John Stuart Mill’s ideal of marriage as “a private, bargained-for exchange between husband and wife about all their rights, goods, and interests” has become a legal reality in contemporary America…But John Locke’s warning, echoing Thomas Aquinas, that the private contractualization of marriage will bring injustice and sometimes ruin to many women and children has also become a reality in America. Premarital, marital, separation, and divorce agreements too often are not arm’s-length transactions, and too often are not driven by rational-calculus alone, however much courts and mediators insist that they are. In the heady romance of budding nuptials, parties are often blind to the full consequences of their bargain. In the emotional anguish of separation and divorce, parties can be driven more by the desire for short-term relief from the other spouse than by the concern for their own long-term welfare or that of their children. The economically stronger and more calculating spouse triumphs in these contexts. And in the majority of cases today, that party is still the man, despite the loud egalitarian rhetoric to the contrary.

“Underneath the mantle of equality [and freedom] that has been draped over the ongoing family, the state of nature flourishes,” Mary Ann Glendon writes ominously. In this state of nature, contractual freedom and sexual privacy reign supreme, with no real role for the state, church, or broader civil society to play. In this state of nature, married life has become increasingly “brutish, nasty, and short,” with women and children bearing the primary costs. The very contractarian gospel that first promised salvation from the abuses of earlier Christian models of marriage now threatens with even graver abuse.

Recall the statistics we recounted in the preface to this volume. Since 1975, roughly one-quarter of all pregnancies in America were aborted. One-third of all children were born to single mothers. One-half of all marriages ended in divorce. Two-thirds of all African American children were raised without fathers in their homes. Single mothers faced four times the rates of poverty, bankruptcy, and foreclosure. Children from broken homes were much more likely to have behavioral and learning problems, and suffered four times the rate of serious sexual or physical abuse. More than two-thirds of all juveniles and young adults convicted of major felonies since 1975 have come from single- or no-parent homes. While these numbers have improved somewhat in the past decade – owing in part to a strong new family-education movement and new family-policy initiatives – the burden of the modern family’s breakdown falls disproportionately on women and children.  

The modern welfare state has softened and spread out the costs of marital and family breakdown over the past two generations by supplying nonmarital children, single mothers, abandoned spouses, and aged parents with resources and services traditionally supplied principally by their own natural kin. These are valuable advances that promote social justice and greater happiness for all. But the modern welfare state remains an expensive and risky modern experiment: it is not clear that it is a sustainable long-term solution even for the affluent West, let alone for underdeveloped or developing countries. In America today, those who depend on state social welfare often face bitter financial and emotional hardship and endless bureaucratic wrangling, and basic health insurance and decent public education are still beyond the reach of tens of millions. Better social welfare and health insurance systems are in place in Europe today. But these, too, depend on high median wealth in the population, all of which can disappear quickly, as the threats and realities of national bankruptcy in Iceland, Ireland, Greece, Spain, and italy have recently reminded the world.

Perhaps we are simply witnessing today the birth pangs of a new marriage order that will feature the final removal of sexual stereotyping and exploitation; the real achievement of distributive justice to women, children, and the poor; the sensible pluralization of Western marriage laws to accommodate new global patterns of sexuality, kinship, and bonding. These are goals to which the Western legal tradition of marriage must surely aspire. And as Harold Berman reminds us, great legal revolutions always pass through radical phases before they reach and accommodation with the tradition that they had set out to destroy.

It is hard to see the promise of these future benefits, however, in the current phase of the legal revolution in America. The rudimentary disquisitions on equality, privacy, and freedom offered by courts and commentators today seem altogether too lean to nourish the legal revolution of marriage and the family that is now taking place. The elementary deconstructions and dismissals of a millenium-long tradition of marriage and family law and life seem altogether too glib to be taken so seriously. The growing academic calls for the abolition of marriage seem so blind to the needs of children and to the dangers of depending on the benevolence of the state to carry on the work traditionally left to natural kinship networks.

John Witte Jr., From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion, and Law in the Western Tradition, 2nd edition (2012)


One initial difference is that in the confessional tradition only men are named as witnesses, whereas in the narrative tradition women play a key role, indeed they take precedence over the men. This may be linked to the fact that in the Jewish tradition only men could be admitted as witnesses in court – the testimonies of women was considered unreliable. So the “official” tradition, which is, so to speak, addressing the court of Israel and the court of the world, has to observe this norm if it is to prevail in what we might describe as Jesus’ ongoing trial.

The narratives, on the other hand, do not feel bound by this juridical structure, but they communicate the whole breadth of the Resurrection experience. Just as there were only women standing by the Cross – apart from the beloved disciple – so too the first encounter with the risen Lord was destined to be for them. The Church’s juridical structure is founded on Peter and the Eleven, but in the day-to-day life of the Church it is the women who are constantly opening the door to the Lord and accompanying him to the Cross, and so it is they who come to experience the Risen One.

Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection (2011)

It’s not that the world of work is closed to women. The problem is that women can’t seem to change the world of work. Either you accept its rules, its rhythms, and its hours or you’re out. […]

Every time the issue of flexibility for working moms is discussed in newspaper articles or in public debate, the talk is always of building more preschools, never about real flexibility in work practices. Building even more preschools to leave your three-month-old baby is not the kind of help working mothers need. Equal opportunities would really be promoted by allowing a mother to stay off work to look after her young children rather than killing herself both in the home and outside the home, leaving her hungry baby in the hands of someone else.

It seems clear to me, therefore, that women cannot work the same way that men do; they have to find their own way, one that is designed around them and fits their needs. It’s not right to force people to choose all the time – you need to accept the rules, the timetable, and the ways of male colleagues and forget everything that’s happening at home. If not, you’re out!

My friend tells me that in many offices, the amount of time they spend in front of the computer is the main consideration, even if they are surfing the Internet, playing solitaire, reading horoscopes, writing distant relatives and unlikely friends, or taking endless trips to the vending machine…A woman with a thousand things to do at home will always try, where possible, to concentrate on her work and cut out any time-wasting activities so she can get home earlier. It’s just that for some perverse reason that my poor mind is incapable of comprehending, this ability to do the same amount of work in a shorter space of time is not considered an attribute but a limitation. With that logic, prevailing women are always going to suffer.

As long as working arrangements continue as they are, failing to integrate family life and working life, lacking in flexibility and intelligence, and ignoring the interests of those very children that they are always boasting that they want to protect but that they really don’t care about, women will be obliged to pay a very high price on the altar of work sacrifice or give up and walk away.

Costanza Miriano, Marry Him and Be Submissive (2016)

There are jobs and there are jobs. I recognize that. Often a job is just a way of making money, an indispensable necessity to allow a decent standard of living…There are other jobs, though, which are taken on mainly to provide satisfaction and to improve living standards, and I sense they are more common than we might think. In such cases, slowing down on the career treadmill when the kids come along is a duty, and those who refuse to do so are simply being selfish, and I use that word advisedly.

Costanza Miriano, Marry Him and Be Submissive (2016)

Not sharing absolutely everything (and by that I mean the least attractive elements of our personality) is, I believe, a good rule to follow. Not all anxieties need to be voiced openly as soon as they arise…Not every bad mood has to be revealed openly. Not every limit of good behavior needs to be thrown off because we are put to the test by the upheaval of a new lifestyle.

Costanza Miriano, Marry Him and Be Submissive (2016)

Those couples who thrive, who learn to give of themselves, don’t give up on pleasure. It’s just that sometimes they need to have a little patience and take the necessary time and make the necessary effort to find that pleasure, peeling it like a sweet fruit consumed amid the complications of everyday life. This wonderful challenge is never experienced by those who live in a world of casual encounters and who imagine their own little love stories untouched by the messiness of everyday life. Theirs seems to be a fabulous way of living: glittering, happy, free, and carefree. But if truth be told, I see none of that in those who have lived through this experience. Rather, those who have trivialized sex find it hasn’t done them any good. Where there is no boundary, where nothing is off limits, where there is no experience of the “sacred risk” of conceiving a child, and where there is no sense of achievement (because what we wanted to achieve has been available to us from an early age, at no great effort to ourselves), there’s very little left to be proud of.

We women are more responsible for this state of play than men. Thinking we were emancipating ourselves, we’ve sold out, as we say in Italy, “for a plate of lentils.” What we’ve done is accept the male view of sexuality, hook, line, and sinker. We were the custodians of life, but not anymore. We are emancipated, that’s true. We no longer depend on anyone. But in return, we run the very real risk of losing that total reciprocal self-giving between two people that we long for and desire, written, as it is, into our DNA.

The result is that in exchange for our newfound freedom, we are the first to suffer. We are suffering and the whole world is suffering, because if we won’t do it, who will guard love for life?

Costanza Miriano, Marry Him and Be Submissive (2016)

The other temptation you can fall into is giving way to your fantasies, inventing relationships with people you don’t actually know and whom you can mold to suit your preferences. That way you don’t have the hassle of having to confront the reality of the person – which is always a bit messy and sometimes a really unpleasant screw-up.

There’s the other option – and this is the one men tend to go for – of throwing themselves into work, anything to get out of the house and avoid working on a relationship that’s in need of repair – as though any relationship didn’t need regular servicing.

We women, on the other hand, tend to escape from our husbands by dedicating ourselves body and soul to the children, and here the risk is more subtle, because no one is ever going to accuse you of being too devoted a mother. It may be relatively easy to have custody of the heart, to stop it beating for other men, but children can sometimes take the place of the man in your life even without you realizing it.

Costanza Miriano, Marry Him and Be Submissive (2016)

On Wednesday, the even of St. Vitus day…the wicked women [mothers of three of the nuns] sent word to me an hour before meal time that they would come before dinner and remove their children. […] Then the women used kind words and ordered the children to leave. If, however, they would not go willingly, they would be removed by force. Then the brave knights of Christ defended themselves by word and deed as much as they could with great weeping, screaming, pleading and begging, but there was less mercy there than in hell. […]

Every mother argued with her daughter. For a while they promised them a great deal and then for a while they threatened them a great deal. The children, however, continued to weep loudly. The arguing and shouting lasted a long time. Katherina Ebner spoke very courageously and constantly supported all her words with the Holy Scripture. She found errors in all their statements and told them how much their actions ran contrary to the Holy Gospel. Afterwards outside the men said they had never heard anything like that their whole lives. She had just spoken the whole hour without interruption. Not a word was wasted. Each word was so well chosen that it carried the weight of several words. […]

Katharina Ebner said, “Here I stand and will not yield. No one shall be able to force me out. If I am removed by force, however, it shall never be by my will in eternity. I will appeal to God in heaven and to all the world on earth.” When she was speaking Held took her under his arms and began to pull and drag her away. Then I ran away with the other sisters, for I could not watch this misery. Some sisters stopped at the chapel door. They heard the quarreling, shouting and dragging away amid the great screaming and weeping of the children. Four people grabbed each one with two pulling in front and two pushing from behind. And so the dear sisters Ebner and Teztel fell over each other at the threshold. Poor sister Teztel almost had her foot severed. The wicked women stood there and blessed their daughters as they came out in accordance to all their rituals.

Frau Ebner threatened her daughter that if she did not walk before her she would push her down the stairs to the pulpit. She threatened to throw her on the floor so hard that she would bounce. When they broke into the church amid much cursing and swearing, an incredible screaming, shouting and weeping began before they tore off the old garments of our order and dressed them with worldly clothes…The poor children cried out loudly to the people and complained that they were suffering abuse and injustice and that they had been taken from the cloister by force. Clara Nutzel called out loudly, “O beautiful Mother of God, you know this is not my will.” As they rode away many hundreds of boys and other people ran after each coach. Our children screamed and wept loudly. Frau Ebner struck her little Katharina on the mouth so that it began to bleed. When each coach arrived at her father’s house, each child began to scream and weep all over again so that the people had great pity for them.

Caritas Pirckheimer: A Journal of the Reformation Years 1524-1528, transl. by Paul MacKenzie (2006)

As we were coming out of Lent in misery and distress, things got much worse after Easter. On the Friday of Easter Week all the priests were summoned to the city hall and forbidden to celebrate the Latin mass…All lay priests and the priests in the monasteries with the exception of those in the parishes were forbidden to hear confession and to dispense the sacraments. […]

And so we were in great fear and distress and every day we expected even more misfortune. We crouched down and bent down so much that we could hardly hold divine services or ring the bells in the choir. Whenever they heard anything from us, cursing, shouting and abuse would start up in the church. They threw stones into our choir and smashed the windows in the church and sang slanderous songs in the churchyard. They frequently threatened that if we rang for Matins one more night they would do something terrible to us.

But we risked it, trusting in the Grace of God, and not for one night did we stop ringing the bells or holding Matins.

Caritas Pirckheimer: A Journal of the Reformation Years 1524-1528, transl. by Paul MacKenzie (2006)

Then he wanted to argue for a considerable time that we should receive the Holy Sacrament in both kinds in addition to other ideas. But I would not accede to him. I said we were simple, uneducated women and would leave such things to the learned men and until there was unity in the Church we preferred to stay with the old faith [Catholicism] and not be drive off by anyone [Protestant reformers]. Then he wanted to know how I liked his preacher from St. Giles. He could get no other answer from me but that I liked one as much as the other. (48) […]

I spoke again. We are Sisters of Saint Claire and not Carthusians. Therefore we want no Carthusians [who had become Lutherans], for we would probably have to accept his order too. Then the superintendent spoke. He would guarantee that he would not remain a Carthusian or a monk and would not keep his habit. Then I answered. Then let death confess to him! Are we to confess to a faithless apostate? If he does not keep his faith with God, how is he to display faith to us?

Footnote 48: Here Caritas is making a classic “left-handed compliment.” The truth was, of course, that she did not like any of them.

Caritas Pirckheimer: A Journal of the Reformation Years 1524-1528, transl. by Paul MacKenzie (2006)