Throughout the last decade, the number of people getting married has been plummeting while the divorce rate remains stubbornly high. Not only has this led to a serious breakdown in family life, but it has wreaked havoc on community life as well, particularly church communities. In response, many churches have instituted marriage preparation programs that would help prospective couples understand the commitment they are making and help them work through potential problems with the relationship.
Although such programs would theoretically nip certain marital problems in the bud, it’s debatable just how effective it has been in promoting a culture of marriage and family. Despite the time, attention, and thoughtfulness put into them, most couples tend to see these programs as hurdles to jump through if they want to have a wedding in the Catholic Church. Other couples, who aren’t so patient, will usually just get married outside the Church and never come back.
Despite this reality, the Vatican recently issued the pastoral document, “Catechumenal Itineraries for Married Life,” in which the Dicastery for Laity doubles down on marriage preparation, extending the course to a year or more. As Catholic writer Kathy Schiffer explains, the document “is a pastoral tool intended to help dioceses and pastoral staff develop effective marriage preparation programs that will lead couples to deeper love and a greater appreciation for God’s role in their family life.” The writers’ hearts are certainly in the right place, and they genuinely hope to restore sanctity and joy to Christian marriages.
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That said, it’s not difficult to imagine how this would backfire. As Schiffer later argues about the document, “I worry that asking a young couple who have decided to marry and to spend their lives together to wait longer—apparently, more than a year longer—seems an imprudent course which puts them at risk for great sin.” It is all too likely that couple will opt for cohabitation instead of marriage, possibly writing off the idea of marriage altogether.
It’s not so much that people are more impulsive or less loving now than they were in the past but that marriage is being misdefined and misinterpreted. Like the rest of the modern secular world, the Church is treating marriage purely as relationship. It is an expression of a loving commitment between two people. Thus, any failure of a marriage is necessarily related to misguided thoughts and feelings, something that can be addressed through counseling and education.
And for Catholics, there is the complication that marriage also happens to be a sacrament with reams of theology written about it. This means the couples preparing for marriage are more often thinking of the abstract metaphysical qualities of marriage (how it’s an analogy to the Trinity, how it’s a sign of God’s grace, how it’s an expression of the human person, etc.) than its practical implications (who will be working, where will they live, what their plans are for the next few decades, etc.).
Rather, the Church and the rest of the society needs to return to treating marriage as a vocation, a calling to live a certain way. It’s just as much a relationship as it is a way of life. A married man or woman now lives to support their spouse in all possible ways. It requires selflessness and humility, and its reward comes from making the other person happy. And if people aren’t ready to accept that arrangement, then it won’t really matter whom they marry or how well they understand the meaning and theology of marriage.
Most people who have been happily married for many years can explain that the real challenges don’t come from a lack of knowledge but from a lack of maturity. Instead of being a provider, the man is a deadbeat, thinking his wife should take care of him. Instead of supporting her husband, the woman feels entitled to a better man who has more status and wealth. The man has no friends and over-relies on his wife for company; the woman has too many friends and neglects her husband and kids. In so many of these cases, it’s the selfish refusal to grow up that often leads to infidelity, abuse, addiction, and divorce.
Therefore, a better way of strengthening marriage and encouraging more adults to tie the knot would be to help them become adults in the first place. Children should learn early on to take care of things and give to others. They should be held to high standards in their conduct and thinking. This, in turn, would help them chart their own path and train them to see others as people to help rather than exploit. More importantly, they would learn to see themselves as helpful contributors operating independently, not helpless human beings still learning “to adult.”
As it stands, most mainstream churches and schools are reluctant to challenge young people to do more and be more. They would rather accommodate the youth by relaxing standards and hosting cringeworthy events for teens than ask the youth to accommodate them by following rules and working harder. As for issues that stunt the spiritual and personal growth of young people—online pornography, social media and video game addictions, woke culture—none of this is confronted in any serious way. Consequently, many kids grow into incompetent adults with little motivation to provide anything or support anyone beyond themselves.
By contrast, more traditional churches take the counterintuitive tact of challenging children and helping them grow up to take on responsibility and achieve. Although this provokes discomfort and whining in the short-term, it builds resilience and competence in the long-term. It’s not a coincidence that the people who are part of these communities also happen to have more married couples, far more children, and vanishingly few divorces.
America and the rest of the developed world aren’t having a marriage crisis so much as an adulthood crisis. In order to reach a point where one is confident and responsible enough to handle the rigors of marriage, he or she needs to actually have experiences that develop character and independence. If they only learn how to take—from their parents, from their teachers, from their peers—they will never learn how to truly give. And marriage at its heart, along with Christianity itself, is a life of constant giving.