A Book That Needs to Be Read

There are many reasons why one might conclude that the United States is in a spiral of self-destruction and is in fact no longer a Christian country.  One of the most obvious—apart from 40-plus years of legalized abortion—is the current effort to redefine marriage to include homosexual couples.  But this is just the latest in a series of modern sexual evils that undermine marriage and family—including large-scale addiction to pornography and (we are so far gone that this last looks normal if not family friendly) artificial birth control.

This complex of aberrant sexual behavior has in common the sin of regarding other human beings not as people loved by God and endowed with immortal souls but as objects of pleasure and exploitation.  This is the attitude, facilitated by artificial birth control, that is responsible for our unprecedentedly high divorce rates and low birthrates.  If we do not get marriage, and the right to life and all that goes with it, right—and soon—then, as a nation, we will simply cease to exist.

It is against this backdrop of civilizational decline, sexual immorality, and confusion with regard to the sexes that Anthony Esolen’s Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity appears.  This is the best book on marriage I have ever read, from one of the best prose stylists in America, among whose other books is a modern translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Esolen marshals strong arguments for traditional marriage and family life, while contrasting today’s sterile and emotionally bankrupt social relations with an evocation of how society blossoms when it embraces traditional understandings of marriage and family, and suggesting possible solutions to the current crisis.

Esolen boldly addresses the hottest controversies regarding the definition and meaning of marriage:

[O]ur children witness perversions of all kinds, and no one cares, because we have become pornographic people. . . . That is because we accept the principle undergirding the pornography, which is that the pursuit of sexual gratification is a good thing, maybe the greatest good of all, and trumps all other considerations, such as the health of marriages, generally, the welfare and innocence of children, the promotion of virtue, and the common good.

Other chapters argue that “We Should Not Drive a Deeper Wedge between Men and Women,” “We Must Recover the Virtues of Modesty and Purity,” and “We Should Not Foreclose the Opportunity for Members of the Same Sex to Forge Friendships with One Another That Are Chaste, Deep, and Physically Expressed.”

Esolen’s second argument explains why “We Must Not Enshrine in Law the Principle that Sexual Gratification Is a Personal Matter Only With Which the Society Has Nothing to Do”:

[T]he community is not interested in a private friendship.  That is, the community may provide the context in which such a friendship may flourish, but it is nothing for the community as such to either recognize or celebrate.  You don’t register your bowling partner with the town clerk.  That is not the case with marriage.  We are all interested in marriage, that is, we all have a stake in it, because through marriage, or through actions that should have been performed within the haven of marriage, we have all come into being.  It isn’t simply a reflex of the emotions of the man and woman.  It is the act of renewal.  It brings together this family of blood relations with that family of blood relations, the kinfolk that lay just claims upon us because we and they share some of the same history, the same cousins, even the same eyes and ears and noses.  A marriage marries families, and it is the family, and not the abstracted autonomous individual, that is the foundation for the community.

In other words, were it not for children, there would be no reason for weddings at all.

By contrast, modern sexual relationships, including modern marriage conducted on the principle of sexual autonomy, are “antisocial.”  They breed

social irresponsibility.  Let’s suppose that we treated business decisions with the same cavalier indifference with which we treat the exercise of sexual powers.  Suppose a young person could start a “business” on a whim, when he “felt he was ready,” amassing debts to various creditors, and then, having had neither the intention nor the capacity to create a working concern, declare bankruptcy without impinging upon his credit, stiffing the creditors, and earning for his errors a healthy dole from the federal government.

The simile is clear.  The positive effects upon society of healthy families, and the negative effects of unhealthy ones or a multiplication of no true families at all, are so strong that societies cannot afford to permit marriage to dissolve into the private, subjective category of status updates on Facebook.

It wasn’t the lower classes that preached the religion of sexual liberation.  That came from upper classes, with their comfortable cushions against the resulting disorder. . . . Let those who are in favor of the world that the sexual revolution has produced defend it on its “merits,” and not decree all discussion out of bounds from the beginning.  We are not talking about privacy here, but about the air we all must breathe and the water we all must drink.


Some people will say, “But the family has evolved,” thinking to shut down argument and to detach the family from biology by the use of a term derived, ironically, from biology itself.  There are several obvious answers to this objection.  The first is that it is not true.  Ten thousand years ago, men married women and had children.  In every society known to man, at all stages of technological development, . . . men marry women and have children.

The false and unfortunately pernicious compassion dressed up as tolerance that holds sway today directs us to close our eyes to the obvious unnaturalness and unworkability of gay marriage so as not to hurt people’s feelings or to claim to universalize what our society insists are merely private and personal notions of truth.  Esolen has no truck with this nonsense, arguing instead that celebrating abnormal behavior—as political pressure groups, the media, the universities, and many religious denominations now urge us to do—makes things worse not only for society (including those members of society most in need of protection, the children drawn into such ménages), but for those inclined to engage in that behavior.

Esolen devotes an equally clearheaded chapter to an analysis of why “We Should Not Give Godlike Powers to the State.”  He notes that it is not pieces of paper such as constitutions that prevent the state from encroaching on our rights, but “other zones of authority, recognized as natural, with prescriptive rights and duties and areas of interest.”  In the area of marriage,

It is not the State that defines what marriage is; nature has done that.  It is not the State that determines the good of the family; nature has done that, too.  It is not even the State that creates the village or the parish.  Households have done that. . . . A healthy State does what it is supposed to do, and does it reasonably well, and leaves to other political entities the work they are supposed to do, including those political entities that are natural—the family foremost among them.

Unlike the “libertarians who believe that the state should ‘get out of the marriage business entirely,’” Esolen maintains that

The growth of the State does not depend upon the obliteration of the individual, so much as it does upon the obliteration of nature and those natural communities that make for genuine citizenship in the first place.  The metastatic State can make common cause with the individualism of licentiousness—with the sexual revolution—because they share the same enemies: the family, the neighborhood, the parish. . . . If you want true liberty . . . then you want to bolster the family against the State.

This book should be read, by all judges and legislators especially, but also by people contemplating marriage and those contemplating divorce.


[Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity, by Anthony Esolen (Charlotte, NC: St. Benedict Press) 174 pp., $14.95]


[Slideshow image: By Beatrice Murch [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons]

Fr. C. John McCloskey III

Fr. C.J. McCloskey is a research fellow of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C.

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