Marriage as a Matter of Social Justice

Could Pope Francis’s message bridge the divide between the progressive concern for inequality and the conservative focus on families?

Craig Ruttle / AP

Pope Francis’s commitment to social justice could not have been clearer in his whirlwind trip to Washington this week. In his address to Congress, he said: “The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes.” The pope’s evident concern for the poor and immigrants, not to mention his stands on workers’ rights, income inequality, and the environment, have won him plaudits from the left.

Speaking at The White House, President Obama himself heralded the pope for putting the “least of these” at the forefront of the nation’s attention: “You remind us that in the eyes of God our measure as individuals, and our measure as a society, is not determined by wealth or power or station or celebrity, but by how well we hew to Scripture’s call to lift up the poor and the marginalized—to stand up for justice and against inequality, and to ensure that every human being is able to live in dignity—because we are all made in the image of God.”

On Saturday, however, as he heads toward the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, Francis’s message is likely to prove more amenable to the right. That’s because he also promised that he would be proclaiming the “Gospel of the Family” during his visit to the City of Brotherly Love this weekend. And judging by the pope’s previous pronouncements on marriage and family life, his message there will prove more appealing to conservatives.

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.”

Thompson’s observation is reflected in the evidence. Isabel Sawhill at the Brookings Institution and Adam Thomas of Georgetown University have found that much of the growth in child poverty from the late 1960s to the 1990s can be attributed to the growth in single parenthood, and that “child poverty rates would drop substantially” if more low-income parents were married. My research with the Urban Institute’s Robert Lerman suggests that about one-third of the growth in family-income inequality can be linked to declines in marriage since the 1970s. Economic stagnation among ordinary American families would also be lower were it not for the retreat from marriage: We estimate that the “growth in median income of families with children would be 44 percent higher if the United States enjoyed 1980 levels of married parenthood today.”

The bottom line: At least in the United States, Francis is indeed right to argue that the “evidence is mounting” that the retreat from marriage is “associated with increased poverty and a host of other social ills.”

Bridging Left and Right to Help Today’s Families

Unlike many observers of contemporary family life, Francis places the blame for the family’s current predicament on forces both inside and outside the family. It’s about individual responsibility and the larger economic forces confronting families. “I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without,” the pope told Congress this week, fingering a culture that does not honor marriage and the sacrifices required for a strong and stable family life, as well as an economy that does not support the formation and maintenance of strong and stable families for all too many Americans. His diagnosis, and his prescription for addressing the challenges facing families, draw on the best insights from the left and the right.

I’m hoping his irenic approach and example may encourage conservatives and liberals to seek common ground where they can to address the economic and cultural challenges facing families today. Expanding parental leave and child tax credits for families, tackling marriage penalties facing low-income families, beefing up vocational education and apprenticeship training for young adults from predominantly poor communities, and reforming criminal-justice policies should all be on the table when it comes to considering public-policy options for strengthening today’s families.

But any solution also requires looking beyond Washington, given the cultural forces at work. I have made the case for designing privately run local and state cultural campaigns, modeled on the nation’s successful campaign to prevent teenage childbearing, to encourage young adults to put the baby carriage after the marriage.

In the civic arena, churches also have to step up to the plate. The Catholic Church in the United States, for instance, has done a relatively poor job of integrating poor and working-class families into its life in recent years. The figure above shows that Catholics without a college degree are about one-fourth less likely to regularly attend Mass, compared to Catholics with a college degree. My own research with sociologist Nicholas Wolfinger likewise indicates that ordinary Catholics rarely hear about marriage from the pulpit when they attend church. Perhaps the pope’s visit to Philadelphia’s World Meeting of Families will inspire priests, pastors, and lay leaders to take a more active role in inviting poor and working-class families in their communities on Sundays, and to speak more clearly about the joys and challenges of marriage and family life. Steps like these—both inside the Catholic Church and other religious traditions—could play a role in strengthening marriage and family life in the nation, given that churchgoing seems to foster more marriage and less divorce.

If the Pope’s visit to the City of Brotherly Love attracts as much attention and goodwill as has his visit to the nation’s capital, such a religiously inspired family renaissance might just be possible. And that would be good for the cause of social justice.