Several presidential election cycles ago, in 2004, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre published a short article, “The Only Vote Worth Casting in November,” arguing that the responsible choice in that election was not to vote at all. “When offered a choice between two politically intolerable alternatives,” he wrote, “it is important to choose neither.” His argument provoked considerable debate. Were the alternatives in fact intolerable? Is our system so broken as that?

Among MacIntyre’s recommendations for redressing the ways in which he considered our system broken was his call for a child-centered politics. In his view, a prime question we should be asking in our political debates is, “What do we owe our children?” His answer is that

we owe them the best chance that we can give them of protection and fostering from the moment of conception onwards. And we can only achieve that if we give them the best chance that we can both of a flourishing family life, in which the work of their parents is fairly and adequately rewarded, and of an education which will enable them to flourish.

It follows, he went on, that our politics must be invested “in providing health care for expectant mothers, in facilitating adoptions, in providing aid for single-parent families and for grandparents who have taken parental responsibility for their grandchildren,” and finally in demanding “the provision of meaningful work that provides a fair and adequate wage for every working parent, a wage sufficient to keep a family well above the poverty line.” Given such prescriptions, it’s understandable why MacIntyre wished a pox on both parties: such a child-centered, pro-life, pro-labor, pro-welfare politics has found a home nowhere among Democrats or Republicans, whether in 2004 or 2016.

The limited political possibilities of today, however, by no means foreclose the political possibilities of tomorrow. As Pope John XXIII reminded the assembled bishops in his opening address to the Second Vatican Council fifty-four years ago, history gives the lie to “prophets of gloom, who are always predicting decay, as if the destruction of all things were at hand.” The student of history knows, by contrast, how much has changed over the millennia, and such knowledge gives us hope that the Spirit is not done with us yet. Yet the “new order” of things Pope John discerned will not come to pass unless we act to facilitate it. To this end, we need to scrutinize the signs of the times, as the council fathers enjoined the church to do in Gaudium et spes.

What, then, are signs of the times that a child-centered politics must address? One critical sign, I propose, is the changing role of the father.

Here’s what Gaudium et spes has to say about fathers:

The family is a kind of school of deeper humanity. But if it is to achieve the full flowering of its life and mission, it needs the kindly communion of minds and the joint deliberation of spouses, as well as the painstaking cooperation of parents in the education of their children. The active presence of the father is highly beneficial to their formation. The children, especially the younger among them, need the care of their mother at home. This domestic role of hers must be safely preserved, though the legitimate social progress of women should not be underrated on that account.

It is worth noting that while the active presence of the mother is taken for granted in these reflections—enfolded within the “domestic role” that Gaudium et spes sets out to safeguard—the active presence of the father is not a given. Instead, that presence must be summoned and encouraged. There was evidently a distance fathers needed to travel.

Several key developments in the fifty-plus years since then measure how far that journey has been accomplished. One is the significant extent to which the roles of mothers and fathers have converged. According to the Pew Research Center, mothers in the United States now do much more paid work than they used to, and fathers do much more housework and child care. Another is the rise of the two-working-parent household—now roughly 60 percent of all two-parent households with children under age eighteen, according to Pew. Moreover, as the New York Times reported in 2015, social scientists have found that “millennial men—ages eighteen to early thirties—have much more egalitarian attitudes about family, career and gender roles [in] marriage than generations before them.” Such attitudes are clearly related to the growth of stay-at-home dads: in 2012, 16 percent of all at-home parents were men, representing a near-doubling since 1989.

To be sure, discrepancies remain in men’s and women’s family roles, and while millennial men have notably egalitarian attitudes about parenting, research shows that work-life conflicts still tend to push women back into the home far more often than men. All in all, though, we might conclude from these findings that, in the United States at least, fathers have answered Gaudium et spes’s call: they are “actively present” in children’s lives to an extent the council fathers didn’t imagine. Yet this is also only half the story, and the other half is not nearly so happy.


TO UNDERSTAND WHY, we need to take other developments into account. One is what the bioethicist, cultural critic, and former Commonweal editor Daniel Callahan called the “infantilization of males,” a phenomenon he linked to the practice of artificial insemination with the sperm of anonymous donors. Since the birth of the first baby through in-vitro fertilization in 1978, this practice has created several million children whose daddy’s name is “Donor,” as one study provocatively put it. Writing in 1992, Callahan viewed the practice as abetting a more general dereliction of male duty, and condemned “using anonymous sperm donors to help women have children apart from a permanent marital relationship with the father” as posing “a long-standing source of harm for women” even as it symbolically attacked the foundations of family life. “What action,” he asked, “could more decisively declare the irrelevance of fatherhood...?” 

Since then, the claim that dads are dispensable has ceased being provocative or controversial, and indeed now seems something of a commonplace. Consider the remarks of actress Jennifer Aniston, who, while promoting her 2010 movie, The Switch, defended her character’s decision to opt for single motherhood via sperm donation. “Women are realizing…more and more,” Aniston mused, “that they don’t have to settle with a man just to have that child.” Data would seem to support this claim. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2013, 34 percent of children lived with a single parent (over 80 percent of whom were women)—up from just 9 percent in 1960. According to the U.S. Census, one in four children under the age of eighteen today—a total of about 17.4 million—are being raised without a father. And while in 1960 only 5.3 percent of all births were to unmarried women, by 2013 it was 40.6 percent. That is a stunning change.

One other statistic has generated a lot of commentary: the fact that, in 2013, about 72 percent of non-Hispanic black births were to unmarried mothers. Why? One answer resides in the mass incarceration of black men over the past forty years. Since the 1970s, the prison population in the United States has quadrupled to 2.2 million, with the number of children with fathers in prison rising from 350,000 to 2.1 million. While black men constitute just 6 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 40 percent of the current prison population; this high rate of incarceration creates a gender gap among men and women in the marriage-age African-American population.

Another factor needs to be taken into account in the overall picture—namely, that the institution of marriage has fallen on hard times. Less and less is it viewed as the only proper context for having children. A 2014 Washington Post article reports that in the early 1990s, a quarter of the single women who got pregnant married the father of their child, while today that figure is down to just over 5 percent—with another 18 percent opting to cohabit with the father without marrying. Against the background of the widespread loss of well-paying, middle-income jobs through globalization, outsourcing, and automation, it seems clear that cohabitation is becoming what social scientists call the poor person’s marriage. “Marriage, as a context for childbearing and childrearing,” the Post article notes, “is increasingly reserved for [our] middle- and upper-class populations.” And cohabitation has proven considerably more fragile than marriage. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, while the probability of a first marriage ending within five years is 20 percent, the same probability for cohabitation is 49 percent. After ten years, the breakup rates rise to 33 percent and 62 percent respectively. Inasmuch as cohabitation is less stable than marriage and most children go with the mother when a relationship ends, more cohabitation ends up meaning less active fathering.

And thus the half of the story that is not nearly so happy. Yes, the father’s role has grown significantly since 1965—in two-parent households. Fathers in those households are actively present in children’s lives to an extent that the Vatican Council fathers could hardly imagine. Yet the two-parent household is less and less the rule, and increasingly reserved, as we have seen, for the better-off. And so the stunning, eightfold increase in births to unmarried women since 1960 translates to a greater absence of fathers for those children who arguably need fathers most: children afflicted by poverty and by the effects of racial discrimination. According to Brad Wilcox’s research for the National Marriage Project, statistics for teen delinquency, depression, and pregnancy all correlate significantly with whether or not a child is living with his or her father. What matters, after all, is not whether the parents are legally married, but whether the father is living with his children. And far too many aren’t.


HOW MIGHT Catholic social teaching about fathers and families best respond to these cultural, social, and political circumstances? I want to make two claims.

The first is that the contemporary church would do well to look to the medieval one. This may sound surprising, since, as the moral theologian Jean Porter has put it, “there is probably no point at which we feel the distance between the [medieval] scholastics and ourselves more sharply than in [the] evaluation of sexuality.” The scholastics had a hard time acknowledging the goodness of sexual desire, which we moderns have a hard time even questioning. Instead, they were concerned—as Augustine had been—about the power of sexual pleasure to distort our reason and will, to blind us to other goods of human life, and to bind us to destructive patterns of behavior. Yet the scholastics were unable to deny the goodness of procreation, by which they understood, Porter writes, not “simply biological reproduction but the extended process by which children are educated and prepared” to participate fully in the life of a community. Commitment to the goodness of procreation followed from the basic faith commitment to the goodness of creation itself.

Put aside whether procreation, in this extended sense, is the only licit purpose of sex, or whether every sex act must be open to it. The important point for the contemporary church is that scholastic natural law with respect to the family took its bearings not from some vision of what marriage or the family or even the sex act must be like: remarkably, medieval natural lawyers were open to entertaining forms of marriage other than one man and one woman, such as polygamy. Instead, it derived from a concern that procreation be served—which is to say, that children be enabled to flourish and develop appropriately into adults. From this perspective, Pope Francis is being medieval (in a good sense) when he decries those who “insist only on issues like abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods,” and asserts instead that “when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context.” Context in this regard includes both the good news of God’s saving love and mercy, as Francis is always keen to proclaim, and the bad news of our politics’ failure to focus on ensuring the well-being of our children. And that failure is exactly what Catholic social teaching today must help correct.

My second claim is that—as some Catholics might reply to Francis—when we put what has happened to the family and fatherhood over the past fifty years into context, we have to include issues like abortion and contraception. It’s not only structural causes such as job loss and welfare policy that explain the erosion of marriage and the stunning increase of out-of-wedlock births. There are moral and cultural changes that must also be reckoned with.

Twenty years ago, a paper co-authored by Janet Yellen, current chair of the Federal Reserve, made just this argument. According to Yellen’s paper, “the magnitude of [the] changes” to family structure cannot be explained either by the expansion of the welfare state in the 1960s or the decline in jobs for less-educated men since then. Yellen and her co-authors proposed a “technology shock” explanation, zeroing in on the increased availability of contraception and legal abortion as factors that profoundly changed relations between men and women. Access to contraception and abortion, they argued, freed women to engage in premarital sex without fear of consequences, and as a result, “the norm of premarital sexual abstinence all but vanished.” This change proved problematic for those women who lack access to contraception—or don’t use it effectively—and are unwilling to have an abortion. Such women, said Yellen and her co-authors, are at a competitive disadvantage: amid changed sexual mores, they are badly positioned to leverage “the promise of marriage in the event of a pre-marital conception.” Instead, Yellen and her co-authors argued, the man involved is likely to reason as follows: “‘If she is not willing to obtain an abortion or use contraception, why should I sacrifice myself to get married?’”

Whatever the limits of such explanations might be, certainly those who would hold men responsible for the children they help bring into being have reason to be wary of arguments that cast abortion as the rightful choice of women no matter the moral status of the fetus. As the philosopher Elizabeth Brake has argued, “if women’s partial responsibility for pregnancy does not obligate them to support a fetus, then men’s partial responsibility for pregnancy does not obligate them to support a resulting child.” Put simply, if a woman may morally choose to abort an unborn child, then a man should be able to choose not to parent that child—a choice that in fact seems modest next to the woman’s power over the unborn child’s life and death. The director of the New York–based National Center for Men speaks in this regard, inelegantly, of a man’s right to a “financial abortion.”

It will strike some as paradoxical that the church’s greatest contribution to the lives of women over these past fifty years may have been its opposition to abortion on demand. Yet should abortion come to be seen as a morally indifferent act, many people will arrive inevitably at the belief that it is unfair to hold a man responsible for a woman’s choice to carry a pregnancy to term. Pope Francis has remarked along these lines that the church’s defense of unborn human life is not “subject to alleged reforms or ‘modernizations,’” dismissing the notion that one can “resolve problems by eliminating a human life.”

To be sure, holding the line against abortion on demand is not the same as helping women and children. Nor will sounding the trumpet for a renewal of character suffice. The sexual revolution of the 1960s is not about to be overturned, nor is economic globalization likely to be reversed. So what, concretely, is the church to do? One answer Francis has given us is to cultivate “the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful.” The church, he counsels, “needs nearness, proximity”; it needs to serve as “a field hospital” for the many wounded in our world.

How to do this? Indeed, how might we go even further, and advocate for preventive care, so to speak? One clear step, I think, is to call an end to the culture war over marriage, a war that is not merely beside the point, but antithetical to the kind of child-centered politics advocated by Alasdair MacIntyre in the essay I started off with. As for MacIntyre, in that brief essay he goes on to offer a very far-reaching proposal. Reminding us that “the costs of economic growth are generally borne by those least able to afford them,” while “the majority of the benefits of economic growth go to those who need them least,” he puts forth a never-realized idea of Milton Friedman’s: a negative income tax, which would provide payments to all families below a certain income level. Securing a sufficient minimum living for every family, McIntyre writes, would represent “a large and just redistribution of income” in the United States.

Supporting such a policy would require a politician to acknowledge, as MacIntyre argues, that “the pro-life case” and “the case for economic justice...are inseparable, that each requires the other as its complement” in the formation of a truly child-centered politics. Now that is a candidate I for one would gladly cast my vote for, this November or any other. And do our children deserve any less? 

Bernard G. Prusak holds the Raymond and Eleanor Smiley Chair in Business Ethics at John Carroll University.

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