The First Vocation Crisis

Coinciding with the decline of marriage in the United States is the decline of sacramental marriage in the Church. Here’s a look at the US bishops’ efforts to address the collapse.

Addressing the societal collapse of marriage, the US bishops have issued a pastoral letter praised by defenders of the Church’s teaching on family life.

In an August interview, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York discussed the four greatest challenges he believes the Church in the United States is facing today. First on his list was the state of marriage.

“That’s where we have the real vocation crisis,” he said. “We have a vocation crisis to lifelong, life-giving, loving, faithful marriage. If we take care of that one, we’ll have all the priests and nuns we need for the Church.”

The statistics, by any measure, bear out Archbishop Dolan’s observation. While it’s widely acknowledged that this vision of “lifelong, life-giving, loving, faithful” marriage—once shared by Catholics and non-Catholics alike—has collapsed in recent decades, statistics published by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia manifest the depth of the collapse:

• The number of marriages per 1,000 unmarried American women over the age of 15 has fallen steadily from 76.5 in 1970 to 39.2 in 2007—a decline of 49 percent.

• In 1960, 69 percent of American males and 66 percent of females were married. By 2007, those figures had declined to 55 percent of males and 51 percent of females.

• Between 1960 and 1980, the number of divorces per 1,000 unmarried American women over the age of 15 rose dramatically from 9.2 to 22.6; the figure has since fallen to 17.5.

• In 1960, 1.8 percent of males and 2.6 percent of females were currently divorced (and not remarried). Today, 8.6 percent of males and 11 percent of females are currently divorced.

• 26 percent of children now live with a single parent—up from 9 percent in 1960.

• The percentage of husbands and wives reporting that their marriages are “very happy” is the lowest today of any point in the past 35 years.

• The fertility rate of women of childbearing age fell from 3.7 in 1960 to 1.8 in 1980. Since that time, the fertility rate has inched up to 2.1, with 2.11 being the replacement rate. Only immigration has prevented the United States from suffering a demographic collapse.

• 39 percent of births are now to unmarried women—up from 5 percent in 1960.

The rise in cohabitation has surpassed even the rise of the divorce rate. The number of cohabiting couples, according to statistics published by the National Marriage Project, grew from 439,000 in 1960 to 523,000 in 1970 and 1,589,000 in 1980. Between 1990 and 2000, the figure grew from 2,856,000 to 3,822,000; by 2007, the number had skyrocketed to 6,445,000.

The number of cohabiting couples who are raising children grew from 196,000 in 1990 to 2,505,000 in 2007. Sixty-five percent of high school senior boys and 58 percent of high school senior girls now believe that cohabitation before marriage is a good idea—even though numerous studies have shown the negative effects of cohabitation on children’s well-being.

Coinciding with the decline of marriage in the United States is the decline of sacramental marriage in the Church. The number of Catholic weddings in the United States stood at 355,182 in 1965, rose until the early 1970s, then fell to 292,499 in 1995. The number of Catholic weddings then fell steeply to 191,265 in 2008—a decline of 35 percent in less than a decade and a half.

“There can be no doubt that, due to the secularization of society, there has been a great loss of the sense of the sacred and the importance of faith in life, love, and relationships,” says Christendom College President Dr. Timothy O’Donnell, whom Pope John Paul II named a consultor to the Pontifical Council for the Family in 2002. “The fruits of this brutal secularization have led to increased rates of divorce (where Catholics are no different from the rest of the population), the annulment scandal (which has also led to a great deal of cynicism regarding Catholic weddings), and of course, the entire revolutionary attitude toward human sexuality communicated in music, TV, films, and attitudes toward premarital sex.”

Professor Teresa Stanton Collett of the University of St. Thomas School of Law—whom Pope Benedict recently named a consultor to the Pontifical Council for the Family—also attributes the decline of Catholic marriage to American society’s secularization. “Almost all culture-shaping institutions, including the Church, were engaged in sharp debate about the source and extent of authority in society,” says Professor Collett. “Chastity lost its cultural primacy as increased availability of contraception promised the death of a need for sexual self-restraint. Popular culture invaded the home, first through television and now, increasingly, through the Internet …. In such a setting, ideals of total self-giving and lifelong commitment, foundational to the vocations of holy orders and marriage, appear more as burdens than as promises.”

Two other Americans recently named consultors to the Pontifical Council for the Family are Frank and Julie LaBoda. The international coordinators for Retrouvaille, a ministry that helps spouses considering divorce to rediscover a loving marriage, the LaBodas lament the corrosive effect of the media:

The negative images of marriage portrayed in the media and our society over the last three dozen years have changed the way we think about and live out our marriage. We have gone from Leave It to Beaver to The Brady Bunch, then to All in the Family, and on to Married with Children and The Simpsons. Marriage is continually shown in a negative light by much of society. The ease with which our friends, family, and coworkers leave marriage relationships has a generational effect on the desire to be married.

Claudia and David Arp, who coauthored a book recommended by the US bishops’ marriage initiative, told CWR that they “think one reason more couples are not marrying is that they grew up in single-parent homes or in homes where parents were together but emotionally divorced. They are afraid of marriage—after all their parents’ marriage didn’t turn out so great.”

Dr. W. Bradford Wilcox, the University of Virginia sociology professor who directs the National Marriage Project, places some of the blame upon the Church’s catechetical decline. “The Church hasn’t done as much as it could to catechize young adults about sex, marriage, and children. Consequently, young adults are more likely to postpone or avoid marriage altogether, or get married outside a church.”

“But I also think that some couples are aware of the high standards associated with a Catholic wedding and aren’t ready for that kind of commitment,” he adds. “Still others have drifted sufficiently far away from the faith that they do not have a real interest in a church wedding.”

Professor Collett sees a silver lining in the spread of catechesis based on Pope John Paul’s theology of the body. “It is only in the past decade that the message is really finding its way into American parishes and schools and ultimately into the hearts and minds of the faithful,” she says. “The bishops are increasingly accepting their duty to teach on these issues, and the lay faithful are daily responding by bringing these truths about human sexuality and marriage into the ordinary circumstances of family and social life.”


In 2004, Bishop Daniel Conlon of Steubenville asked his brother bishops to consider developing a pastoral letter on marriage comparable in scope to the earlier letters on peace (1983) and the economy (1986). By a 195-20 margin, the bishops approved a broad National Pastoral Initiative on Marriage (NPIM) that would culminate in a pastoral letter on marriage—originally scheduled for 2007, and subsequently approved in November 2009.

The NPIM began quietly in 2005 with the bishops’ committee on marriage and family life gathering information, establishing focus groups, and consulting with marriage organizations and other bishops. A dialogue between theologians and social scientists featured Dr. John Grabowski, a Catholic University of America theology professor whom Pope Benedict would later name a member of the Pontifical Council for the Family, as well as Dr. Wilcox and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, who has written eloquently on the negative effects of the divorce culture.

In 2006, the bishops’ committee continued to engage in a wide consultation about the pastoral letter, and over 1,500 laity took part in focus groups. The committee also held a colloquium on the sacramentality of marriage; joining faithful Catholic scholars was Boston College’s renowned feminist biblical scholar Dr. Pheme Perkins, a critic of magisterial teaching on women’s ordination who blasted “the authoritarianism of today’s hierarchy” in a 2004 work.

In 2007 and 2008, the bishops’ committee ended its consultation phase and began work on the pastoral letter on marriage. The NPIM produced more “backgrounders” on marriage—helpful talking points on topics like “Why Isn’t It Good to Live Together before Marriage?” and “What Are the Facts about Natural Family Planning?”—and commissioned a major study on Catholic marriage in the United States. The study found that 72 percent of married Catholics have a Catholic spouse, that married Catholics on average have two children, that 23 percent of adult Catholics have been divorced, and that 15 percent of those divorced have sought annulments. Married Catholics who attend Mass weekly are more likely to have Catholic spouses and have larger families (three children on average). Only two thirds of married Catholics have been married in the Church.

The bishops also allotted $750,000 to produce radio and television public service announcements with the message “What have you done for your marriage today?” and to launch the “For Your Marriage” website (

The site has received praise and criticism. “We love the ‘For Your Marriage’ website,” say the Labodas. “It is user-friendly and engaging.”

“The content that exists is good, but there is not much there,” says Professor Collett. “The blog features only one writer”—a young married woman who is faithful to Catholic teaching—“and her posts are usually very good, but only reflect one stage of marriage. I would suggest making the blog a conversation between writers at different stages of their marriages.”

“The site has some very good features, including sound Church teaching and some interesting, useful articles on a range of marriage-related topics,” Leon Suprenant wrote in 2007 on the Catholics United for the Faith blog. “For the life of me, though, I couldn’t find an explanation of the intrinsic sinfulness of contraception…. More of a concern to me were some of the recommended resources. Nothing outrageously bad, but the selections and omissions of some titles concerned me. For example, in the list of the four main books recommended for couples preparing for marriage, the first title was by Dr. Richard Gaillardetz, who is known for pushing the ‘liberal envelope’ in his lectures and writings.”

Suprenant added that the site’s “list of marriage resources seems to eschew Catholic publishers known for their orthodoxy (e.g., Ignatius Press, Emmaus Road Publishing, Our Sunday Visitor, Sophia Institute Press), favoring publishers that are either ‘progressively Catholic,’ Protestant, or secular. It’s not that the latter can’t publish books that are worthwhile, but the selections taken as a whole are a bit curious, to say the least.”

Following Suprenant’s criticisms, all references to Dr. Gaillardetz were removed from the website, and a book on marriage published by Sophia Institute Press received a positive review. Nonetheless, some authors whose books are still recommended on the site raise questions: James and Evelyn Whitehead are critics of Catholic teaching on homosexuality and contraception; Michele Weiner Davis’ Divorce Busting praises a couple who decide to undergo sterilization; Father Alberto Cutié has recently left the Church in a scandal, marrying a divorcée and studying for ordination in the Episcopal Church.

In early 2009, “Diogenes,” writing on’s Off the Record blog, skewered some of the marriage advice posted on the site, including:

• “Create a home spa for the evening. Put on soothing music, light some scented candles, give each other a massage. Give your husband a pedicure or paint your wife’s toenails, if you dare.”
• “‘Evening at the Ritz.’ Dress up and go to the lobby of an elegant hotel. Sit in the lounge and order a drink or snack. People-watch and fantasize.”

“See if I have this right,” wrote Diogenes. “With ‘tough economic conditions impacting families,’ we’re not instructed in almsgiving, not reminded of the value of Christian simplicity, not urged to remember the priority of our children’s needs, but advised to turn up at the lobby of the Four Seasons or the Hyatt and ‘fantasize.’” Following similar criticism on other blogs, this advice was removed from the website.


Under the leadership of Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, the bishops’ committee on marriage and family life drafted “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan,” the centerpiece of the NPIM and the foundation of its future efforts. After the National Catholic Reporter published a leaked copy of the draft in October, the pastoral letter earned praise from defenders of Catholic teaching on marriage and condemnation from dissenters.

“When the US bishops meet next month in Baltimore they should scrap the entire text of the proposed pastoral letter on marriage and start fresh,” the National Catholic Reporter opined. “The draft spends too much time talking about the threats to modern marriage, such as high divorce rates, cohabitation, same-sex unions and, of course, contraception…. The lack of pastoral solicitude that characterizes the entire document is most prominently on display in the discussion of cohabitation.” Likewise, Commonweal’s editors criticized the letter for its “didactic, abstract, and unimaginative reiteration of Church teaching regarding the ‘intrinsic evils’ of contraception and cohabitation, the supposedly dire threat posed by same-sex marriage, and the immorality of technological remedies for infertility such as in vitro fertilization.”

On the other hand, James Tillman of called the letter “a new document that strongly affirms the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage by condemning contraception, divorce, same-sex marriage, and cohabitation as dangers directed ‘at the very meaning and purpose of marriage,’ while affirming marriage both as the foundation of society and as a path to holiness.” Jeffrey Mirus, president of, wrote:

I’ll admit that the major documents issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have seldom impressed me…. If you share my opinion, you might think you’d be justified in ignoring the USCCB’s new pastoral letter, “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan.” But you’d be wrong. This is a remarkable document, a truly pastoral document in the best sense of the word. It is written to be read and understood by ordinary Catholics, to inspire in them a deeper understanding not only of marriage in general but of their own marriages, which are rooted in nature, Christ, and the Church.

“Overall, I am delighted with the efforts of the bishops in this document,” says Christendom College’s Dr. O’Donnell. While proposing slight changes that he believes would strengthen the letter’s wording, Dr. O’Donnell says that “it clearly presents the nature and dignity of Christian marriage, which stands in sore need of defense. The document can serve as an outstanding resource in an effort to guide those responsible for marriage preparation and formation in terms of a clear understanding of the nature and dignity of Christian marriage.”

On the other hand, “I worry that given the complexity of the concepts being discussed, the letter may not be clearly understandable to many in our congregations,” says Dr. Thomas Finn, author of a book recommended on the “For Your Marriage” website. “I would say, however, that the current letter is probably the least ‘jargony’ letter I can remember, especially the first half.”

Following closely the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the pastoral letter first discusses marriage as a natural institution essentially linked to male-female complementarity and ordered to the good of the spouses and the procreation of children. Describing marriage as a “lifelong partnership of the whole of life, of mutual and exclusive fidelity, established by mutual consent between a man and a woman, and ordered towards the good of the spouses and the procreation of offspring,” the letter views marriage as an institution facing “fundamental challenges” from contraception, homosexual unions, divorce, and cohabitation.

“Deliberately intervening, by the use of contraceptive practices, to close off an act of intercourse to the possibility of procreation is a way of separating the unitive meaning of marriage from the procreative meaning,” the bishops write. “This is objectively wrong in and of itself and is essentially opposed to God’s plan for marriage and proper human development.”

“The legal recognition of same-sex unions poses a multifaceted threat to the very fabric of society, striking at the source from which society and culture come and which they are meant to serve,” the letter continues. “Such recognition affects all people, married and non-married: not only at the fundamental levels of the good of the spouses, the good of children, the intrinsic dignity of every human person, and the common good, but also at the levels of education, cultural imagination and influence, and religious freedom.”

“Social science research,” they add, “finds that cohabitation has no positive effects on a marriage. In some cases, cohabitation can in fact harm a couple’s chances for a stable marriage. More importantly, though, cohabitation involves the serious sin of fornication. It does not conform to God’s plan for marriage and is always wrong and objectively sinful.”

The letter than turns to “marriage in the order of the new creation,” discussing marriage as a sacrament, as a reflection of the life of the Blessed Trinity, as the foundation of the domestic church, and as a vocation in which spouses are called to grow in chastity and gratitude. In this section, the bishops note the threats posed by Internet pornography. Calling upon parents to “help their children come to an appreciation of the need for continual conversion and repentance from sin, encouraging a love for and participation in the Sacrament of Reconciliation,” the bishops urge parents to turn to “Catholic schools, religious education programs, and Catholic homeschooling resources” to help them bring up their children in the faith—the first reference to homeschooling in a US bishops’ pastoral letter.

The bishops approved the pastoral letter by a 180-45 vote. “I can only surmise about the reasons why some bishops chose not to vote in favor of the pastoral letter,” Archbishop Kurtz told CWR. “My sense is that the body of bishops was united in the teaching on marriage that is expressed in the pastoral letter.” Nonetheless, “based on the questions from the floor, there were some who favored a different sequence in presentation,” while “others favored including a more direct message to the various groups whom we addressed and who have special challenges in today’s society,” and “still others favored a style that would appeal to a particular audience, such as engaged couples.” Archbishop Kurtz’s committee, on the other hand, “favored the present structure, which uses the format now in the Catechism of the Catholic Church,” and “found it very important to offer a foundational document that would also address the societal challenges to marriage today.” 

Only time will tell whether the splendor of the Church’s teaching on marriage and family life will reach more Catholics and non-Catholics alike. “Most Catholics are not aware of the Church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality beyond the ‘don’ts’ they have picked up along their way of life,” says Dr. Finn. “Unless the message concerning the sacrament of marriage becomes a frequent topic for proclamation at Sunday Mass and through other parish-based means, I think that for too many of us, God’s gift of marriage will keep ending up like some of those Christmas presents we get but never use: stored on a dusty shelf in a closet, never fulfilling their intended purpose.”


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About J. J. Ziegler 62 Articles
J. J. Ziegler, who holds degrees in classics and sacred theology, writes from North Carolina.