Righting the Wrongs in Modern Sex and Marriage

Jennifer Roback Morse on Finding Lifelong Love

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SAN DIEGO, California, JAN. 9, 2006 (Zenit.org).- The Church may be 2,000 years old, but it has the answers for modern couples seeking lasting marriages and true love.

So says Jennifer Roback Morse, research fellow in economics at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty and author of «Smart Sex: Finding Life-Long Love in a Hook-Up World» (Spence).

She shared with ZENIT how the Church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality are the remedy for the contemporary social ills of casual sex, cohabitation, divorce and heartbreak.

Q: Why did you choose the title and topic of this book?

Morse: I wanted to write a book for the ordinary person who wants to get married and stay married. Most readers are not economists or theologians, so I wanted to convey to the public that this book is meant for them.

I also wanted to give the message that marriage is more appealing than casual sex: Smart people choose lifelong married love.

The term «hook-up» is widely used in America to mean a casual sexual encounter, which neither partner expects to lead to a long-term relationship. I wanted to imply that hooking up is stupid.

Q: How did John Paul II’s work influence the writing of this book?

Morse: I could not have written this book without John Paul’s insight. In many ways, my work is an attempt to bring his wisdom to a wider public, including non-Catholic Christians and non-religious people.

I was absolutely stunned by the key insight of Karol Wojtyla’s «Love and Responsibility»: The human person is meant for love, not for use; it is always a serious wrong to use another person. That opened my eyes as to why marriage is in crisis.

Q: Why do you think marriage is in crisis?

Morse: The marriage crisis is really a sex crisis. The modern world completely misunderstands the meaning of human sexuality. In spite of all our sex education and overtly sexual entertainment, we don’t really understand what sex is all about.

We have the idea that sex is a private recreational activity, with no moral or social significance. If that’s true, our sex partner becomes a commodity that may or may not please us. And in a consumer society, when we are no longer satisfied with a product, we get rid of it. I call this Consumer Sex.

The basic problem with Consumer Sex is that no one wants to be treated like an object. No matter how much we enjoy our casual sex while we’re doing it, the truth is that no one, male or female, wants to be on the receiving end of being discarded. All the problems and disappointments that people experience in their college coed dorms and in dating can be traced to this one point.

We have created a culture in which it is socially acceptable to use people. The implicit agreement is this: You can use me as a sex object, if you allow me to use you. Instead of mutual love, we think sex is about mutual using.

This is why marriage is in crisis: We know that marriage needs sex, but we don’t see that sex needs marriage. We realize that sex is necessary to a good marriage, but we don’t seem to grasp the connection between marriage and having good sex.

Q: What is the alternative to Consumer Sex?

Morse: I call it the natural, organic approach. Human sexuality has two organic purposes, which are written into our bodies: procreation and spousal unity.

Sex produces babies, and sex bonds the man and the woman to each other. Both these purposes are social purposes. They build up the community of the family, by adding new members and by deepening the spousal bond. Catholic readers may recognize this as the Church’s traditional teaching.

The modern view stands the natural order of human sexuality on its head. The sexual urge can be a great motivation for building the community of the family. We have turned it into a consumer good, which increases our focus on ourselves.

Q: How does Consumer Sex undermine people who want lifelong marriage?

Morse: Beginning our sexual lives with casual sex undermines our attempts to build a happy marriage.

Typical young people buy into the «consumer sex» mentality for 10 years or more. During those years of contraceptive sex, they act as if the sex act has no particular meaning.

When they finally do get married, they don’t want to believe that sex with their spouse is meaningless or without significance. All of a sudden, they want organic sex, at least the spousal unity part, and eventually, the procreation part as well.

Those years of treating sex as if it were a toy create habits of the heart and mind that are difficult to undo.

Q: What other ideas hinder our ability to build successful marriages?

Morse: The modern world has a lot of trouble with gender. You might think that our modern scientific world could accept the obvious biological fact that we are a gendered species. But many egalitarians are offended by gender, because men and women can never be made completely equal.

For this type of egalitarian, the fact that humans are created as male and female represents a cosmic injustice that we are obligated to overcome. This is part of the impulse behind the current drive to turn marriage into a «gender-neutral» institution.

From the opposite end of the political spectrum, many individualists are offended by gender because it represents a visible reminder of our dependence on other people.

Reproduction is something we cannot do alone; we need a partner to do it. This fact is almost intolerable to the radical individualist. They regard gender as a cosmic accident.

By contrast, the late Holy Father viewed gender as a gift from God. The subtitle of «The Theology of the Body» gives a hint of this: «Human Love in the Divine Plan.»

John Paul II asks us to consider: What was God trying to say to us by creating us male and female?

God does more than give us a chance to participate in procreation. He is also telling us that we need one another in order to participate. Our bodies tell us that we are not completely independent.

Q: What alternative do you propose?

Morse: In my book, complementarity between men and women is implicit in every line. Married couples are headed for an unhappy life if they are unable to embrace the gender-based differences between them.

Some interpret equality to mean that each spouse do exactly half of every household chore. Other couples are completely baffled when their spouses do not react the same way as they would.

Social science research has shown that couples who are strongly committed to gender equality have a lot of stress when their first child is born. People find themselves sliding into traditional gender roles spontaneously, almost against their will.

The radical egalitarian cannot understand what is happening to them, and they become angry at each other and at themselves.

I believe they would be happier if they could embrace the fact that babies usually prefer their mother, and that mothers often enjoy caring for the baby more than the fathers do.

But we have a choice about how we respond to gender differences. We can view our differences as opportunities for growth and sharing. Or we can view them as something to fight about. I think modern egalitarianism and feminism encourages the fighting.

My position is exactly the position Pope Benedict took when, as Cardinal Ratzinger, he wrote «The Collaboration of Women and Men in the Church and in the World.»

Q: Are Catholics any less likely to fall into the same problems?

Morse: Catholics have the advantage that they can tap into the Church’s guidance rather than having to figure it all out themselves.

If we have to use trial and error to arrive at the true meaning of human sexuality, we may be menopausal by the time we figure it out. And we certainly will make ourselves miserable along the way.

The Church’s teac
hing on marriage has been proven right by social science. We now know that divorce is very harmful to children. Remarriage does not usually solve the child’s problems and sometimes makes them much worse. Marriage creates the most favorable environment for children, and for men and women as well.

The Church is also correct about the centrality of human love. John Paul II once wrote, «Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love and make it his own.»

We now know that infants absolutely need the human contact and the love of their mothers. Infants who are deprived of contact with a mother are at risk for developing a variety of disorders, including failure to thrive, attachment disorder or even an alarming condition known as «institutional autism.»

The absence of a bond with the mother inhibits the development of the part of the brain that controls our ability to be social, to interpret social cues or to even care about other people. These children’s lives really are senseless and incomprehensible for them.

Q: Why is self-donation, as posited by John Paul II in his «Theology of the Body,» so imperative to healthy marriages?

Morse: One of our problems is that we don’t really understand love. We think that love means, «I like the way I feel when I’m with you.» But every adult knows that feelings change far too much to form the basis of a lifelong marriage.

The Thomistic definition of love is «to will and to do the good of another.» This formulation accents the fact that love is a decision. We can make a decision to do the good of the other person, even if we don’t feel like it.

John Paul’s emphasis on self-donation helps to highlight this deeper and more sustainable understanding of love. I describe it as «self-giving, rightly understood,» as an analogy with Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous description of Americans as embracing «self-interest, rightly understood.»

Self-giving is an act of self-valuing because it presupposes that the person is valuable enough to be considered a gift.

Self-giving is inherently more social than self-interest, even rightly understood. Self-interest, rightly understood, has an element of reciprocity to it, but the reciprocity is added after the fact. We are taught to say, «I am valuable. Oh, by the way, so is everybody else.»

With self-giving, there is no «by the way» about it. Giving presupposes a gift, a giver and a recipient. Community is at the center of the self-giving way of life.

The practical importance of this point is that our personal philosophy directs us to cultivate some attitudes and avoid others. Self-interest tells us to ask, «What’s in it for me?» Self-giving tells us to ask, «How can I help?»

The self-giving philosophy of life has a far higher likelihood of producing a happy marriage.

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