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The Truth About Families: A Review of Love and Economics | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | September 3, 2008

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"The most important relationship by far for the child to observe is the relationship between his mother and his father. If they get along reasonably well most of the time, he learns that this is possible, as well as learning something about how it is done. If there is no father in his home, he will not see the same level of intensity and duration in a relationship as he would with an intact married couple for parents. Whatever else the child might see about his mother's relationships with other adults, he will see that his father is for some reason not present." -- Jennifer Roback Morse, Love and Economics.

The occasion of these brief remarks is the publication of a new edition of Jennifer Roback Morse's incisive book, Love and Economics. [1] Many reasons can be given about why this book is of particular importance. One is that we will go a long way before we find a more concise and practical considerations of the meaning of love among human beings than in the last three chapters of this book. They are entitled respectively, "What Is Love?" "The Costs of Love," and "Why the Decision to Love Is Reasonable."

Everyone preparing for marriage, or even thinking about it, should read these chapters. It is a must read for all college students, as is Morse's later book, Smart Sex: Finding Life-long Love in a Hook-up World and her pamphlet, 101 Tips for a Happier Marriage. Those whose marriages have failed will learn much of themselves here. Academics and clerics who sometimes have little clue about the depths of our relations with those we love will find it all spelled out here. Happily married couples will discover in it a confirmation of all they learned by living together, for better and for worse. Morse's words are wise, the product of both experience, intelligence, and good sense.

One does not read very far into this book before realizing that here is something more than the ordinary academic "study" of some supposedly replaceable "arrangement" called "marriage." Morse, of course, is an academic; she is married, with two children, one adopted. She is an economist by trade who has written in many professional journals. She is a defender of limited government and a free society. But what this book does is to put flesh and blood onto "ideas" about our families, how they came to be, how they prosper or do not prosper. In another sense, the book is a most graphic account of what happens when things about love go wrong, about who suffers. The point of view of the book is the helpless child and what sort of demands that very fact makes on everyone else, especially the child's parents, but including all relatives and the society itself. The book is an engagement of mind.

Nonetheless, Love and Economics is (and is intended to be) a treatise in economics. It contains an argument about a failure in economic theory. At the same time, we read here an engaging, even graphic, account of the lived experiences of why a family is and must remain the center of any public order. Thus, in this sense, the book is one of the best explications we possess of what assumptions we have about the family.

No book could be at this very time more politically relevant and, at the same time, more politically incorrect. We often fail to see why marriage as such is important. It is not too much to say that the major aberrations of the public order in all fields arise, directly or indirectly, because of efforts to escape from the central meaning of the family as the basis of society. Morse shows pretty clearly that most public problems are first private ones, just as, when families work well, societies prosper.

The intellectual thesis of this book is that the classical economists understood the nature of the market well enough. They understood why socialism, however attractive in theory, did not work in practice. What the classical economists did not understand was the family. They thought it ran on the same principles as the market. The family, however, is not made up of free and equal citizens. It is made up of a man and a woman with their children. Nothing, but nothing, can substitute for this reality. We are in fact a society that is legally enforcing the alternatives that do not work.

One of the very good parts of this book is the careful examination of all the proposals to replace the family either by other families (divorce) or by, worst of all, the government or science. This is a tract about limited government, about limiting the government to what it can do, which is to organize a general public order. But it cannot become the family. It must presuppose it. The legal and formal relationships in the public order do not work in the family. The one is run by equity and justice, the other by love, generosity, and sacrifice. These two can exist side by side, but justice more likely is possible only when love is first present.

Catholic social thought has long been aware of the centrality of the family. It is generally put that the family comes "before" the state, which does not and cannot replace it. The family is the place where the most important things happen to us; it is where we are born and die, where we live our daily lives. The family is what I call the "neutron bomb" of social life. We have little idea of the force in that little cell until we see it break apart. Most western countries today, including ours, seek in their social policies to do everything but be helpful to and supportive of actual families. Morse is relentless in documenting the aberrations of these policies, which are often, in their worst forms, proposed in the name of "children.".

One of the problems Catholics today especially encounter is that they seldom see spelled out in lively and intelligent form the case for their own position, a case that includes all the facts and consequences. In this book, the reader will see them spelled out.

The lasting impression that Morse leaves, however, is something that is obvious from reading the New Testament. That is, our lives do not work without the kind of sacrificial love that is present in the world. This love is necessitated by the care of the little ones, the weak, or the helpless. Benedict often touches on this idea that a social policy that does not include personal love is a social policy that will not work. Again Morse explains why. Love and Economics is a book not to be missed. Few books come closer to explaining why things have gone wrong and what it takes to make them go right.


[1] Jennifer Roback Morse, Love and Economics (San Marcos, CA.: Ruth Institute Books, 2008), 306 pp. ISBN 978-0-9816059-1-3. $22.95. (www.jennifer-roback-morse.com).

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Book Excerpts:

The Challenge of Marriage Preparation | Dr. Janet E. Smith
Focus Groups and Marriage: A Match Made for Heartache | Mary Beth Bonacci
Entering Marriage with Eyes Wide Open | Edward Peters
Human Sexuality and the Catholic Church | Donald P. Asci | Introduction to The Conjugal Act as a Personal Act
Who Is Married? | Edward Peters
Marriage and the Family in Casti Connubii and Humanae Vitae | Reverend Michael Hull, S.T.D.
Male and Female He Created Them | Cardinal Estevez
The Meaning and Necessity of Spiritual Fatherhood | Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, MTS
Practicing Chastity in an Unchaste Age | Bishop Joseph F. Martino
The Truth About Conscience | John F. Kippley | An excerpt from Sex and the Marriage Covenant

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). Read more of his essays on his website.

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