April 29, 2016


What has happened to marriage?

“First there’s love, then marriage, then a baby carriage.”

That’s the way it used to be, but not anymore. The “marriage” part might or might not happen these days as couples delay marriage or skip it altogether.

Pope Francis took notice of this trend in his apostolic exhortation “ ‘Amoris Laetitia’ (The Joy of Love), on Love in the Family,” in which he reflected on the reports of the bishops on the synods on marriage: “At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family” (#40).

Over the past generation, women in the United States have had many options placed before them. The widespread social acceptance of women’s equality, the advent of various forms of contraceptives and the legalization of abortion have offered women the freedom to pursue high-powered careers and sexually diverse lives without fear of pregnancy or stigma. Thus marriage has become a choice rather than a certainty.

The exhortation notes that, in some countries, many young persons “postpone a wedding for economic reasons, work or study. Some do so for other reasons, such as the influence of ideologies which devalue marriage and family, the desire to avoid the failures of other couples, the fear of something they consider too important and sacred, the social opportunities and economic benefits associated with simply living together, a purely emotional and romantic concept of love, the fear of losing their freedom and independence, and the rejection of something conceived as purely institutional and bureaucratic” (#40).

Cohabitation rather than marriage has become the option of choice for many young couples. What society once condemned is now widely accepted. The most recent polls indicate that about 70 percent of Americans consider it OK to live together without marriage.

The whole idea that sex outside of marriage is sinful, which is what is taught by the Catholic Church and used to be accepted by society, seems to have gone out long ago. Now any consensual sex, heterosexual or homosexual, by people over 18 seems acceptable.

As for that baby carriage, who cares these days whether it’s needed only by those who are married? The latest statistics show that 40.2 percent of all births are to unmarried women. That rate varies according to racial and ethnic groups. It’s highest among African-Americans, where it’s more than 70 percent, and lowest among non-Hispanic whites, under 30 percent.

According to a Gallup poll, 61 percent of Americans think that having a baby outside of marriage is morally acceptable. That percentage has gone up every year this century, starting at 45 percent in 2002.

Pope Francis recognizes all these changes in society’s attitudes toward marriage. He wrote in the exhortation, “We need to find the right language, arguments and forms of witness that can help us reach the hearts of young people, appealing to their capacity for generosity, commitment, love and even heroism, and in this way inviting them to take up the challenge of marriage with enthusiasm and courage” (#40).

This won’t be easy, as witnessed by the decline of Catholic marriages, a phenomenon that began way back in 1970. An article by Commonweal publisher Thomas Baker last July reported that the number of Catholic marriages in the United States declined by 69 percent since 1969 while the number of Catholics has grown.

He listed five causes: a low level of institutional allegiance among younger Catholics; widespread cohabitation (about half), which makes couples reluctant to present themselves for marriage preparation; rejection of the Church’s teachings about sexual matters; a desire for nontraditional wedding arrangements that the Church doesn’t permit; and a decline in family and parental pressure for couples to marry in a Catholic setting.

The result is that the Church is either losing many of its younger members, or many of those members are not forming their consciences according to the teachings of the Church when it comes to sexual matters and marriage.

The exhortation has suggestions for what parishes should do about this. It will be difficult but necessary if the Church is to retain its young members.

—John F. Fink

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