The fact that marriages in the Catholic Church have been declining is hardly news. The percent of marriages relative to the Catholic population in the U.S. have declined almost 80 percent from 1970 to the pre-pandemic year of 2018. This is not a small-scale marginal decline but a crisis of catastrophic scale, the consequences of which have been analyzed, reported on, and deplored for at least a decade or more. So, marriage decline is not news.
What is news is that, recently, a kind of response to this decline—to the state of marriage in the Church—has been made by way of the Vatican announcement of a catechumenate for marriage preparation. But this diverts attention from the point of the crisis; and a crisis it surely is. Now, it is clear that preparation for Christian marriage is essential and crucial and is not debatable, but the issue of marriage preparation is directed toward those couples who have appeared at the doors of the parish already with the desire to be married, whatever their reasons are. But this is not the problem with marriage today.
The measured marriage decline precisely reflects those couples and singles who have not come to the door of the rectory, who may have thought and discussed marriage but decided that they are not interested in marriage, even if they are not necessarily opposed to it. In fact, they may even be physically present in the parish on Sunday, not as a married couple but as a nice twosome or onesome, maybe admired from afar as they walk up to receive Communion. In their discussions between themselves and family and Church, the fundamental question that inevitably arises loudly and clearly regarding marriage is “Why bother?”
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The Church desperately needs to address this question in a language understood by young adults and that does not compromise Church teaching. That is, the Church needs to give direct answers to: “Why bother getting married anyway?” “What’s the point?” “It’s just a piece of paper.” These real-life doubts give voice to the two most fundamental reasons for the decline in Catholic marriages, here listed in their order of priority: 1.) Why should we get married? and 2.) Why get married in the Catholic Church?
My focus here is on the first question—Why get married at all? I will offer the reason that such a question even emerges and then show that it is in this question that the most fundamental root of the decline in marriage can be found.
We are living in an “open,” immoral society where sexual intercourse is now as common as a goodnight kiss or an after-dinner drink. Indeed, I recently wondered why we do not see the word “fornication” anymore in the popular press—or even much, if at all, in the Catholic press. Fornication is illicit sexual intercourse. An illicit act is outside of some law. In our context here then, “illicit” sexual intercourse is an act outside of marriage; but since “having sex” is now rather widely accepted and clearly not anymore outside of some culturally—or Church—determined “law,” there is no such cultural concept as “illicit” sex.
Therefore, the word “fornication” has no meaning. Now we are getting to the root of the decline of marriage. “Why bother?” with marriage when “sex” outside of marriage was previously considered culturally—Christian or otherwise—unacceptable, immoral, or illicit but is now widely embraced, enjoyed, and easily obtained without the trappings of marriage. So, “Why bother?”
Does this imply that in previous generations, such as my own, a driving force for getting married was to fulfill passionate sexual love for each other? Yes! But such a sexual fulfillment was accompanied by much deeper, Christian reasons for marriage—including openness to new life and fulfilling the plan of God for a couple called to live as a witness of love in a society focused on itself. The expansion of fornication and its rather casual cultural (and dare we also say ecclesial) acceptance rapidly introduced a notion of “Why bother” with marriage? Just live together in a kind of fake marriage relationship, now called cohabitation.
The term “cohabitation” in itself is a most cold, loveless, typical social-science-data term, descriptive of partners living together in a habitation, a dwelling—that’s it: partners, as in a company, dwelling together. After all, it makes economic sense, as is now so often reported in the popular press, for individuals sharing a sexual life separately to pool their resources and cohabitate. “Marriage—Why Bother?”
The stats on cohabitating couples, singles, and married couples for different age groups and sexes can easily overwhelm. For example, census data show that for the age group of 18-24-year-olds, those “living with partner” surpassed those “living with spouse” about five years ago. If we focus on the decline in Catholic marriages, the answer is clear: the decline in marriage is directly related to the decline of the sacredness of sexual intercourse in marriage. Cohabitation as a percent of those in various living arrangements over the past fifty years has increased eighty times to 24 percent, an astounding figure.
The walls of the Sacred City of Matrimony have indeed been widely breached, and the hordes have entered. The battle began in the late 1960s, raged for a few decades, and now is over. In the wreckage lie couples and singles suffering from the wounds, sometimes fatal spiritual wounds, of a culture that has promised “sexual freedom” but has yielded a field of incredibly lonely individuals living in a hell of ultimate boredom, feeling used and a great loss of the meaning of their lives.
So, how to respond? The Church must address this fundamental question of “Marriage—Why Bother?” This means, first, a recognition that this is the relevant, even crucial, question—preceding and complementing Marriage Preparation. Here we immediately face those who demand sensitivity, inclusivity, and recognition of different lifestyles as a response of “Christian love.” We do know from our history that to announce the truth is to divide, as Jesus Christ clearly indicated. But to announce the truth is mandatory. The truth is simple: sexual intercourse is to be reserved between a man and a woman in marriage as a sign of their love for each other, and it is to be open to life as a witness of their trust in a God who has loved them.
The Church has the answer to “Marriage—Why Bother?”: it is in Christian Marriage that you will discover the meaning of your life as a couple; your mission as a couple; the truth of the love that you have been called to give to each other; and the true freedom and joy of sexual relations open to new life, the great public witness of your love. The Church must speak a language that is intelligible to the current generation of adults, addressing their simple question of “Why bother?” with simple, perhaps less ecclesial language.
So, instead of “Sex outside of marriage is a mortal sin,” a response that translates “mortal” to “death,” in any sense, and “sin” to division and woundedness, in any sense, may open more ears. Such a voice of the Church addresses then the reality that open sex without the commitment of marriage can lead to “death”—the mortality of being used as an object; of one person simply walking out the door after multiple years of living together, with consequent life-destroying anguish, regrets, and unreconcilable anger. I have been witness to this, and I can testify to the devasting brokenness that results so readily from couples living together—sometimes for years—without public Christian vows, whose lives are shattered so easily with a fracturing demand of autonomy.
The marriage decline can only be halted and reversed by a clear traditional announcement of the truth of the exclusive matrimonial sacredness of sexual intercourse between a man and woman. Marriage is not a bother. Christian marriage can be the deepest source of happiness and fullness of meaning of why one has been given life. So, marriage is worth it, and so it should be announced with joy. If such an announcement is not forthcoming with some urgency, the decades will continue to slide into a continual degradation and corruption of a most beautiful state, a most fruitful vocation of human life.