A civilization of vows and the dignity of women.

AuthorShivanandan, Mary

The inimitable G.K. Chesterton in The Superstition of Divorce characterizes the Christian Middle Ages as "the age of vows" and skeptical modernity as "the age of contracts"--contracts that are all too easily broken. (1) In his usual paradoxical way, Chesterton says, "It began with divorce for a king; and it is now ending in divorces for a whole kingdom." (2) The monastic vows and the marriage vows together sustained Christian society, along with the voluntary submission of the craftsman to his guild and the knight to his lord. What is unique about the vow is that it "combine[s] the fixity that goes with finality with the self-respect that only goes with freedom." (3) The vows themselves were "sustained by a sense of free will; and the feeling that its evils were not accepted but chosen." (4) For Chesterton, the alternative to the freedom guaranteed by the vow is slavery. How he works this out in the economic sphere is not our concern. How the vow relates to the dignity of women as virgin, spouse, and mother is our concern and the theme of this Article.

It was in the context of a vow of virginity that Mary conceived and bore her Son Jesus. John Paul II writes in Mulieris Dignitatem that unless one looks to the mother of God, it is impossible to understand the mystery of the "woman" or of the Church. "The Church herself is a virgin, who keeps whole and pure the fidelity she has pledged to her Spouse" in the Christ-Church union. (5) Mary as "woman" is a "singular exemplar" of the fruitfulness of both virginity and motherhood. (60) Her unique role underscores the unequivocal perspective of the feminine in understanding both the nature of the "human" and the divine economy of salvation history. The Church as Bride of Christ reveals woman fully to herself as virgin, mother, and spouse.

This Article explores on the one hand how our culture endangers woman's fulfillment as virgin, mother, and spouse, and on the other, how the vows of consecrated virginity and marriage crowned by motherhood restore woman and marriage to their true dignity. The first part illustrates the danger presented by our contemporary culture, as shown in the hookup society, the culture of divorce, and the reproductive revolution. The second part (1) gives a brief analysis of the nature of a vow within the Christian context, (2) discusses the meaning of freedom in the context of a binding vow, (3) shows that woman is oriented by nacre to the self-gift of the vow, and (4) views the "Great Mystery" of the union of Christ and the Church as the context for the vows of sacramental marriage and consecrated virginity. Finally, the Article concludes by drawing out some implications for restoring the dignity of woman, marriage, and motherhood in contemporary society.


    Let us begin with our contemporary culture, whose primary freedom is "the sort of sexual freedom which is covered by the legal fiction of divorce." (7) Three aspects of our culture are: (1) the hookup society, (2) the culture of divorce, and (3) the reproductive revolution.

    1. The Hookup Society

      A college student from California, in an article in the New York Times, reflects on his generation and their way of relating--or rather, not relating--to the opposite sex. His observations are entitled Let's Not Get to Know Each Other Better. (8) The young man had what he calls the "weird" desire to take a girl on a date with "flowers, dinner and all that." (9) Somehow he thought it would make him "feel more like an adult and less like a dumb little boy." (10) He contrasted this idea with casually asking the girl home where "you can sit around watching TV" and "you hardly even need to stand up, let alone put on a nice shirt." (11) The occasion inevitably ends in sexual intercourse, since he subscribes to the popular adage, "Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?" (12) In other words, why make an effort or incur expense when you can get your pleasure for nothing? The young man goes on to give a graphic description of our hookup society: "Casual is sexy. Caring is creepy." (13) Yet throughout the article, he expresses a yearning for something more, a desire to sacrifice for something better. "[D]eep down," he says, "we crave the warm embrace of all-consuming love." (14)

      Women of today's generation, the young man notes, are as implicated in the hookup culture as the men. He describes one friend as "a normal girl, who ... engages in hookups unabashedly--she's just doing what she wants and doesn't regret or overthink it." (15) Indeed, the twentieth century saw a dramatic rise in premarital sexual experience among young women. (16) R. Richard Udry of the University of North Carolina conducted a survey of both black and white women in low income neighborhoods in sixteen U.S. cities in 1969 to 1970 and again in 1973 to 1974. (17) He asked selected decade-of-birth cohorts of women the age of their first intercourse and of their first marriage. The differences for each decade-of-birth cohort were striking. Of those born between 1920 and 1929, none of the white women had intercourse by age fifteen and only about 6% by age twenty. There was a marked increase in the 1930 and 1940 cohorts, but the rates for those born between 1950 and 1959 were more than double those born between 1940 and 1949. This reflected the "rapid increase in sexual experience for those who were between fifteen and nineteen in the late 1960s." (18)

      Both in terms of sexual beliefs and behavior, a new situation arose in the 1960s. Up to the 1960s, an equilibrium or balance, at least publicly, between sex for pleasure (sexual liberalism) and traditional Judeo-Christian condemnation of premarital and extramarital sex (fornication and adultery) and homosexuality prevailed. This equilibrium collapsed in the 1960s. Distinguished sociologist Catherine S. Chilman sets 1966 as the watershed when, in her words, the whole society "fell apart." (19) Chilman, speaking for herself, is ambivalent about the new approach of "Do what you want but don't get pregnant or a disease," which she characterizes as "essentially dehumanizing." (20) Yet she endorses contraception and alternative sexual lifestyles, which are endemic to the new "norms." (21)

    2. The Culture of Divorce

      One reason the California student gives for his generation's hookup behavior centers on the culture of divorce: "We've grown up in an age of rampant divorce and the accompanying tumult. The idea that two people can be happy together, maturing alongside each other, seems as false as a fairy tale." (22) Divorce statistics bear out this young man's plaint. The rate of divorce after a first marriage hovered between 40% and 50% during the last decade of the twentieth century. (23) According to a report from the National Center for Health Statistics in 2002, the probability of a first marriage ending in divorce within ten years is 33%. (24) While the probability of remarriage among women within five years after a divorce is 58% for white women, 44% for Hispanic women, and 32% for black women, there is a strong probability that a second marriage will end in separation or divorce (23% after five years and 39% after ten years). (25) We are indeed living in a culture of divorce with long-term consequences, especially for children.

      Children of divorce are now speaking out, and researchers such as Judith Wallerstein have followed their fortunes for twenty-five years or more. To understand fully the consequences of divorce, it is necessary to look both at the statistics and the life experience of these people. Judith Wallerstein is one of the leading researchers on the consequences of divorce on children. In 1971, a core group of 131 children of divorce from middle-class families was selected for study over time. (26) Reports on the findings of Wallerstein and colleagues were made at eighteen months, five years, ten years, and fifteen years. At the twenty-five-year mark, 80% of the original participants were contacted. (27) In addition, a group of adults from intact families, including both those in conflicted and those in happy marriages, served as a comparison. (28)

      Reviewing the findings of her study at the twenty-five-year mark, Wallerstein concluded that "divorce is a long-term crisis that [i]s affecting the psychological profile of an entire generation." (29) It is a "life-transforming experience." (30) Childhood, adolescence, and adulthood are all different after divorce. (31) The major impact is felt in adulthood, especially in choosing a mate and navigating married life. (32) The ability to trust in a long-term commitment is gravely damaged. The aftermath of the breakup severely compromises the normal transition to a lifelong commitment to marriage and family life. (33) The children of divorce lose the image of their parents as a couple forever, and they have no model for working through the inevitable difficulties and conflicts of married life. (34) Wallerstein states that "[t]he vision of a stable marriage in which two people have weathered small squalls and major storms is of critical importance to young people as they start out on their journey, especially in today's unstable world." (35)

      No matter how much care divorcing parents take to spare their children the pain of separation, the Fact of the broken marriage itself forever changes the child's view of himself and his...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT