At a meeting of religious leaders in Rome last year, for instance, Francis sounded a lot like his family-centered predecessor, John Paul II. He said the “truth about marriage” is that it’s a “permanent commitment to solidarity, fidelity, and fruitful love [that] responds to the deepest longings of the human heart.” He called the family a fundamental pillar of social life that serves as “the foundation of co-existence and a remedy against social fragmentation.” Francis also decried the “culture of the temporary, in which more and more people are simply giving up on marriage as a public commitment.”
Most provocatively, Francis made the case that his progressive commitment to the poor and the vulnerable is connected to his concerns about the health of marriage and family life, as he underlined the links between the West’s retreat from marriage and the unacceptably high levels of poverty and inequality still to be found in Europe and the Americas. He noted, for instance, that the family revolution of the last half-century “has often flown the flag of freedom, but in fact it has brought spiritual and material devastation to countless human beings, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.” Francis added, “Evidence is mounting that the decline of the marriage culture is associated with increased poverty and a host of other social ills, disproportionately affecting women, children and the elderly.”
Is Francis Right About the (Social) Environment?
In his encyclical, Laudato Si’, Francis argued that the “crisis in the family has produced an ecological crisis” in the social environment, noting that both the physical and social environments are threatened by unfettered individualism and the pursuit of self gratification. Is he right? Does the evidence really suggest that the retreat from marriage is wreaking havoc on the social environment, especially its most vulnerable members?
At least in the United States, the answer is yes. In the last half century, it has witnessed a dramatic retreat from marriage: The marriage rate has fallen by more than 50 percent, divorce doubled, and the share of single parents rose threefold, from 9 percent in 1960 to 27 percent in 2014. What’s more, this retreat has hit poor and working-class men, women, and children especially hard. Today, college-educated Americans get and stay married at comparatively high levels; by contrast, less-educated Americans are less likely to marry, more likely to get divorced, and, as a consequence, their children are more likely to be exposed to family instability and single parenthood. This figure, from Robert Putnam’s book, Our Kids: The American Dream In Crisis, illustrates the growing family divide in America.
This unequal retreat from marriage is deeply implicated in many of the social ills at the top of progressives’ (and the pope’s) concerns: child poverty, income inequality, and stagnating family income. That’s because a disproportionate share of low- and middle-income families today are headed by single parents, usually a single mother, who generally can bring even fewer economic resources to the table than she could if she was married. As The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson observed, “The decline in marriage rates among poorer men and women robs parents of supplemental income, of work-life balance, and of time to prepare a child for school. Single-parenthood and inter-generational poverty feed each other. The marriage gap and the income gap amplify one another.”