For Plough’s issue “What Are Families For?”, we invited Professor Scott Hahn, a Christian apologist and biblical theologian, to address the role of marriage in the political order from a Roman Catholic perspective.

There could hardly be a less controversial statement in these pages than this: The family is the cornerstone of a flourishing society.

What we mean by “family” matters, of course. A society takes its form from the families that make it up, like a fundamental element takes its properties from its distinctive atoms. Our solidarity-starved civilization, for instance, takes its form from families that have been too often fractured beyond recognition.

A healthy and enduring society, on the other hand, takes its form from a particular culture of family – one where men and women make lifelong, enforceable covenants which create not just thriving nuclear households, but complex networks of extended families across place and time. If the microscopic structure of our current society is, at best, individual atoms rarely bonded to anything else, the structure of the society envisioned in Christian politics is a matrix of atoms – a family of families – whose intricate interdependency gives society strength and resilience.

Thus there is no relationship on which society depends more than that between husband and wife. This is the first bond – the first society – without which all others disintegrate.

Christian advocacy for a family-centered society has almost without exception focused on marriage as a natural institution. There have been good reasons of principle and of strategy for doing so. Marriage is a natural institution, and recognizing it as such is a necessary part of restoring the public understanding of the bond: As Pius XI affirmed in his encyclical letter on marriage, Casti connubii, the essential duties of marriage aren’t just applicable to “religious” marriages, but to all properly-executed marital covenants. Marriage is not only what we make of it.

In an era of secular states and secular politics, focusing on natural marriage has also made sense practically. Arguing that the truth about marriage is accessible and practicable by “public reasons,” to use the Rawlsian term, was essential to campaigns for state recognition of the truth about natural marriage. We’re all acclimated to the idea that only secular arguments are permissible in the public square, and so those are the arguments most Christian advocates make.

As a result, we’ve argued ourselves into assuming that strictly natural marriages – that is, marriages contracted without the benefit of the sacrament of matrimony – are sufficient to give society an enduring strength and structure. But this has led us down a garden path, obscuring the essential role of sacramentality in the public importance of marriage and closing off the kind of fundamental critique of modern American civilization that our moment calls for. We don’t just need a culture of natural marriage; we need a culture of sacramental marriage.

Marriage is not only what we make of it.

To understand precisely what is at stake here, however, we need to take a step back and look at this question from another angle, and that angle is politics – that is, in the art of living together in organized society. If marriage is the first society, that means that it is fundamentally related in some way to politics, and to our larger understanding of how we are to live together in the world. And to ask questions about politics as a Christian soon leads us to the vexed debate among Christian political thinkers over the nature of liberalism: What is liberalism, and has it failed? How deep must our critique of the present order go? Did a contagion infect an otherwise wholesome liberalism, turning it into a cruel caricature of itself? If so, when? The 1960s? The 1920s? Earlier? And if not, must we say that liberalism was doomed from the beginning? Or just American-style liberalism? Maybe it was Locke’s fault? Luther’s? Ockham’s?

It quickly becomes a very frustrating parlor game. The pile-up of competing meta-narratives, though, has been fruitful in at least one respect: Our digging through the history of Christian thinking about liberalism has churned up to the surface the fundamental insight that no political and social order – liberalism included – can be sustainable unless it is based in the practical virtue of the people. It’s one of those statements that feels so obvious when it’s laid out. But it is easily forgotten by a people living in times of peace and prosperity, when the institutions and norms of the political order seem to be humming along just fine on their own.

Then, one day, they aren’t humming any longer. Divorce skyrockets; there is something like an epidemic of loneliness; and vice of all kinds seems to attack our ability to be committed to each other in any kind of a stable way – indeed, any way at all that is not mediated by the market. We fall apart into partisan hatreds that seem to tear the social order itself into camps: left, right. Red, blue. And we can’t seem to talk to each other. We wonder: What went wrong? And we realize the deficit of virtue, but too often the cultural analysis stops there. Surely the question must be asked: Why – why exactly – have we seemingly run so short of the particular virtues that sustain societies?

This is where the Christian, and particularly the Catholic, cultural observer can say something more than even the most earnest tradition-minded secularist. Even the natural virtues – justice and prudence and fortitude; hospitality and generosity and so on – do not emerge and propagate in a vacuum. They are first and most importantly products of grace, the result of a transformational movement of the Holy Spirit in our souls. To say that societies need virtue is to say that societies need grace.

Systematic treatments of the role of grace in the political order are uncommon in contemporary Christian discourse. At least in part this seems to be because the topic of grace necessarily implicates doctrinal divisions among various communions, and so we end up treating grace as more or less arbitrary, unaccountable splashes of divine favor – something we know is important, but that we can’t actually account for in our political thinking.

In the Catholic understanding – I write as a Catholic, and so I will make use of the theology of the Catholic Church to try to be a little more specific – we can, in fact, say more. It is true of course that we can’t audit God’s grace as if it were laid out on a balance sheet; his gratuity is not governed by any set of rules we could possibly devise. But that doesn’t mean we know nothing about how grace comes into the world. If that were the case, the sacraments would just be hopeful rituals rather than genuine irruptions of heaven on earth.

And now we can see how marriage might, in a very direct way, be involved with political society. In the Catholic understanding, each marriage that occurs between baptized persons is, in fact, whether or not it is recognized as such by those who are marrying, a sacrament. And these sacraments are channels of grace.

Our political thinking can’t ignore the sacraments because they are supernatural or sectarian; the important thing is that they are true. To pretend that they don’t exist or that they don’t have consequences for our shared lives would be to deny reality. This sacramental grace provides an essential support to the life of virtue; while God very well might be pleased to render this support to those who do not receive the sacraments, we know his grace is poured out on those who do.

Society, therefore, doesn’t just need virtue, and it doesn’t just need grace in some abstracted way: It needs the sacraments. And the sacrament of marriage is, in a very particular sense, the sacrament of society. The grace that is poured out in that sacrament, allowing one each of those very different creatures, men and women, to cleave to each other and make a new little world, is grace aimed at forming a society. This grace kindles and nurtures the virtues that enable men and women to live together in peace – not just passive absence of conflict, but the peace that makes a world and, often enough, a new life. The sacrament of marriage, then, is a necessarily political action. It provides the essential divine support for the virtues on which society depends. It makes heavenly realities live possibilities right now.

To say that societies need virtue is to say that societies need grace.

That prolepsis – that here-and-now manifestation of a hoped-for future – takes place every time a sacramental marriage is performed. And this is true of the other sacraments as well: Every baptism; every absolution; every confirmation: These are moments when the veil is pulled back and the fullness of reality – the natural and the supernatural, the earthly and the heavenly – is revealed and experienced by mankind. These are the moments when the hoped-for future is shown to be already all around us in the form of the church, which is the channel of grace to the world and the manifestation of the society of God. And she is aimed, herself, at the marriage of which our earthly marriages, both sacramental and natural, are symbols: She is the Bride, being prepared for the marriage supper of the Lamb.

Thus we can say that man is not just a social or political animal, as Aristotle had it, but an ecclesial animal: We are made for and naturally have relationships not just with other human beings, but with Christ and his church. The question is whether we as individuals and as societies will recognize and grow into that relationship, or ignore it and let it atrophy. The question is whether we will embrace the sacramental nature of society, founded on marriages that are the picture of Christ’s union with his church, or pretend that society is founded on something other than this.

This sacramental society isn’t so much a far-off ideal that we should seek to create as it is a reality with which we should cooperate. We don’t make the sacraments; we don’t call up their grace. This is a gift. The mystery of Christ and his body – not the dialectic, not materialism, not progress, not the market – is the fundamental principle of history, the fixed point around which we Christians should organize our lives and communities. But we must then ask ourselves: Does our political and social order make it possible to cooperate with this reality? Or does it actively deny the role of grace and the church, thus creating the conditions for its own demise?

Vincent van Gogh, First Steps (Public domain)

Let’s circle back to the question of liberalism. The very best we can say for liberalism is that it generally will not interfere with the autonomous individual’s pursuit of perfection through grace. This is not nothing, certainly when compared to totalitarian regimes of the past and present. But it’s also, in a real and important sense, a denial of reality.

Growth in virtue and sanctity through sacramental grace in not just a subjective lifestyle choice, like mastering fly-fishing or becoming a vegetarian. It is, objectively, the calling of every human person from his creator. The idea that the civil authority should be “neutral” between the life of grace and the life of vain self-reliance is incoherent, amoral, and ultimately self-defeating. In the name of freedom we become slaves to desire, for there is no standing still in the race to God: We are either advancing with his grace or retreating without it.

Liberalism also cannot recognize in any meaningful way that grace functions corporately as well as individually. By healing, elevating, and perfecting our human nature, grace brings both individual souls and the communities we share closer to the heavenly perfection we all long for, and which is present right now among the angels and saints.

And this corporate functioning of grace is perhaps most clearly seen in the sacrament of marriage. Matrimonial grace makes the extraordinary responsibilities of natural marriage possible. It’s not that every marriage that does not benefit from the sacrament will collapse or be riven by unfaithfulness. Rather, it’s that grace – and only grace – can preserve us from the day-to-day corrosion of the basic vices of close relationships: lust, pride, selfishness, envy, fear. Only grace can keep a family’s momentum moving toward God; without that grace, no matter how peaceful and prosperous a marriage might appear, there can only be regression in holiness.

The good society should not be and is not a vain dream any more than a good marriage is.

And as marriage goes, so goes society. Who could deny the evidence? It’s not just the data on family formation and fracturing; it’s the data on civil society and solidarity. Human society is fundamentally something like a family. The virtues that make someone a good husband and father, lovingly responsible towards his wife and children, are the same virtues that enable him to be a good boss. Without these virtues, what would we expect to see but expanding inequality, collapsing labor force participation, growing ranks of managers and executives who feel no responsibility whatsoever for the well-being of those beneath them in the corporate depth chart? The virtues that make someone a good brother or sister are the ones that enable them to recognize the human worth of others, to not see every interaction as a power struggle, to be able to have conversations and disagreements in a sane way. Without these virtues, what would we expect to see but identity politics, hate crimes, cancel culture, and an increasingly infantilized academia? In sum, it’s the breakdown of solidarity, of the notion that we have duties we don’t choose, of any sense that our good, in the natural and supernatural realm, might be connected to instead of in competition with that of those around us.

It’s trivially true to say that all this is the result of a collapse of virtue – like saying your team lost because it scored fewer points than its opponents. What matters are the prerequisites. A social order that cannot account for grace – specifically, that cannot account for the fact that the church of Christ is the medium through which grace enters the world – signs its own death warrant.

While the idea of the sacramental society should certainly temper our expectations for what is possible under liberalism, there is also a hopefulness in this vision that goes beyond its horizons: It offers a genuine and exciting expansion of our understanding of what is possible for human societies. This isn’t “immanentizing the eschaton,” as the clichéd response to any non-liberal political program goes, but recognizing what we already have in the infrastructure of grace that is the church. The good society is not a vain dream any more than a good marriage is. This is a vision of hope for what human communities can be, with the help of grace, at a moment of despair over the possibility of living together in peace.

But we must live out this hope. We must live out the virtuous and grace-full human lives that we are offered: in our friendships, at work, and in our marriages. Grace is communicable. As we fulfill the Great Commission with our words and our actions, we can trust that he is at work in those we meet. As Christ is himself to us, so we can be Christ to others; as he sanctifies us, so he can sanctify others through us. This is what it means to live in a society, and it begins in the first society of husband and wife.