August 2018: The treasure of Families

Happy multiethnic family sitting on sofa laughing together. Cheerful parents playing with their sons at home. Black father tickles his little boy while the mother and the brother smile.

by Fr Chris Chatteris SJ

Pope’s Intention. August 2018.

The treasure of Families. That any far-reaching decisions of economists and politicians may protect the family as one of the treasures of humanity.

There is a slew of studies these days which tell us what we already know and have always known. They inform us, often in a rather surprised tone, that marriage is good for us. For example, married people tend to be healthier, happier and even wealthier than people who are cohabiting. The children of married people also on average do better than the children of cohabiting couples.

Common sense tells us why – essentially a committed relationship provides the security within which the human person can flourish. When a relationship is constantly up for re-negotiation, this builds in an insecurity which is stressful. Life is tough; the world is a rough place; hence, a place of relative safety and security is a deep human need and it has traditionally been provided by the institution of marriage. This is true of all cultures, including religious ones.

The question then arises as to why cohabitation is on the rise in modern society. Religious people tend to say that it’s because young people are afraid of commitment today. The studies agree, but they point to some specific areas which are interesting. One is that the fear of commitment is often more a fear of the divorce that might ensue from a failed commitment. Divorce is often described in the media as ‘ugly’, in other words painful, acrimonious and public. The breakup of a relationship of cohabitation is regarded as preferable to a divorce, even though the former is also often ‘ugly’ and is more likely than divorce.

Here the media frequently plays a negative role, in its tendency to exaggerate the divorce statistics as well as publicising, in great and salacious detail, the divorces of celebrities. When I read about a celebrity marriage, I assume that within a few years I will be reading about the couple having an ‘ugly divorce’. People look at celebrities and think that because they seem incapable of sustaining marriage, even with their huge resources, that means that the rest of us have even less of a chance. Of course, the opposite is true. The materialistic lifestyles of the rich and famous are what makes them less capable of basing their lives on more solid values. Some money is required for a successful marriage, but too much seems to be pretty well fatal.

Divorce is horrible and, for the poor, it is extremely expensive. This seems to be the reason why poorer people in modern societies are less likely to get married than the better-off middle class. In fact, some studies suggest that today it is the middle class who are getting married and staying married.

So, how can governments and society in general make it easier for young people to get married, for it also seems that, despite their fears and misgivings, most would like to do so? How to help people take the risk? If it’s true that middle class people are getting married then obviously a society in which people can achieve financial stability will be good for marriage. Governments can help here by making it possible for young people to study and improve their qualifications without landing them in huge debt. If fees really did fall, marriage might rise.

Back in the 1970s when I was studying in the UK, most students received grants which enabled them to marry and settle down quickly. One couple I know from that time got married in their final year of university. Today that would be thought insane, but back then they knew they would have no academic debts. Also, it was a time of full employment and so they were guaranteed work and an income. So, clearly the more employment governments can stimulate, the better for marriage.
I also think society, and Church, should challenge those institutions that make marriage expensive. Weddings have become a multi-billion Rand industry thanks to the idea, pushed by advertisers and the media, of the perfect, fairytale wedding. The wedding has got to be a huge and expensive show. Why? Who benefits? Whose needs are being met in these extravaganzas?

The other institution we need to look at is the traditional custom of lobola. Like the traditional wedding, it too, seems often to have got financially out of control. When lobola meets the modern economy, it often becomes inflated beyond the budget of most young people and their families. The authentic tradition of lobola is ultimately about ensuring the stability of the commitment, so if an inflated figure makes it impossible for people even to contemplate marriage then they will of course cohabit, which is not good for stability. It seems to me that there is a serious discussion needed here between State, traditional authorities and Church, but is it happening and if not, does anyone have the courage to initiate it?

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