"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Christ the King, freedom, and divorce

For today's feast, Fr. Philip Powell, OP, preaches:

Paul reminds us and we cannot forget: “…in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible…all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Christ the Crucified rules from his cross because in him “all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him…” Christ for us is everything. There can for us be no appeal to economic efficiency, political expediency, popular demand, or incremental progress. Christ rules by transforming cold hearts, by turning hard heads, by overthrowing obstinate wills; he rules in virtue, in strength, by being for us weak in condemnation and mighty in compassion. And we, as his body, his members can be nothing less, nothing weaker. We are subjects of a Crucified King.

I want to offer a meditation on how American Christians of all churches need to see that in relation to what is thought of as "freedom"—especially with regard to the basis of the family, which in turn is the basis of civil society.

Let's start with a set of facts that are becoming increasingly difficult to deny or even hide from: what Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse calls, in the current issue of the National Catholic Register, "the perverse incentives" of our family-law system. As I argued last July 4, the way such matters as divorce, custody, domestic violence, and child support are being handled in this country signifies a steady erosion of personal freedom in the name of a legal regime that was originally supposed to enhance personal freedom. Taking her cue from Dr. Stephen Baskerville's hard-hitting, well-argued book Taken into Custody: The War Against Fatherhood, Marriage, and the Family, she writes:

First, no-fault divorce frequently means unilateral divorce: One party wants a divorce against the wishes of the other, who wants to stay married. This fact means that the divorce has to be enforced. The coercive machinery of the state is wheeled into action to separate the reluctantly divorced party from the joint assets of the marriage, typically the home and the children. Involving the family court in the minutiae of family life amounts to an unprecedented blurring of the boundaries between public and private life. People under the jurisdiction of the family courts can have virtually all of their private lives subject to its scrutiny. If the courts are influenced by feminist ideology, that ideology can extend its reach into every bedroom and kitchen in America. Thus, the social experiment of no-fault divorce, which was supposed to increase personal liberty has had the unintended consequence of empowering the state.

That has happened to millions of people; men especially are subject to such coercion. Most of us hate it. What I didn't realize, however, is that the people who most directly exercise the authority in this system hate it too. Roback Morse continues (emphasis added):

I had an unusual opportunity to see this first-hand last summer when I did a Continuing Legal Education workshop for judges. Most of the judges had significant experience with family courts, so they were unusually well-informed. My audiences are usually amazed when I point out that family courts perpetrate greater invasions of personal privacy than any other governmental agency. Not the judges. I had expected some resistance from them on this point. After all, they are the ones doing the intruding.

When I ran through my usual litany of courts telling fathers how much money they have to spend, how little time they get to spend with their kids and who gets to spend Christmas Day with the kids, the judges were all shaking their heads. I asked: “So, do you enjoy that part of your jobs?” The audible moaning said it all: They hate that part of their jobs.

Audiences are sometimes surprised to learn that women initiate most divorces. They are even more surprised when I tell them that women aren’t necessarily worse off economically after divorce. After all, “the most quoted demographic statistic of the 1980s” was the claim that women’s standard of living falls by 73% after divorce, while men’s rises by 42%.

I usually have to take some time to refute that claim. But the judges already knew that. They all started shaking their heads when I flashed those statistics on the screen for the purpose of refuting them. One of the judges got exasperated. He stood up and said, with obvious disgust in his voice, “These women want me to throw their husbands out of the house, make him pay child support, while she keeps the kids to raise herself without interference from him.”

General nods of agreement all around the room. No fathers’ rights advocate could have said it better.

And it's not just the judges:

The court-appointed therapists, the domestic violence experts, the visitation supervisors, the teachers of parenting classes, all these experts seem to be there to help divorcing families. But on Baskerville’s telling, they simply extract additional payments from the family, and do nothing to save the marriage. He reports that even mediators find that they are not allowed to try to preserve the marriage. Their role is simply to talk the reluctant party into acquiescing. Baskerville represents all these professionals, including the lawyers and judges, as having a self-interested motive in stoking the flames of personal resentments and maintaining the divorce industry...

I have also talked to many family law attorneys who are fed up with narcissistic and myopic clients. How can it be that all these people are keeping the system going out of their own self-interest, and yet profess disdain for that same system?

I think the answer lies in what economists call perverse incentives.

No one likes the actual outcome of the system, but no one has an incentive or the ability to change it. So people go along, following the rules as laid down, trying to make marginal improvements to the best of their ability, and still being sickened by the whole sight. The incentives are so perverse that it is as if everyone were motivated by a desire to create as many divorces as possible.

So that's what it's come to in this country: in the name of freedom, justice, and "the best interests of the children," we are destroying the basic unit of civil society by means that hardly anybody likes yet most everybody feels helpless to change. We are all becoming prisoners of evil. What better evidence can there be that the wrong king is ruling our hearts? Make no mistake: if we continue on our present path, our society is doomed.

In the long run, the only alternative is to let the right King rule in our hearts. Marriages need to be saved, not destroyed. The incentives—legal, financial, therapeutic, religious—need to reflect that. But what's needed can only occur if all involved emulate the Crucified King. That cannot be begin with legislation and coercion: it must begin with conversion of hearts, one at a time; only if that happens on a large scale can the legal system be changed to reflect it. Only then can true freedom survive. This feast of Christ the King, that is what I pray for. I offer my prayer for all those, including myself, who have been part of the problem.

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