The Marriage/Parenthood Disconnect

While conceptually distinctive, Catholic theology has always recognized marriage and parenthood typically go in tandem and that openness to life is a prerequisite to entering a valid marriage.

As Catholics observe “National Marriage Week” on February 7-14, we should be concerned about a growing trend to separate marriage and parenthood—because it is fundamentally reshaping the cultural idea of marriage in ways foreign to Catholic thought.

Yes, Catholic theology admits that marriage and parenthood are conceptually separate realities. Yes, post-menopausal septuagenarians can marry validly.  

But they’re not the typical fiancés knocking on the rectory door, wanting to plan their wedding (notwithstanding the growing age for first marriage and the tendency to defer it). Most people getting married can become parents.

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While conceptually distinctive, Catholic theology has always recognized marriage and parenthood typically go in tandem and that openness to life is a prerequisite to entering a valid marriage. Catholic theology also recognizes that there are two ends of marriage: procreation and mutual support.

(Note that I did not say “mutual love.” As Karol Wojtyła pointed out more than 60 years ago in Love and Responsibility, love is the root which presupposes both procreation and mutual support, i.e., openness to the other as potential mother or father and to the “having and holding from this day forward” that mutual support entails).

American culture, given the proliferation of contraception on the one hand and reproductive technologies on the other, does not even acknowledge these basic truths of marriage, which is not just a dogmatic teaching but part of natural law binding everyone.

The National Marriage Project (NMP), a social science research effort on marriage based at the University of Virginia, has been studying marriage in the United States for decades. Over that time, it has identified two models of marriage that now dominate American mentality.

The “soulmate” model sees marriage as primarily a matter of personal fulfillment through a deep companionship. That’s nice, but this critic would call that an unrealistic quest for a woke Prince Charming. Strongly grounded in emotions, “soulmate marriage’s” longevity is threatened both by unrealistic expectations and when the fireworks go out. Its focus is on the twosome. 

In some sense, children pose a threat to soulmate marriage because its focus and dynamic often reinforces an egoïsme-à-deux that the arrival of a child tends to disrupt. A child’s advent should be disruptive, bringing the spouses out of themselves to a new maturity, but there’s a real question as to whether the expectations of “soulmate” marriage prepare couples for that transformation.

Recently, NMP also began speaking about a phenomenon it might not so much call a “model” as an approach: cornerstone v. capstone marriage.  Given the increasing age of first marriages and the growing support, especially in opinion-making circles, for such choices, the question becomes how do we see marriage? Is marriage the “cornerstone” on which two people going forward build a common adult identity (which would then be open to younger as well as older marriage) or is it the “capstone,” the icing on the cake of professional achievement, economic security, and identity-formation that crowns one’s life résumé (when one, therefore, is likely to be older), not necessarily leading to children?

These are the cultural waters in which young Catholics are swimming, and I fear the Church is not doing very much to propose an alternate vision to them.

According to the NMP’s annual report, “The State of Our Unions 2022,” “Americans have fewer children today than at any point in their history.”  As of 2020, America’s total fertility rate was 1.64—well-below the replacement level of 2.1—with no major American demographic group above replacement. (That 1.64 is as high as it is because Hispanic women, at 1.94, skew the average upward).

The presence or absence of children is not just a numbers issue. It gives a society its texture. Children are neither seen nor heard nor lived with: starting in the 1980s, the majority of American families did not include at least one minor child. As NMP notes, in 1850, 90.7 percent of American families contained children. Even in the “Baby Boom,” that percentage never broke 60 percent. In 2021, it’s 40 percent.  

Nor is that 40 percent necessarily rosy. While there appears to be some slowing (probably due to not having children at all), “the percentage of children growing up in fragile—typically fatherless—families has continued to grow.” In 1960, minor children living with two married parents constituted just under 90 percent of all American families. Today, it’s around 70 percent. Hispanic families hover around 60 percent, black families just under 40 percent. In 1960, 5 percent of all American live births occurred to unmarried women; today, it’s 40.8 percent.

Social science literature repeatedly documents the correlation between childrearing in intact environments and all sorts of other indices: crime rates, juvenile delinquency, educational attainment, and upward mobility.

The solutions to our contemporary challenges cannot be the Scylla of simply eliminating children through abortion and falling birth rates or the Charybdis of “let a thousand lifestyles bloom” that pretends society has no interest in how its future members come into the world. These trends are likely to be exacerbated through efforts, in the name of gender ideology, to de-norm the biological family of mother and father as legally “privileged” or preferred in favor of the production of children, equating “intentional parenthood” with biological parenthood.

Last December, Congress enacted the “Respect for Marriage Act,” redefining that institution in the light of Obergefell v. Hodges (which, in part, was won on the assertion that procreation has no inherent nexus to marriage), ostensibly to “protect” marriage against “threats” from the Supreme Court. The above data suggests American marriage is in pretty dire straits, not from rogue justices but from contradictions and confusion about what marriage is and its relationship to parenthood. In that respect, the Church has serious work to do to reinforce—even among its own communicants—what marriage is and its relationship to parenthood. 

This cannot be the work of “pre-Cana” wedding preparation. That stage is already too late. Rather, as St. John Paul II noted in Familiaris consortio (no. 66), we need to focus on “remote” and “proximate” preparation—before there is a concrete “other” in the picture but while young people are growing up and developing their understanding of their faith and marriage—to address these questions. We defer them at the peril of souls and the Church.


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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