Popular media in the United States continue to approve the Catholic Church’s social justice voice on poverty or the environment, but they dismiss its voice on sex, marriage and parenting. This is intensified by the contemporary framing of the latter issues in terms of “equality,” “freedom” and scientific rationality. In other words, social justice categories are applied to sex and family questions, and the church is found wanting.
Nothing motivates me to try to bridge this divide more than mothering young adults. I want them to have the good life, the free life, the Catholic life in the whole sense.
So first I touch on freedom, as it overlaps with the justice value of caring for the vulnerable. Temporary sexual relationships undercut freedom. They often communicate (especially to women) that their value lies in their appearance, their sexual performance and their willingness to use contraception affecting their hormones, their mood and their health. These relationships are shadowed, too, by fears: of children and sexually transmitted diseases. To the inevitable objection that freedom lies rather in the domains of “choice” and “variety,” I cite the most definitive science on American sexual practices, showing that both women and men report finding their freedom and joy within long-horizon commitments.
I also touch on freedom as service, as relation. Catholic social teaching rejects the idea that freedom means everyone grabbing as much property as possible. Similarly, Catholic family teaching rejects the notion of freedom as maximizing individual sexual and emotional self-satisfaction. Our “freedom” is rather the “freedom of the children of God” (Rom 8:21), grounded upon the Father’s unending, sacrificial love. The freedom of children we conceive likewise rests on our providing a solid floor beneath their feet, built by a stably united mother and father.
The category of inequality is also fruitful for linking Catholic social and family teachings. (How I wish “The Joy of Love” had highlighted this!) It is well accepted that the retreats from marriage and marital childbearing are largely driving economic inequality in the United States. In short, the contexts in which adults have sex, get pregnant, give birth and raise children matter enormously for equality.
Inequality between men and women is also at stake. The Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz brilliantly observes that while many are willing to acknowledge how the West’s “cult of freedom” produces economic inequalities, they are blind to its creating inequalities in the personal and sexual realms because of the “social conditions which make possible the emotional domination of men over women” (Why Love Hurts). To specify, today’s “free” sexual marketplace is shaped by the severance of sex from children by contraception and abortion. It is also shaped by its focus on choice (through apps like Tinder), “testing” (cohabitation) and finding one’s “soulmate.” It is shaped by corporations placing excessive value on youth and beauty and sex as products for consumption, and by men’s tendency to play the field longer, unconstrained by limitations imposed by fertility. As summarized by Professor Illouz: Middle-class heterosexual women have “never been so sovereign in terms of their body and emotions” but “emotionally dominated by men in new and unprecedented ways.”
As for poor women, an entirely different set of preferences and constraints shapes how they experience the “cult of freedom.” Between high rates of incarceration and joblessness, and a perennial dearth of jobs that pay a living wage, lower-income men do not appear “marriageable” in their eyes. Furthermore, the choice to become a single mother does not foreclose realistic opportunities for college and a good career. Some freedom. Some choice.