“Dating discourse” periodically flares up on Catholic Twitter. Usually, when some brave soul ventures into the void with an explanation of why dating can be so awful and awkward. I am not a keen follower of this discourse, but it seems that it normally reaches the same conclusion every time: dating sucks because men are no longer good men and women are no longer good women. Both are in some way childish, inconstant, superficial, and probably addicted to base vices of some kind or other. “Gender” and “gender roles,” or whatever we want to call the moral and cultural qualities properly associated in society with men and women as such, are painfully absent, making everything more difficult to navigate. For whatever reason — the discourse continues — people no longer know how to acquire those qualities, and increasingly don’t even know what they are or why they are valuable. And this is what makes dating awful.
Whatever the (limited) merits of dating discourse, it seems obviously true to me that “gender” and “gender roles,” understood in this sense, have largely been lost. The question is why. I would argue that the answer, or part of it, is that matrimony itself, on which those roles are built, has been lost.
I don’t mean by this that people are not getting married any more (although that is also increasingly true). I mean that the institution of matrimony, the public legal order that has historically regulated the sexual, familial, and social relations between men and women, simply doesn’t exist in most legal systems today. In fact, by the time most of us, Milennials et sequentes, started to think about marriage, the law of matrimony had already been twisted out of existence for at least a generation. This is the reason that “gender roles,” as understood above, no longer exist. And it’s why dating is terrible.
Matrimony was the juridical bedrock of much of our civilization, and of many other ancient and venerable civilizations, too. It is written in the Book of Rites (XLI, 3): “From the distinction between man and woman came the righteousness between husband and wife. From that righteousness came the affection between father and son; and from that affection, the rectitude between ruler and minister. Whence it is said, ‘The ceremony of marriage is the root of the other ceremonial observances.'” One can hardly imagine a more effective summation of the natural law principles of matrimony.
Similarly, the Church teaches that “God did not create man as a solitary, for from the beginning ‘male and female he created them’ (Gen. I, 27). Their companionship produces the primary form of interpersonal communion” (Gaudium et spes § 12).
As a legal order, matrimony is the matrix within which the “personal development and eternal destiny of the individual members of a family,” as Gaudium et spes puts it, as well as “the dignity, stability, peace and prosperity of the family itself and of human society as a whole” are (were) largely built and preserved (GS § 12). The law of matrimony marked out and safeguarded a cultural and social space where this development could take place, and oriented its movement and direction.
The utility of human law, St. Thomas teaches, is to train men in the practice of virtue, for “it is difficult to see how man could suffice for himself in the matter of this training: since the perfection of virtue consists chiefly in withdrawing man from undue pleasures,” which most men have great difficulty in overcoming. “Consequently a man needs to receive this training from another, whereby to arrive at the perfection of virtue” (ST Iª-IIae, q. 95, a. 1). In the case of the law of matrimony, its chief purpose is (was) to teach men and women good habits (virtues) in the sphere of sexual and familial relations.
Paternity, maternity, filiation, fraternity, widowhood, consanguinity — all these terms, inherited from the Roman and canonical jurists, don’t only refer to the legal relations created and sustained by matrimony. They’re also cultural milestones or guideposts that the law set up to teach men and women how to act and to be around each other and with everyone else in society (cf. GS § 48). That is, beyond merely regulating the “rights and duties” owed between spouses (which it of course did), the law of matrimony served as a teacher of the proper relations between men and women. As such, it instructed people on how to be men and women as such. As the Book of Rites has it, it was on “the distinction between man and woman” that the whole of social order was established.
This formation in sexual and familial virtue crystallized into a host of customs, traditions, practices, sentiments, and prejudices (not always the same in every place, but equally ordered to the same end) that arose within the social spaces protected by the law and that structured the interactions between the sexes at different points in people’s lives and according to their marital status. What is proper or right in the relations between a wife and a husband is different from what is right in the relations between siblings, between cousins, between parents and children, between relatives and third parties, between the married and the unmarried of the opposite sex, etc. “Gender roles,” as described above, were the cultural manifestation of these sociological and historical accretions on the law of matrimony.
This work of cultural formation through the law of matrimony was always deemed by historical societies to be of central importance. The reason, as Gaudium et spes notes, is that “marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and educating of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute very substantially to the welfare of their parents” (§ 50). As St. Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer put it, “there are two capital points in the life of nations: the laws concerning marriage and the laws concerning education. In these areas the children of God must stand firm and fight well and nobly, for the sake of all creatures” (Forge § 104).
Now, however, the law of matrimony is gone. Without that law, which gave them social legitimacy and cultural space, gender roles have dissolved and disappeared little by little.
But has the law of matrimony really been wiped out?
It is true that matrimony itself cannot be completely abolished: “God Himself is [its] author” (GS § 48). As Gaudium et spes goes on to say, “it will never be profaned by adultery or divorce. Firmly established by the Lord, the unity of marriage will radiate from the equal personal dignity of wife and husband, a dignity acknowledged by mutual and total love” (§ 49). Still, human law can detract from the divine and natural laws. Doing so will make it into a “perversion of law” (ST Iª-IIae q. 95, a. 2), and to the extent that it masquerades as true law it will still have a destructive pedagogical effect on all of society (cf. ST Iª-IIae q. 96, a. 4 ad 3). Not for nothing did the prophet Isaias threaten “woe to them that make wicked laws: and when they write, write injustice: to oppress the poor in judgment, and do violence to the cause of the humble of my people: that widows might be their prey, and that they might rob the fatherless” (Is. X, 1). An unjust law is a terrible curse on any social order.
Starting with the legalization of divorce, this is what our human laws have done with matrimony for over a century, to the point where even its basic structure as “a man and a woman, who by their compact of conjugal love ‘are no longer two, but one flesh'” (GS § 48) has been completely effaced from our legal system, even our legal awareness. Today, even those terms that the law of matrimony (and thus, our culture) relied on to designate human relations (paternity, maternity, filiation, etc.) are being abolished.
And as the contours of the legal institution become blurred and fade, that social and cultural space that it used to mark, and within which sound social habits could be formed, becomes less and less visible. As the dating discourse suggests, for many people it has vanished from view. Outside of some families that try to keep this space intact, there are virtually no cultural guideposts left that teach, under the authority of the laws, how to treat members of the opposite sex (and thus how to be a member of one’s own sex). Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the new legal settlement, after liquidating the prior system, has come with its own gender roles and social mores concerning sexual and familial relations, which are now being socially enforced under the authority of the laws.
How does this decomposition happen? St. Thomas explains it admirably in his treatment of why fornication is a grave sin. He writes that “simple fornication is contrary to the love of our neighbor, because it is opposed to the good of the child to be born” (ST IIª-IIae q. 154, a. 2, ad 4). He argues that fornication is opposed to the child’s good — it is “an act of generation accomplished in a manner disadvantageous to the future child” (Id.) — because it necessarily “implies an inordinateness that tends to injure the life of the offspring to be born of this union” (IIª-IIae q. 154, a. 2).
What is the injury done to a child born to fornication — which is to say, out of welock? It is inherently related to the proper order of sexual relations in marriage. St. Thomas thinks this is obvious: “It is evident that the upbringing of a human child requires not only the mother’s care for his nourishment, but much more the care of his father as guide and guardian, and under whom he progresses in goods both internal and external” (Id.). This reality explains, in turn, why humans tend by nature to stable sexual partners: “Hence human nature rebels against an indeterminate union of the sexes and demands that a man should be united to a determinate woman and should abide with her a long time or even for a whole lifetime. Hence it is that in the human race the male has a natural solicitude for the certainty of offspring, because on him devolves the upbringing of the child: and this certainly would cease if the union of sexes were indeterminate” (Id., emphasis added).
Hence, matrimony: “This union with a certain definite woman is called matrimony; which for the above reason is said to belong to the natural law” (Id.).
Now comes the key point: “Since, however, the union of the sexes is directed to the common good of the whole human race, and common goods depend on the law for their determination, as stated above, it follows that this union of man and woman, which is called matrimony, is determined by some law” (Id., emphasis added). The reference to “determination” brings us back to St. Thomas’s treatment of the relation between the natural and human laws. There, he teaches that in many instances the general principles of the natural law don’t yield direct prescriptions but need to be specificed (“determined”) by human law, much like “the craftsman needs to determine the general form of a house to some particular shape” (Iª-IIae, q. 95, a. 2). The example he gives is that while the natural law mandates that evildoers be punished, it is left to human law to determine what particular punishments are to be applied for each particular crime or misdeed. Whatever those determinations are, however, they are binding on men so long as they are just — binding in conscience, that is, not just externally (ST Iª-IIae q. 96, a. 4).
In this way, the law — which “belongs to that which is a principle of human acts, because it is their rule and measure” (Iª-IIae, q. 90, a. 2) — determines the common goods that are the proper end of all human action by making them concrete and applicable to real, historical human reality. From this point one can understand why many ancient and long-lasting civilizations determined the principles of natural reason concerning sex and family life into a corpus of matrimonial law which included not only the guarantees of monogamy, exclusivity, and perpetuity, but also the relative rights and obligations of spouses, their relations of hierarchy and order to other members of their family, the social punishment of things like adultery and (as St. Thomas defends above), fornication, etc.
Family law today, by contrast, has no connection with the common good that the classical doctrine of matrimony was intended to foster and protect. The determinations of the natural law mentioned above have been stripped and gutted one by one over the past century, and we’re now at the point where it is difficult to say if anything of the old system remains. The law of matrimony no longer exists in any recognizable manner. More than that, its basic elements make no sense to us anymore. Most people find them indefensible. Much less can they find a justification for the cultural and sociological accretions, the “gender roles,” that grew up around them.
But these things are not so easily dispensed with. Matrimony is an institution of the natural law, directly established by God. As we said above, it cannot be fully abolished. And the accretions, though certainly contingent and subject to reform and maturation, are valuable in themselves as the fruit of a legal order built on that natural reality. When rightly lived and understood, they express beautifully, and with admirable completeness, subtlety, and gentleness the good that the law sought to preserve. As the old Chinese sages taught, there is in nature a “distinction between man and woman,” and it is right and good — an expression of the social value of objective truth — that such distinction be expressed in our habits and our relations. It is absurd to fetichize desiccated cultural practices, to obsess over the minutiae of 1950s cultural norms (or whatever the warped Anglo-American imagination conjures up at the mention of “gender roles”) while ignoring the principle that gives such practices and norms their meaning and goodness (which also provides a rational and constructive principle from which to critique them). But it is not absurd to preserve the practical wisdom of an age that better understood nature.
As the Second Vatican Council taught: “Marriage to be sure is not instituted solely for procreation; rather, its very nature as an unbreakable compact between persons, and the welfare of the children, both demand that the mutual love of the spouses be embodied in a rightly ordered manner” (GS § 50, emphasis added). The good at issue — the welfare of children and the future of society — very amply justifies it, especially now that there is no legal apparatus, no law of matrimony, to sustain it.