In crisis: The state of marriage
By Nissa LaPoint
Marriage is not only declining, it’s in crisis.
The dramatic statistics and polls revealing the continual decline of marriage—both in the Catholic Church and in the United States—has caught the attention of leaders and religious across the country.
“It is a crisis time,” said Phil Webb, director of the Denver Archdiocese’s Office of Marriage and Family Life.
A recent study with the Pew Research Institute found barely half of adults in the nation—a record low—are married and that the median age of first marriages has reached new highs for brides at 26.4 years and grooms at 28.7 years, according to its analysis of U.S. Census data.
Marriages in the Church have echoed this decline.
Celebrations of the sacrament of matrimony in the Church have fallen nearly 60 percent—from 415,487 in 1972 to 168,400 in 2010—while the U.S. Catholic population has risen almost 17 million, according to the Office Catholic Directory in 2011.
Put another way, there were 8.6 marriages per 1,000 U.S. Catholics in 1972 compared to 2.6 marriages per 1,000 Catholics in 2010. In Denver, there were 2.4 marriages in 2010 per 1,000 Catholics.
“How can we not be dismayed as we observe the sharp decline of the family as a basic element of Church and society?” Pope Benedict XVI said in an address to U.S. bishops in Washington, D.C. “Divorce and infidelity have increased, and many young men and women are choosing to postpone marriage or to forego it altogether. To some young Catholics, the sacramental bond of marriage seems scarcely distinguishable from a civil bond. … Hence we have an alarming decrease in the number of Catholic marriages in the United States.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops responded by undertaking a multi-year National Pastoral Initiative on Marriage in 2005 and launched an initiative called “For Your Marriage.” In 2010, the U.S. bishops’ subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage announced a new catechetical initiative called “Marriage: Unique for a Reason.”
During its ongoing efforts, bishops and religious leaders have sought answers to the causes of this rapid decline in order to reverse its impact on society and the Church.
Loss of faith or no faith
A key factor in declining marriages is the loss of God.
Marriage is not only between a man and woman, Webb said. God is the foundation of marriages and when he’s removed, couples’ relationships begin to suffer.
At the core of the attacks on marriage is a lack of faith or recognition of God as the center, he said.
Major studies show an unambiguous correlation between marriage happiness and religious attendance, he added.
“People who attend religious services on a regular basis inevitably have happier marriages,” Webb said. “Because they have shared beliefs, they have a shared worldview and shared understanding of family. Plus, if they’re Christian, they tend to see each other as a creation of God, as a unique unrepeatable person who God created and for who Christ died.”
When this Trinitarian structure of marriage with God at the top is removed, other influences may enter to destroy marriage, such as use of contraceptives.
Nobel prize-winning economist George Akerlof at the University of California at Berkeley has argued that contraception has played a key role in launching the sexual and divorce revolution of the ‘60s.
Akerlof, Webb said, has connected contraceptives to sexual license, family dissolution, crime and poisoned relations between sexes.
The relationship between contraceptives and the rise of divorce is one of causation, he explained.
“Contraceptives allow sex to become casual,” Webb explained. “You don’t have to be committed, you don’t have to worry about kids and faithfulness isn’t as important of an issue.”
The sacrament of marriage calls on a couple to give themselves to each other freely and be open to life.
“With contraceptives you’re not totally giving yourself,” Webb said.
In the encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” Pope Paul VI warned that the widespread use of contraception would lead to infidelity and declining morality. Men would no longer care for a woman’s “physical and psychological equilibrium” but rather treat her as an instrument of selfish enjoyment. Breaking the natural and divinely ordained connection between the conjugal and procreation in marriage leads to a hedonistic view of sex, according to the document. Further, contraception opens the possibility for more pre-marital sex and a rise in cohabitation.
Editor's Note: For more on how the warnings of Humanae Vitae have come true, consider reading“The Vindication of Humanae Vitae,” by Mary Eberstadt.
This arrangement where two people arrange to live together in a sexual relationship lures many because of a belief that it will lower the risk of divorce while easing financial burdens and offering security and convenience for couples.
“It seems less scary to a lot of people,” Webb said.
Rather, marriage preceded by cohabitation is 46 percent more likely to end in divorce, according to a study cited in the Journal of Marriage and the Family.
This arrangement is not compatible with Catholics’ belief in the three pillars of marriage: fidelity, indissolubility and openness to children.
“With cohabitating you might not have those things,” Webb said. “There isn’t a 100 percent commitment in these relationships.”
Furthermore, cohabitating rapidly leads to a couples’ breakup. According to the USCCB’s committee on Marriage and Family Life and its collaborative effort in Creighton University’s colloquium in 2005, one half of cohabitating couples—40 percent of which have children—will break up after five years. This is compared to 15 percent of married parents.