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Reversing the decline of marriage among Catholics

When it comes to staying married, nothing beats the certainty that marriage is for keeps.

(Images: us.fotolia.com)

These are not the best of times for Catholic marriage in America. Numbers illustrate the point. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, in 2020—when U.S. Catholic population stood at 73 million—Catholic marriages numbered a measly 97,200.

But, you say, 2020 was the Year of Covid, the Year of the Great Shutdown. You could hardly expect a lot of church weddings then.

Fair enough. So let’s look at a more typical year. In 2014, according to CARA, the number of Catholic marriages was 148,134. But before complacency sets in, bear in mind that in 1969 (Catholic population 54 million), the Catholic marriage total was 426,309. That’s a decline of 278,175 Catholic marriages in 45 years.

As I said, not the best of times.

Numbers like these provide background for the Vatican’s new plan for a “catechumenate” for couples preparing for marriage. It calls for formation starting a year and a half before the wedding and continuing into the early years. Such programs already exist in some U.S. dioceses and may be expected to grow in number with Vatican encouragement.

On a quick scan, the catechumenate approach, roughly modeled on the RCIA program for adults preparing to enter the Church, seems likely to appeal to highly motivated couples who, because of work or school or military service or some other reason, aren’t planning to marry right now, anyway. As an ideal, it’s great. But the audience may be limited.

And here, perhaps something else comes into play. A man I know whose wife recently died only a few weeks short of their 64th anniversary put his finger on it when I asked him what he thought was the key to a successful marriage—and preventive medicine to head off marital breakup. Here’s what he said:

“When we were married, I was 23 and my wife was a year younger. My intellectual scope was universal—I knew nothing about everything—and I had no idea I was entering a remedial program that would last nearly 64 years.

“The most important thing I learned—and it took me years–was that I should quit trying to make my wife over just the way I wanted her to be and accept her as she was. I suspect she would have said same thing the other way around about herself and me.

“I’m not talking about big faults. I mean the small peculiarities of attitude and behavior that we all have—liking this kind of music instead of that, preferring to vacation here rather than there, stuff like that. Learning to negotiate these differences with the person you marry is the heart and soul of complementarity.

“But it also was essential that we got married absolutely convinced that the marriage bond is unbreakable. Every marriage has rough spots, and approaching them knowing you have no choice except to work things out is a great motivator for getting on with the job. Whereas people who enter marriage thinking, ‘If this doesn’t pan out, I’ll quit,’ have two strikes against them from the start.

“I don’t fault theologians and canon lawyers who loosened up the annulment process some years back. It may have been a good idea to recognize broader psychological grounds, especially with so many people apparently entering marriage even less prepared than my wife and I were. But when it comes to staying married, nothing beats the certainty that marriage is for keeps.”

Here’s hoping a marriage catechumenate will help more people think like that.


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About Russell Shaw 267 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).

19 Comments

  1. Your friend’s witness is spot on. The Church would do better to take marriage prep out of the hands of the clergy–they have enough to do already–and put established married couples in charge. Everywhere: parishes, dioceses, and Rome. Priests belong on the team, certainly, just as lay persons should assist with discernment for seminary and the diaconate. Married persons need to run the show on marriages.

  2. Marriage will recover as a viable social and religious institution when, and only when, the possibility of divorce is taken off the table. Does that mean that either of the parties to a marriage must stay put if they are being abused or otherwise maltreatment? Of course not. But separation is not to be equated with divorce, especially for Catholics who honor Hope as an essential virtue and who believe that no one is beyond redemption.

  3. If I’m a middle of the road Catholic, wondering a Catholic wedding with my probably non-Catholic partner, how would we probably react to the prospect of an 18 month waiting period?
    Benedict was right that the Church will have to be smaller if we want her be more faithful.

  4. RE para. 6 .. the catechumenate approach,… There is a big difference between RCIA and Marriage prep. Marriage prep is important but if you mentioned a year and half to my kids they would run from that church to anywhere else to get married. I have three sons and two of them have been living common law for years and my eldest is expecting his first child. I am just praying for Holy Matrimony for them, with or without Marriage prep.

  5. “I have three sons and two of them have been living common law for years . . ”
    So what exactly is the problem? Nobody seems to know anymore. Or care.

  6. “Numbers like these provide background for the Vatican’s new plan for a ‘catechumenate’ for couples preparing for marriage. It calls for formation starting a year and a half before the wedding and continuing into the early years. Such programs already exist in some U.S. dioceses and may be expected to grow in number with Vatican encouragement.”

    With the unending blather in Vatican circles about the paramount value of “human dignity”, I cannot imagine a more insulting and degrading provocation that telling a Catholic man and woman who want to marry in the Church that their natural right to marry does not exist unless they complete an 18-month “catechumenate” likely taught, as these things go in the Church today, by a homosexual priest, a pants-suited social justice bus nun, or a divorced layman or laywoman living in Amoris Laetitia public adultery.

  7. Sometimes it is the “little things” that break a marriage up or leave it unsatisfying. Every one has a fatal flaw. The trick is to recognize it, know if you can live with it or not. If yes, one must never come down on spouse about it, or let it become an unspoken bone of contention. If one can’t, then one should not marry that person. Every marriage has unspoken rules. There are many reasons why todays young people do not choose to marry at all, let alone in the Church. Easy come, easy go? Peer and public pressure? I suspect that an 18 month delay of marriage could stop many to refuse to go through with it.

  8. “But, you say, 2020 was the Year of Covid, the Year of the Great Shutdown. You could hardly expect a lot of church weddings then.”
    .
    My son got married in December of 2020. We attended via YouTube (or was it FB?). What one could not do (in most locations I assume) is have a big fancy wedding or reception. But, you could most certainly have a “church wedding” with a priest and two witnesses. If the parish did refuse that,that is nearly as scandalous as refusing the the Mass/Eucharist to much of the flock for weeks on end

    • I don’t understand the concept of weddings as costly public events in the first place. Couples and their families invest huge amounts of time and money on wedding planners, photos, caterers, flowers ,and honeymoon destinations. Sometimes to the point of going into debt.
      If they spent even half as much time discussing what’s important to them, what values they share, their financial plans, Church teachings on marriage and family, etc. it would be time better invested.
      What many engaged couples prioritize is an event planning, not a lifetime planning.

  9. Read the genius Kierkegaard, a commitment, a promise for life cannot be dissolved unless one is a liar. To swear before God, Who specified the permanence of the marital bond, and reject this bond is hypocrisy. Simple but profound.

  10. A man and a woman who are deeply in love and wish to marry firmly committed to agreeing with all the traditional moral teachings of the Catholic Church including the openness to life, to children, do not need experts to waste 18 months of advise, they need the Sacramental graces that Christ offered at the Marriage Feast at Canaan.

    • This is the “whole truth, nothing but the truth.” And this can be said within 18 minutes with time left to meditate upon it. If the couple cannot make this covenant before God, then do not commit to Sacramental marriage.

  11. The main challenge with this system is not on the front end of a marriage. Initial love can carry people a long way, and self-sacrifice is easy early on. Thanks to extended lifespans and decreased maternal mortality, marriages today tend to last longer than centuries ago.

    What would be more helpful is more assistance at key moments: the first children, changes in finances, empty nest, etc.. Marriage Encounter and for those in trouble, Retrouvaille. Marriages aren’t doomed from the start, even with couples’ cohabitation. The biggest flaw in how the sacraments are administered is the graduation model. Once you finish baptism classes/2nd grade/seminary, etc., you are a finished product, with all the “rights” you are entitled to.

    Long-term married couples know serious challenges creep up years after the wedding. That’s where the focus needs to be. Instead of pouring millions fighting other people’s civil unions, we could be making weekend retreats more possible for couples with children. The institutional priorities are out of whack, and do no service to marriages in difficulty.

  12. A simple method would be to frequently remind people of those sins which are associated with the Sixth Commandment: self-abuse, fornication, and adultery between “divorced” and “remarried” persons when their lawful spouse is living – even when the courts say otherwise.

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