The Blogs of Francis Phillips
How the West really lost God by Mary Eberstadt (Continued)
My Monday blog, bringing readers’ attention to Mary Eberstadt’s book, “How the West really lost God”, ended on a note of pessimism. Eberstadt argues that the transmission of faith is linked to families; where stable family life is strong, faith is strong and where it is weak there is a knock-on effect on faith. Whether this is a chicken and egg debate, as one post has pointed out, doesn’t matter if you accept the premise that faith and family form, as Eberstadt describes it, “a double helix”.
However, Eberstadt’s last chapter ends on a note of optimism. Having described the decline of the traditional family in the western world, she now examines the possibilities for seeds of hope. She asks the question: what happens if affluence fails and the West gradually grows poorer? What happens if the welfare states of the rich countries can no longer afford the enormous bills they are currently sustaining to prop up their fractured communities? “Some people are already inferring that the ever-more expensive state can no longer be trusted to do what the family does better and cheaper”, she comments.
In a demographic and welfare winter, Eberstad thinks the only viable alternative to the state will be the renaissance of families, as people rediscover the importance of stable marriage, the blessing of children and the enduring strength of family and relational bonds. Instead of an atomised society, fuelled by selfish individualism with the state picking up the bills, she thinks we may return to the one institution that has endured for millennia. And if this is the case, following on from her image of a “double helix”, it is probable that alongside the rediscovery of the family will be the rediscovery of faith – with all the self-sacrifice and self-giving that both it and marriage demand.
There is another factor: having argued that modern society and modern people detest and reject the Church for her firm stand on sexual morality (as they do), the author introduces the paradoxical idea that in times of material hardship and societal instability, this very firmness could be a source of attraction. Just as in pagan Rome, where abortion, infanticide and sexual immorality were rife, people began to be attracted to a faith that defended the sacredness of life, respect for women and mothers and faithful marriage, she thinks it possible that we may (eventually) experience a revulsion against the unhappiness and chaos that has resulted from government-supported hedonism.
Eberstadt also thinks that society will wake up at some stage to the advantages that Christianity brings to society: believers, she points out, give more to charity and live longer and healthier lives; they are also happier and less likely to commit crime than their irreligious contemporaries. (Remember, she is talking here about trends and statistics involving large groups, not about individuals; just as people recognise some single mothers do a magnificent job raising their children while also accepting the constant findings of surveys that show children with a father and mother and intact families flourish best).
A recent article in National Catholic Register supports Eberstadt’s argument. Titled “Reclaiming the Family: the stakes have never been higher”, its author, Hilary Towers, surveys the gloomy statistics of family breakdown in the US and refers to a letter written by the members of the new organisation Commitment to Marriage which is addressed to the forthcoming Synod of Bishops. The letter, signed by 48 international scholars and marriage advocates, appeals to the Synod: “With your leadership we will help marriages to succeed and flourish by placing the greatest value on marital commitment – at every level of society, in every corner of the world”.
The signatories, who include Mary Eberstadt, Rafael Navarro-Vals (former press secretary to John Paul II) and Ryan T Anderson (well-known for his calm and cogent defence of marriage in the face of mockery from Piers Morgan on his American TV chat show), have many suggestions to make in support of marriage, such as creating small networks of older married couples to act as mentors to young couples at the parish level. They argue that strong marriages have a powerful influence for good through their example and support, just as the prevalence of divorce has a negative effect.
Surely the subject the media is obsessed with right now – the position of divorced and remarried Catholics with regard to the Sacraments – must be low on the scale of priorities facing the forthcoming Synod, when the institution of Christian marriage itself has been so disregarded and undermined that it is almost in need of life support? Eberstadt’s book is a thoughtful reminder that for the faith to survive we all need to defend and support the key component for its transmission: stable, lifelong marriage and family life.