in the relationship itself. By the child’s fifth birthday, nine per cent of married couples have split up, compared to 35 per cent of unmarried couples. And the pattern is similar over all income groups.
Perhaps the most depressing statistic is that, if we look at couples with 15-year-old children, we find that 97 per cent are married. The number of cohabiting parents who survive such a period is vanishingly small. While of course this will include couples who have married after a period of cohabitation, the idea that cohabitation can survive over the long term is a triumph of hope over experience.
Against the background of this analysis, there has been a steady fall in marriage rates over the last generation, and a steady increase in the proportion of adults cohabiting. The number of couples was 2.25 million in 2007, and is expected to increase to 3.70 million by 2031.
We see the evidence in this demotion of married sexuality all around us. Perhaps its most worrying expression is found in the attitude of the next generation. Even in those who have had a good Catholic background we may find the assumption that relatively casual sexual relationships are acceptable, or that it would be folly to enter marriage without a trial period of cohabitation.
For some, the most worrying aspect is the damage done through the whole distasteful element of hard pornography. Now that this is readily available on the internet, and thus on mobile telephones, it is extremely difficult for parents to control. There really is no young person to whom it is not available, directly or through friends, if they wish to see it. If we leave aside those unfortunate teenagers who are actually addicted to porn – as one might be to a drug — we are faced by a culture which teaches the young that normal sexuality involves the sexual degradation of women. And the women (often, in fact, young girls) may begin to think that this is the only pathway to popularity. We learn that six out of 10 teenagers have been asked by their fellows to text sexual images of themselves. Of course, sensuality for its own sake quickly palls. Only sensuality which is expressed within, and subsidiary to, a relationship of committed love has a long-term future.
If we believe that faithful marriage, and bringing up children within its emotional security, is a foundation for their mature happiness, then we are swimming against the tide. The recent British Social Attitudes survey reports that there has been a dramatic fall over the last generation in the conventional morality of sex and marriage, And this includes the attitudes of both Catholics and Anglicans.
So the future is bleak. Sadly, children do not learn from their parents’ disasters – they are substantially more likely to repeat them. I will not see the worst of these outcomes, but I fear that my grandchildren and my great grandchildren will. Unless, or until, we re —learn the lesson that the full expression of sexuality belongs only to committed marriage, we are asking for big trouble. Do you think that, if Professor Dawkins were to study the evidence without prejudice, even he might agree?