Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Secular Social Science Vindicates Catholic Moral Teaching / Important Evangelical Protestants Rethinking Contraception (W. Bradford Wilcox)

I ran across a superb article in Touchstone: The Facts of Life & Marriage: Social Science & the Vindication of Christian Moral Teaching, by W. Bradford Wilcox (apparently a Catholic, but Touchstone is not an exclusively Catholic magazine): Jan / Feb 2005. It offers the type of sociology that is both extremely interesting and helpful (unlike the nonsense that too often dominates that field of study: my own major, to my regret). Here are some highlights (but you definitely want to read the whole thing; this is dynamite, penetratingly insightful stuff).

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[T]he accommodationist agenda is based on bad social science. When most of these intellectuals were in their prime, the best social science suggested that the ideal posture of the church to "family change," as it was euphemistically called, was one of acceptance and support. But contemporary social science on the contentious issues of our time - such as contraception, divorce, and cohabitation - suggests just the opposite conclusion. The shifts in sexual and familial behavior to which these dissenters would like the church to accommodate herself have been revealed in study after study to be social catastrophes.

Let me be perfectly clear: The leading scholars who have tackled these topics are not Christians, and most of them are not political or social conservatives. They are, rather, honest social scientists willing to follow the data wherever it may lead. And the data has, as we shall see, largely vindicated Christian moral teaching on sex and marriage. So the intellectual foundation for dissent on moral matters is collapsing.



. . . [Catholic liberal priest Andrew] Greeley does not reconcile his polling data with what he knows the sociological data says about the consequences of widespread contraception in the United States. What does this data tell us? Well, scholars from Robert Michael at Greeley's own University of Chicago to George Akerlof at the University of California at Berkeley argue that contraception played a central role in launching the sexual and divorce revolutions of the late twentieth century. 

Michael has argued that about half of the increase in divorce from 1965 to 1976 can be attributed to the "unexpected nature of the contraceptive revolution" - especially in the way that it made marriages less child-centered. Akerlof argues that the availability first of contraception and then of abortion in the 1960s and 1970s was one of the crucial factors fueling the sexual revolution and the collapse of marriage among the working class and the poor. 


I will focus on Akerlof's scholarship. George Akerlof is a Nobel prize-winning economist, a professor at Berkeley, and a former fellow at the Brookings Institution; he is not a conservative. In two articles in leading economic journals, Akerlof details findings and advances arguments that vindicate Paul VI's prophetic warnings about the social consequences of contraception for morality and men.


In his first article, published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 1996, Akerlof began by asking why the United States witnessed such a dramatic increase in illegitimacy from 1965 to 1990 - from 24 percent to 64 percent among African-Americans, and from 3 percent to 18 percent among whites. He noted that public health advocates had predicted that the widespread availability of contraception and abortion would reduce illegitimacy, not increase it. So what happened?

Using the language of economics, Akerlof pointed out that "technological innovation creates both winners and losers." In this case the introduction of widespread effective contraception - especially the pill - put traditional women with an interest in marriage and children at "competitive disadvantage" in the relationship "market" compared to modern women who took a more hedonistic approach to sex and relationships. The contraceptive revolution also reduced the costs of sex for women and men, insofar as the threat of childbearing was taken off the table, especially as abortion became widely available in the 1970s.

The consequence? Traditional women could no longer hold the threat of pregnancy over their male partners, either to avoid sex or to elicit a promise of marriage in the event their partner made them pregnant. And modern women no longer worried about getting pregnant. Accordingly, more and more women (traditional as well as modern) gave in to their boyfriends' entreaties for sex.

In Akerlof's words, "the norm of premarital sexual abstinence all but vanished in the wake of the technology shock." Women felt free or obligated to have sex before marriage. For instance, Akerlof finds that the percentage of girls 16 and under reporting sexual activity surged in 1970 and 1971 as contraception and abortion became common in many states throughout the country.


Thus, the sexual revolution left traditional or moderate women who wanted to avoid premarital sex or contraception "immiserated" because they could not compete with women who had no serious objection to premarital sex, and they could no longer elicit a promise of marriage from boyfriends in the event they got pregnant.

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In his second article, published in The Economic Journal in 1998, Akerlof argues that another key outworking of the contraceptive revolution was the disappearance of marriage - shotgun and otherwise - for men. Contraception and abortion allowed men to put off marriage, even in cases where they had fathered a child. Consequently, the fraction of young men who were married in the United States dropped precipitously. Between 1968 and 1993 the percentage of men 25 to 34 who were married with children fell from 66 percent to 40 percent. Accordingly, young men did not benefit from the domesticating influence of wives and children.

Instead, they could continue to hang out with their young male friends, and were thus more vulnerable to the drinking, partying, tomcatting, and worse that is associated with unsupervised groups of young men. Absent the domesticating influence of marriage and children, young men - especially men from working-class and poor families - were more likely to respond to the lure of the street. Akerlof noted, for instance, that substance abuse and incarceration more than doubled from 1968 to 1998. Moreover, his statistical models indicate that the growth in single men in this period was indeed linked to higher rates of substance abuse, arrests for violent crimes, and drinking.

From this research, Akerlof concluded by arguing that the contraceptive revolution played a key, albeit indirect, role in the dramatic increase in social pathology and poverty this country witnessed in the 1970s; it did so by fostering sexual license, poisoning the relations between men and women, and weakening the marital vow.

. . . the bottom line is this: The research of Nobel-prize-winning economist George Akerlof suggests that the tragic outworkings of the contraceptive revolution were sexual license, family dissolution, crime, and poisoned relations between the sexes - and that the poor have paid the heaviest price for this revolution. This research suggests that the Catholic Church's firm commitment to the moral law in the face of dramatic and widespread dissent from within and without is being vindicated in precincts that are not normally seen as sympathetic to Catholic teaching. 



This research also suggests that the dissenting agenda advanced by people like Andrew Greeley amounts to a false compassion. Greeley is right to claim that the Holy Spirit speaks through people's experiences; but a sober look at our experience with contraception reveals that the Catholic Church's magisterium, and the Christian tradition it conveys, best advances the earthly happiness of men, women, and children, not contraception.


. . . Numerous scholars - from Leora Friedberg at the University of Virginia to Nicholas Wolfinger at the University of Utah - have shown that divorce does in fact function as a social plague. Friedberg showed that passage of no-fault divorce laws in the 1970s accelerated the pace of divorce by about 17 percent between 1968 and 1988. Wolfinger showed that a parental divorce increases the children's chance of later being divorced themselves by more than 50 percent, and is by far one of the most potent predictors of divorce. We can see that Pope John Paul II is right when he says that divorce "has devastating consequences that spread in society like the plague."


. . . Sara McLanahan, a professor of sociology at Princeton . . . came to the conclusion that the social and emotional consequences of divorce also played a key role in explaining the negative outcomes of divorce. She also found that remarriage was, on average, no help to children affected by divorce.


. . . So what effects did she find? Children from divorced families are more likely to drop out of high school: [17% compared to 9%] . . . Girls raised in divorced families are more likely to have a nonmarital birth while in their teens: [15% compared to 9%] . . . boys raised outside of an intact nuclear family are more than twice as likely as other boys to end up in prison, even controlling for a range of social and economic factors . . . "Remarriage neither reduces nor improves a child’s chances of graduating from high school or avoiding a teenage birth."


. . . Besides Akerlof and McLanahan, scholars like Linda Waite at the University of Chicago, Robert Lerman at the Urban Institute, Isabel Sawhill at the Brookings Institution, and Norval Glenn at the University of Texas have all underlined the importance of marriage in recent years. Their willingness to speak up on behalf of the unvarnished truth - the truth written on our hearts, and the truth evident for all to see in our statistical models - suggests that the intellectual foundations of dissent are crumbling before our very eyes.

Second, there is a new openness among Evangelical Protestant scholars and leaders to the truth and wisdom of the ancient Christian teaching against contraception. Among others, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Seminary, Reformed Theological Seminary professor Harold O. J. Brown, and Evangelical theologian J. I. Packer [emphases added] have raised serious concerns about the moral permissibility and social consequences of contraception. For instance, in a recent symposium on contraception in First Things, Mohler wrote:
Thirty years of sad experience demonstrate that Humanae Vitae [correctly] sounded the alarm, warning of a contraceptive mentality that would set loose immeasurable evil as modern birth control methods allowed seemingly risk-free sex outside the integrity of the marital bond. At the same time, it allowed married couples to completely sever the sex act from procreation, and God's design for the marital bond. . . . Standing against the spirit of the age, evangelicals and Roman Catholics must affirm that children are God's good gifts and blessings to the marital bond. Further, we must affirm that marriage falls short of God's design when husband and wife are not open to the gift and stewardship of children.
This intellectual opening, itself a product of Evangelical Protestants' growing appreciation of the ways in which the contraceptive mentality is connected to dramatic increases in sexual promiscuity, divorce, and abortion, represents an important opportunity for orthodox Protestants and Catholics to work together in recovering and rehabilitating Christian moral teaching about sex and the family.



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W. Bradford Wilcox is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and the author of Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands (University of Chicago Press, 2004).



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