To Make a Family–an interview with Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse
by Marcia Segelstein
This article was first published at Salvo Magazine in September 2012.
While her academic credentials are impressive enough to be intimidating, Jennifer Roback Morse’s demeanor is anything but. She manages the not-so-simple task of being warm and genuinely friendly while speaking boldly and knowledgably about some of the most hot-button issues of the day.
Morse earned her Ph.D. in economics from the University of Rochester, spent a postdoctoral year at the University of Chicago, and taught economics for fifteen years at Yale University and George Mason University. She’s the author of two books: Love and Economics, recently reissued with a new subtitle, It Takes a Family to Raise a Village, and Smart Sex: Finding Lifelong Love in a Hook-Up World.
She is the founder and president of the Ruth Institute, which seeks “to promote lifelong married love to college students by creating an intellectual and social climate favorable to marriage.” To that end, Morse is a regular contributor to National Review Online, National Catholic Register, and TownHall, is a frequent speaker on college campuses and at other venues, and maintains a topical and engaging website at the Ruth Institute (ruthinstitute.org). She played a key role in the Proposition 8 battle to uphold the legal definition of marriage in California and continues to be on the front lines of the fight for natural marriage.
Dr. Morse spoke to Salvo about what changed the trajectory of her life, whether she’s optimistic or pessimistic about the future, and what keeps her awake at night.
One of your published biographies says that the experience of infertility brought you back to the practice of the Catholic faith after several years away from it. How did that happen?
Infertility was the first time in my adult life when I couldn’t get what I wanted by trying harder, and being smart, and following all the rules. When it came to something that really mattered to me, I just couldn’t make it happen. And that made it clear to me in a way that nothing else could that I was not the center of the universe, my will was not the center of the universe, and there was something bigger than me out there. So that brought me back to the practice of the faith.
Ultimately, you and your husband did become parents, adopting a two-year-old boy from Eastern Europe and having a baby girl in the same year. How did the experience of having children affect the direction of your life?
My husband and I were able to see from that experience what a difference it makes when you have a mother and a father in a child’s life. Our son, and the other children who came from Eastern Europe around the same time, were dealing with a whole set of issues related to social and psychological deprivation. So it became really clear that mothers and fathers are doing an enormous service to the whole world and that everybody’s taking that for granted. That kind of woke me out of my slumber. There was an entire sector of human existence that was not being taken with the seriousness that it deserved.
I think the whole sexual revolution has been a disaster. But I would never have seen any of that if it hadn’t been for my kids. When you have a child whose needs are as great as our little boy’s were, any fears that might have prevented me from re-examining all the premises of the sexual revolution, all those self-defensive mechanisms, were completely overridden by the desperation of the situation we had. Our son has been a complete gift in that respect. God used that little boy to shine the light on so many things for us and to change our lives in so many ways.
If a young, smart, female college graduate asked you what’s important in life, what her priorities should be, what would you tell her?
In fact, just a few days ago I was talking with a young woman who was a recent graduate of an Ivy League university. She was a very smart woman, a devout Evangelical Christian, married to a really good guy, with a new baby. She talked to me about how conflicted she feels about wanting to be with her baby but thinking that maybe God wants her to be in the workplace, since she has talents and skills. She and many of her friends felt this conflict between their desire to be with their children and their desire to work.
Finally I said to her, “You have just very clearly said that you want to be with your baby. My advice is to go with that. Accept that, for this season of your life, that’s what you’re going to be doing. All the things you learned in your Ivy League education, and all the skills you have, will still be there when your kids grow up and leave home.” It breaks my heart that in our culture we have told women that they should be questioning themselves, or somehow ashamed of themselves, if they want to take care of their babies. That is just wrong.
The stated goal of the Ruth Institute is to promote lifelong married love to young people. What prompted you to start it?
I started it because I could see that there was a need for more than just me trying to get this message out. I could see that women, and men, too, were responding well to what I had to say but there was just way more work to get done than one person could do. And the basis for stating the goal in those terms, which came from the genius of Pope John Paul II, was to stop talking about all the prohibitions of Christianity. So instead of talking about being against divorce or against cohabitation or against premarital sex, let’s talk about what we positively want. His insight was to say that all those prohibitions point to something positive. People want reliable, permanent love. Let’s make people hopeful, because if you’re hopeful that you’re building toward something positive, then it’s easier to say no to things that are in the way. You have to have the positive image of where it’s all headed.
You’ve become a go-to person on the topic of same-sex marriage. People often argue that we should just let same-sex couples do what they want, since they’re not hurting anyone. What do you say to them?
We actually are allowing them to do whatever they want. What we’re not allowing them to do is redefine the institution of marriage to be a genderless institution. We’re not allowing them to take over the primary institution of society, which defines parenthood and defines the relationships between the generations.
Many arguments around this issue are confused between the personal, private purposes of marriage and the public purpose of the institution of marriage. The public purpose of marriage is to attach mothers and fathers to their children and to one another. It’s an issue of justice that everybody in society recognizes, that these two people are the parents of the child and nobody else is. Not grandma or the babysitter or a previous boyfriend, or all the people who might possibly show up wanting to be the parent. No. These two people are the parents of the child. That’s what marriage is designed to do: to attach to the biological mother the man who is the father of her child. And the marriage institution has social and legal norms of sexual exclusivity and permanence attached to it. Those are key features of marriage.
If you look at same-sex couples, both at what they say and their behavior, neither permanence nor sexual exclusivity plays the same significant role. In other words, if you’re in a union that’s intrinsically not procreative, sexual exclusivity is not as important. Once you start thinking like that, you’ll see that everything people offer as reasons why same-sex couples should be “allowed” to get married—all of the reasons are private purposes. Sometimes it’s nothing more than how it will make them feel. It’s not the business of law to make people feel a certain way. When you see that redefining marriage is going to, in fact, redefine the meaning of parenthood, removing biology as the basis for parenthood and replacing it with legal constructions—then you see that there is quite a lot at stake in getting the definition of marriage right.
I just read an interview with a conservative columnist who opposes same-sex marriage but will not write about it because he doesn’t want to offend his gay friends. And I think that applies to many people who are concerned about hurting feelings. What about those people?
Well, my first question to them would be whether they get the argument as to why it’s not a harmless redefinition. Because once you get it, the question is, what are you going to do about it? I would say there are some people that you’re going to offend if you speak out. You have to decide whether you’re going to be on the side of truth or not. How bad does it have to get before you’re going to open your mouth? Marriage has been redefined in Canada. And the province of Quebec came out with a policy against homophobia. In that policy, the provincial government said it was going to work to stamp out not only homophobia, but heterosexism also. Heterosexism is the view that heterosexuality is normal.
Look. Heterosexuality is normal in our species. We are a species that propagates by sexual reproduction. If the government gives itself the power to wipe out a belief that is actually true, what that means is that the government’s given itself a blank check to do whatever it wants. Now they’ve set up a registry where anyone can anonymously report a homophobic act. That means they’ve set up something that will allow people to spy on their neighbors and anonymously make accusations. How bad does it have to get before you’re going to be willing to offend someone at Thanksgiving dinner? What’s going on in Quebec is a very ominous development.
If same-sex marriage were to become the law of the land, what do you see happening? People sometimes talk about polygamy becoming the next shoe to drop.
Oh, the polygamy thing is already in progress. I don’t think there would be any problem removing the requirement that there be only two people to a marriage. My bigger worry is not so much plural marriage as it is plural parenthood and contract parenthood. The real radicals believe that a dichotomy between parent and non-parent is oppressive. What they would like is what they call “intentional parenting.” If you “intend” to be a parent, that’s the key thing. And they’re working to create legal institutions that would allow people to establish themselves as “intentional parents.” So what that means is, instead of every person coming into being as an act of love, people are going to come into being as an act of the will and nothing but the will.
My nightmare scenario is all the different ways that are going to transform what is means to be a parent. It will allow the terms “mother and father” to be replaced by “generic parents,” losing all gender language. These are the things that keep me awake at night. We’re talking about having three and four parents who have divided up the parenting responsibilities among themselves. We’re talking about creating an institution that has parents being primarily something that’s legal, not based on biology or kinship. And I think that’s going to be a nightmare for every little person who gets born into society, even if he or she doesn’t have that happen to them.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
I don’t think in terms of optimism or pessimism. I think more in terms of theological hope. I try to cultivate the theological virtue of hope, of being hopeful that our Lord will use whatever’s happening for the greatest good. If we are thankful to him and we proclaim his truth in love, we hope he will somehow use that for good. I don’t know exactly how, or how long it’s going to take.