More Reasons Catholics Aren’t Marrying

Much has been written in Crisis and elsewhere about the declining marriage and birth rates in Western society and the rising average age of the marriages that do occur, including among Catholics. Many factors appear to contribute to this pattern: the epidemic of sins such as pornography use and fornication; the educational and wage-earning gap; student loans and financial stagnation; fear of commitment, in part because of the high divorce rate of the older generation; and widespread contraception use. (This last factor, in addition to underlying all of the other factors, is a problem in its own right: some studies have suggested that hormonal contraceptives may make women less attractive to men, as well as alter what type of men women prefer.)

Sadly, these factors impact Catholics nearly as much as the rest of the world because so many people who “identify as Catholic” do not really know their faith or practice its moral teachings. But, even among solidly practicing Catholics who are not deeply mired in sexual sins, marriage can be difficult to achieve. In addition to experiencing some of the same difficulties as the broader population, I suspect another obstacle is in play for Catholics specifically.

That obstacle is what Timothy Flanders calls the “camps” within Catholicism, which he enumerates as the traditional Catholics (those who believe that Vatican II and the liturgical reforms were essentially problematic), the conservative Catholics (those who support the “hermeneutic of continuity” and “reform of the reform”), and the liberal “Catholic” heretics (who, either through innocent ignorance or outright rebellion, do not believe what the Church actually teaches). On a recent episode of the Crisis Point podcast, he defines each of those terms and acknowledges that they are a spectrum. 

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In my own understanding, someone might sit somewhere between traditionalism and conservatism if he strongly prefers a Latin Mass but sees no real problem with a reverent Novus Ordo. Or, someone might be somewhere between conservatism and liberalism if she believes everything in the Catechism but prefers a casual Mass. There are any number of other permutations. This array, this “fifty flavors” smorgasbord of Catholicisms, is an obstacle to finding a mate.

See, people used to marry the boy or girl next door because there was a good chance he or she shared not only a local community, but also enough religious beliefs and moral values to make them a good match. Catholics, I assume, used to marry the boy or girl at church because they shared a local community, a parish community, and all the same religious beliefs and moral values, and thus they were a very good match. 

Today, most young Catholics will leave their parishes and go to college elsewhere before marrying, which removes some of the foundation afforded by the local and parish community. Still, at a Catholic college or one with a thriving Newman Center, they might hope to find a Catholic spouse; my alma mater prides itself on how many alumnus-to-alumna marriages have occurred. But not everyone finds a spouse at school, and from college onward, the problem arises: a young adult may become a FOCUS missionary or join the local Young Catholic Professionals chapter and meet plenty of Catholics. But will he or she find a Catholic of the same flavor, the same camp?

From my own observations, I believe that finding a spouse within the right Catholic camp is very important to traditional and conservative Catholics. (Liberal-leaning Catholics are probably less aware of the different Catholic camps, or, if aware, think of them solely in terms of liturgical and devotional “preference.” Very-liberal-to-the-point-of-heretical Catholics probably don’t care much about marrying a Catholic at all.) This makes perfect sense; no traditional or strongly conservative Catholic wants to date or marry a non-practicing or heretical Catholic. The problem arises because the percentages of men and women in the traditional camp are out of balance. 

A  2019-2020 survey of 1,779 traditional-Latin-Mass attendees ages 18-39 found that 40 percent of the total survey participants were married. That sounds pretty high, considering that 18- and 19-year-olds, whom we would not expect to be married, were included. But I still find that 40 percent interesting, given that 44 percent of all U.S. Millennials (ages 23-38 in 2019) were married in 2019, and the percentage of those ever married by age 40 is projected to decline steeply for Gen Z (those currently under age 25). While more data would be useful, it looks like traditional Catholics may not be marrying at rates much higher than the broader population for their age group. (If all those single people were planning to be priests or religious, that would be good news, but only 7 percent of the respondents described themselves as a priest, religious, or “in formation.” Fifty-three percent were simply “single.”)

The same survey also suggests a possible explanation for the majority of the respondents being unmarried. Fifty-seven percent of the respondents were male (compared to 49 percent of the total population being male). Let’s make that practical: if each female respondent to the survey paired up with a male respondent, 239 Jacks would be left without Jills.

My experience certainly bears out the results of this survey. In my own mostly-Latin-Mass parish, I can think of only four single women—single defined as “not married, engaged, or in a serious courtship”—between ages twenty and thirty-five who attend the Latin Mass consistently and thus fall somewhere near the traditional end of the spectrum. But I can think of about nine or ten men who appear to fall into the same category (and that’s not counting one or two who are seriously considering a priestly or religious vocation). At my officially very conservative Catholic college, there were plenty of “trad” students, but the most outspoken ones, the ones who had arguments behind their “preferences” for “smells and bells,” were more often men (on a campus where women outnumbered men approximately three to two). 

When I hear my female friends from any part of the Catholic spectrum talking about why they aren’t in a relationship, they simply say that guys aren’t asking them out…or, at least, not guys they are interested in at all. I don’t get to hear as much of the men’s side of the story here, but what I do hear gives me the impression that they are also looking for some particular type of Catholic woman and not finding her. How, I often wonder, can I know so many single Catholic women who say they can’t find a man and so many single Catholic men who say they can’t find a woman? Why aren’t they all finding each other? The answer, I suspect, lies in the fact that far more single men consider themselves traditional Catholics than single women, and those traditional single men want to marry a woman who falls into the same Catholic camp.

The fact is, it’s hard enough to find a person who is not only living in the same area (or at least frequenting the same dating website), but also has enough similar interests, good looks and social graces to attract your interest at all, who is also the right age, is desirous of marriage, and is Catholic. The existence of Catholic “camps” adds yet another filter: and the same type of Catholic. And really, for conservative and traditional Catholics, the camps are full of sub-camps: traditional, but anti-SSPX? SSPX attendee, but okay with attending parochial churches sometimes? If you are a traditional Catholic man, there’s a good chance that there is no traditional Catholic woman who makes it through all these filters; if she exists at your parish, she may already be taken.

Most couples consider their love story an almost-miracle: “God brought us together!” For traditional Catholics, meeting a perfect match might really be considered an event so statistically improbable that it requires divine intervention. But I won’t leave you with that thought; as nice as miracles are, they are rare, and the idea that it would take a miracle to get anyone to marry you sounds a bit depressing. Instead, I’ll suggest a way out of this mess.

Because men are the natural pursuers, I’ll start with them. Gentlemen, it seems a lot of you are traditional Catholics, or at least traditional-leaning conservative Catholics. It is only natural that you would want a mate to match; couples absolutely should be on the same page about certain things, such as the clear and perennial teachings of the Church. For this reason, it makes sense to narrow your search down to truly practicing Catholics and not attempt any “missionary dating.”

It’s a huge mistake, however, to think that couples have to be on exactly the same page about how Vatican II should be interpreted or the finer points of liturgical history, especially during the early stages of courtship. Think about it: in the day-to-day practicalities of marriage and child-rearing, what camp-influenced beliefs will really impact your life? 

Let’s say that you believe that the Novus Ordo Missa is inherently displeasing to God, and your wife believes it probably isn’t as long as it’s celebrated according to the actual rubrics, but she still prefers attending the traditional Mass. As long as you can agree to attend the same local Latin Mass parish (and to prioritize living near one), you can live your life together in peace and rear your children to love what is good and true. As time goes on, perhaps you will both learn more about the liturgy and the Faith together and develop your understanding until you naturally align. 

As for other beliefs that your camp might shape to some extent, they are similar: discuss, for example, whether or under what circumstances you would use NFP to avoid pregnancy. (Catholics within traditional-leaning circles sometimes have very different opinions on this.) If you can agree on your interpretation for all practical purposes, perhaps that’s enough.

This, of course, goes both ways. Ladies, if you want to marry, you will have to marry someone who is at least somewhat different from yourself. Set your standards at an appropriate level, and listen to your gut—do not accept a date with someone whom you think will try to breach the boundaries of morality or safety with you. But be willing to get to know someone who leans a little more traditional or liberal than you do. (I can personally attest that a man who is interested in a woman may easily decide to adjust his schedule to attend the Mass where she will be present, eventually coming to love that form of the Mass for its own sake.)

For all traditional Catholics: go on dates with an open mind, and get to know your date as he or she is now, but don’t be afraid to share your unabashed traditionalism with him or her in a joyful and positive way. Invite people to learn about the aspects of tradition that are most appealing to you. Often, people of both sexes are open to becoming interested in something at first because a potential mate is interested in it, but later on, it develops into a real passion of their own. Be open to hearing challenges from conservative Catholics and see these as opportunities to grow in your understanding of the Church alongside your potential spouse.

In short, both men and women who want marriage must be open to marrying a person they may not agree with on all points. In fact, it is certifiably guaranteed that you will disagree with anyone you marry on something. But happy marriages are still possible in the world of the Catholic “camps.” And perhaps, like the ancient monarchs who made peace with each other by arranging marriages between their children, we ought to make marriages across these Catholic boundary lines to serve the good of the whole Church. As Flanders points out, we conservatives and traditionalists need each other in order to fight the common enemy of heresy and bring all our brethren fully into the Catholic fold.

[Photo Credit: Unsplash]


  • Rachel Hoover

    Rachel Hoover is a technical writer by day and a critic and essayist for several Catholic publications in the early evening. She holds a B.A. from Christendom College and lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

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