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Marriage: What’s Love Got to Do with It?

Marriage Whats Love Got to Do with It Avangard Photography

Avangard Photography

Catherine Ruth Pakaluk - published on 08/29/14

We forget that marriage is an institution at our own risk.

Catholics are in an awkward spot about marriage. On the one hand, we have this elegant, refined theology of marriage dating back to the earliest Christian writers, and culminating in the iconic writings of our Polish Papa. On the other hand, we are products of our culture and are fairly ignorant of what-marriage-is.  

The awkwardness arises as a kind of sophomoric problematic—knowing something, and yet not knowing. Where most people would mumble a few things about a loving relationship and then give up—Catholics, armed with third grade catechism and popularized versions of theology of the body—might not do much better. “Marriage is a sacrament, that, um, affirms, or blesses, a loving relationship—between a man and a woman—that is permanent, or is supposed to be, and has something to do with being an image of God. Right? Oh—and sex is sacred. That’s the sacrament part.”

Not a great definition, by any standard.  

So Catholics don’t know what marriage is—but they sort of think that they do.  

Why?  Because they rightly understand that the Church claims some kind of authority over marriage, they understand that marriage is a sacrament, and they understand—again rightly—that the Catholic Church stands nearly alone against all of society and declares that marriages are permanent, and that marriages should be receptive to new life. So it would be natural if Catholics felt that they had learned something about marriage over the years from a Church that talks a lot about it.   

And yet, in spite of all this—there is little evidence that Catholics “do” marriage differently from others, regardless of what they think that they know. What’s going on?  

I suspect the problem is that Catholics in recent decades have been better theologians than anthropologists. Let’s start here: marriage is the only sacrament, the only one, which is also a natural institution. But what is an institution?  And what is a natural institution? These are themes I will take up frequently when I write about marriage. Without a sound understanding of institutions we will lack a sound understanding of marriage.  

Let’s pose a question to illustrate the point: what is the role of “love” in the institution of marriage? To whet your interest, consider the chapters of Gaudium et Spes that deal with marriage and the family, paragraphs 47-52. These six paragraphs use the term “institution” four times. In contrast, “love” appears some forty-five times in these same six paragraphs. That’s an 11-1 ratio of love to institution, which raises the question, what exactly is the relationship between love and institution?

In 1996 a survey asked college men and women to rank the characteristics most desired in a potential mate. Men and women both ranked “mutual love and attraction” as the number 1 most-desired-trait in a potential spouse. The same questions were asked of young men and women in 1984. Then too, men and women ranked “mutual love and attraction” as the number 1 most-desired-trait. But looking farther back it wasn’t always so. In 1967, records show that “mutual love and attraction was only the 2nd or 3rd most-desired-trait in a spouse.

And in 1939—the earliest recorded instance of the same questions being asked—“mutual love and attraction” ranked 4th for men, and 5th for women. Characteristics such as “dependable character” (1st place), “emotional maturity and stability” (2nd), and “pleasing disposition” (3rd) beat “love” among males. For women, character, emotional maturity, industriousness, and disposition all beat out “love” as more desirable traits in a spouse. (These findings are summarized in a 2001 paper by Buss et al. in the
Journal of Marriage and Family entitled “A Half-Century of Mate Preferences: The Cultural Evolution of Values.”)

Bear with me for a minute. Suppose we say that an institution is sort of like a game—there is an objective (e.g., get the ball to the other side), together with clearly defined and agreed-upon roles and rules. Players have roles—what they are supposed to do. And they have rules—how they are supposed to do what they are doing. If this is the case—and we have yet to define the ‘goal’ of marriage—we might already conclude that the traits ranked above love and attraction in 1939—such as character, maturity, dependability, a good disposition, industriousness—have more to do with the institution of marriage as an institution.

We might additionally conclude that young people in 1939 thought about potential mates with a greater degree of concern for how their partners might play a role in the institution than their counterparts in 1996. The turning point in the values shift seems to be captured in the 1967 questionnaire—exactly when Gaudium et Spes advances the term love more than institution in the context of marriage.

So, what was the Church saying about marriage in the 1930s?  A quick look at Casti Connubii (Pius XI, 1930) appears to show a 2-1 ratio of the language of love to institution. I found fourteen instances of “institution” in Casti Connubii and in the entire document (which is much longer than six paragraphs, only thirty or so instances of “love.”

So—are the mating preferences college students reflective of the magisterial teachings? Or are the magisterial teachings instead somewhat bound up with the general trends in the culture—even if bound up in a manner so as to correct and teach? It is hard to say without knowing more about what we mean by institutions. But on either account, we must admit that “institutional” considerations with respect to marriage have lost real ground in the discourse and practice of marriage—both within and without the Church.  

One possible account of the values shift that now privileges the romantic framework is to see it as a sort of cultural “correction” against a hard-nosed and uninspiring practice of marriage. And there may be some truth in this.

But where there are corrections there are inevitably “over”-corrections. Have we now, perhaps, tipped too far in the direction of the romantic ideal? It’s hard to know, but in an age of nearly universal ignorance about marriage we’ve got to dig deeper than surface debates about the political fate of marriage. Because, I assure you, the two are tightly bound up together. Political questions are always—every time—anthropological ones in the end.  

Catherine Ruth Pakaluk 
is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Ave Maria University, a Faculty Research Fellow at the Stein Center for Social Research, and a Senior Fellow in Economics at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. Her research is focused in the areas of demography, gender, family studies, and the economics of education and religion.She also works on the interpretation and history of Catholic social thought. Dr. Pakaluk earned her doctorate in economics at Harvard University (2010). She lives in Ave Maria, Florida with her husband Michael and seven children.

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