general, what is the most desirable relationship of the modern nation
state to the family? More specifically, should we seek to win a
"preferential option of the family" in law and public policy?
In suggesting a "preferential option" for families, I am
assuming that the congress planners are consciously reminding us of the
Roman Catholic Church's impressive idea of a "preferential option
for the poor" -- that is, the commitment of society to think first
of "the least of these," in part by giving the poor
preferential or compensatory treatment as society formulates policy,
distributes benefits, and seeks to expand opportunities. Should modern
societies think about and treat the family in this same way? This is the
question that has been posed to us.
answer it, I think we must begin by reflecting on the two main reasons --
at least, I can think of two main reasons -- why all states should
recognize and protect the family. The first reason implies that the
state must recognize the family as a matter of fundamental moral and
natural law. The second reason implies that the state ought to recognize
the family as a matter of prudential and time-honored political judgment.
as regards the "must," the family, as this congress has
repeatedly and properly said, is a natural institution, occurring in all
human societies and pre-dating all government. In this sense, connection
to family is part of what it means to be a human being. Politically,
then, no government can pretend that is has created the family, or that
the family exists to serve the state, or that the state is, in any basic
sense, in charge of the family, or that the family should exist or cease
to exist, or should evolve in this direction or that direction,
according to the needs and aspirations of the state.
The most important political idea of the modern era -- arguable the most
important political idea of the millennium -- is that all human beings
are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights: rights
that cannot be denied by government, or made instruments of government,
precisely because thy are not the creation of government. Similarly, let
us leave Geneva in 1999 with this proposition in our hearts and minds:
One of the most important political ideas of the new millennium is that
governments must recognize and respect the natural family, in much the
same way, and for exactly the same reason, that they must recognize and
respect basic human rights, since the natural family, like natural or
basic human rights, is a gift from nature and nature's God, thereby
constituting a fundamental dimension of human flourishing that must be
recognized and respected by all governments at all times. That is the
reason why governments must recognize the family.
as regard the "ought," almost all governments in almost all
times -- I think it's fair to say all government everywhere that we
would call minimally decent -- have declared, either explicitly or
implicitly, a state interest in protecting the family, especially
marriage. Why? Because the family as an institution, base on legally
recognized marriage, generates a wide range of what scholars call
"social goods," from sexual responsibility among adults to
character and competence in children. States have long understood that
families produce these vital social goods better, more often and more
efficiently -- more naturally, as it were -- than do any other possible
arrangements for guiding sexuality and bearing and rearing children. In
this sense, the family can be viewed as the cradle of civil society, the
first and most important institution of civil society -- a seedbed of
the virtues and way of living upon which good government depends, but
which government itself cannot create or sustain. So for these reasons,
the state, as a matter of prudential political management, has a clear
interest in recognizing and protecting the family.
what about the notion of a "preferential option" for families?
Perhaps this is largely a matter of semantics, but as regards the value
of this phrase, at least as public rhetoric, I want to suggest that it
is not the best way to put the matter. To me, the main idea is that
public policy should recognize the family, not give it special or
preferential benefits, as if the family were a type of supplicant, or as
if the family were just another special interest, lining up to lobby for
special benefits from government.
me give two examples that I hope will illustrate the distinction I am
tying to make. In the area of taxation -- and here is
an area in which our General Secretary, Dr. Allan Carlson, has
done pioneering work -- a basic choice facing government is whether to
tax each person as an individual, regardless of marital and/or parental
status, or alternatively to tax the married-couple household as a single
unit, permitting, for example, married couples to share or split their
income for purposes of taxation, thus treating them the same way that
tax policy would treat any other joint economic partnership. In a number
of rich countries, including the United States, the basic trend in
recent decades has been toward a system of individual taxation, and away
from family taxation.
in the debate on this issue in the U.S. in recent months, a curious new
public vocabulary has emerged. Taxing everyone as an individual,
regardless of marital status, is said to constitute
"neutrality" toward the institution of marriage; whereas
family-based taxation, especially the idea of permitting married couples
to share their income for purposes of taxation, is said to constitute a
"marriage bonus," a sort of preferential treatment for married
persons. But of course, in reality, that is not at all what is
married people as if they are married does not mean that you are somehow
giving them a special benefit, anymore than pretending for the purpose
of taxation that married people are not marred constitutes being
"neutral" toward the fact of their marriage. In both
instances, the choice facing policy makers is not between giving a bonus
or extracting a penalty, or between being neutral or playing favorites;
instead, the choice facing policy makers is between recognizing reality --
recognizing what marriage is -- or denying it. Our position then, should
simply be that we are against pretending and in favor of recognizing the
empirical, already-existing of the marriage bond.
second and similar example concerns divorce law. In most U.S. states,
and in several other of the rich countries as well, any marriage can be
dissolved unilaterally, by either spouse, at any time, for any reason.
It is called "no fault divorce," but a more accurate
description would be "unilateral divorce," or divorce on
demand from either spouse.
I favor changing these laws. And I'll bet that many of you favor
changing them, as well. But why? What is our reason? Is it because
marriage has become so weak that it needs the state to step in and help
make it stronger? Perhaps by giving marriage special or preferential
legal supports? No. Again, the main point to me is simply to recognize
what marriage is.
is a mutual and sacred promise involving two lovers, their Creator,
their community, and children that their marriage may produce. That's
what the marriage vow is. For the state arbitrarily, and in defiance of
reality, to declare that the marriage promise may be immediately and
unilaterally broken by either spouse for any or no reason -- that the
marriage contract is less binding, therefore, than any other recognized
contract in the society -- is, in essence, to abolish any legal
recognition of marriage. It is essentially to pretend, for the purposes
of law, that marriage as a union of two persons does not exist. To
reform these laws, then, is not to step in from the outside in an effort
to give marriage special or preferential treatment. It is simply to
recognize what marriage is and permit people who want to marry to in
fact, in the eyes of the law, get married.
are other examples, but I think the distinction is by now clear enough.
The proper demand, then, is not for special treatment; it's for
final point. In my view the main family trend in the world today, at
least among the rich countries, is toward a post-marriage society, a
society in which even the word "marriage" loses its essential
normative meaning and, insofar as the old meaning lingers, becomes a
slightly embarrassing word to say in public, like the word
"God" has already become in some of our societies. For this
reason, the main task before us, in my view, to bring forth a
coordinated, international, multi-sectoral social movement to strengthen
and defend the institution of marriage.
us work together, then, to create and lead a marriage movement that
spans the world. Let the scholars among us study. Let the writers write.
Let the legislators make laws. Let the preachers preach and the
counselors counsel. Let the parents teach the young. Let the word on our
lips be "marriage." Let us bring forth a marriage movement.
And let us demand that governments everywhere let marriage be what it