We all know that marriage rates are low in the United States. The most recent American Family Survey found that only 45% of Americans are currently married (down from 50% in 2015).
Despite the Church’s pro-marriage stance, Catholic marriage rates are not much higher than the general population. In 2014, while about 50% of Americans overall were married, the USCCB reported that about 54% of Catholic adults were married. Those Catholics who do marry, marry at older and older ages.
It’s easy to assume that the other half of Catholics, like the rest of the world, are cohabiting and fornicating instead of marrying. But this is only one part of the story. Practicing Catholics who are living by the Church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality still face enormous hurdles to achieving marriage.
In late 2021, I took an anonymous survey of 300 self-identified practicing Catholics ages 18-39, asking them about obstacles they faced to marriage. The responses, combined with many personal conversations and my own experiences (I am 27, single, and have lived in a devout Catholic family and community since age four) show that the struggles of single Catholics today are substantial, but not always the type of struggles that most Catholics in the older generations expect.
This article will describe four of the most important lesser-known obstacles to marriage that devout Catholics face. A follow-up piece will propose solutions.
When asked what hindered them from marrying sooner, many respondents mentioned they had spent time considering religious life or priesthood—or, as one respondent put it, fearing they were called to the religious life or priesthood.
Hypothetically, entering seminary or the novitiate for a time can be a very good thing for someone who ultimately marries: openness to God’s will and rigorous spiritual formation are good qualities in a spouse, too. But, in reality, devout young adults—even not-so-young adults, in their late twenties and thirties—often get stuck in discernment, unable to commit either to marriage, priesthood, or religious life for fear they might actually be called to a different vocation.
Suppose a devout young man focuses on his studies in college, then considers religious life or priesthood for a year or two after graduation, then decides that isn’t his vocation, then begins looking for a spouse for the first time at twenty-four. Or, suppose he dates first, then realizes he never really gave priesthood a chance and ends his relationship with his girlfriend to do so, fearing that proposing to her would go against God’s will. (Meanwhile, the girlfriend enters her own discernment phase, wondering whether the breakup is a sign she’s called to become a nun.) Perhaps he exits and re-enters the dating pool more than once, with one- or two-year stints of discerning the religious life or priesthood in between. That takes a long time.
This story is not fictional: I’ve seen variations of it many times and experienced it myself. Is it any wonder the average age of marriage is nearing thirty? Something is wrong with discernment culture, and it’s an obstacle to holy marriages and holy priestly and religious vocations.
Catholic “Camps,” or the Fifty-Flavor Filter
As I wrote for Crisis in October 2021, the divisions within the Church—traditional Catholic, conservative Catholic, liberal Catholic, etc.—are another obstacle to marriage, particularly for devout Catholics.
In the corrupted culture we’re in today, single Catholics already struggle to find someone of the opposite sex who wants to marry and have children, is approximately the right age, in reasonable geographic proximity (or on the same dating website), with a personality and looks that they can be at least somewhat attracted to, who also finds them attractive, and is a practicing Catholic with enough formation and virtue for matrimony.
To that set of filters, which has already eliminated the vast majority of the world, add an additional filter: and the right kind of Catholic. Hardly anyone makes it through the funnel.
The divisions in the Church are often given liturgical labels—e.g. a “trad” is a devotee of the traditional Latin Mass—but the divisions in the Church run deeper than which Mass one attends on Sunday.
Most importantly for marriage, which Catholic “camp” a person is in often correlates with differing attitudes on moral and doctrinal issues that substantially impact day-to-day life within marriage. What do male headship and wifely submission look like? When, if ever, is it acceptable for a wife to work outside the home? When, if ever, is it acceptable to use Natural Family Planning to avoid pregnancy? Is homeschooling a good idea? Are COVID vaccines a good idea?
Based on official Church teaching, a Catholic could answer each of these questions in a number of different ways without jeopardizing their orthodoxy or piety. But in marriage, spouses must come to some agreement on them in order to live peaceably. Therefore, the answers to each of these questions and many more act as yet another filter, often dividing devout Catholic man from devout Catholic woman.
This is a complex and nuanced problem, especially when we try to discover causes and assign blame. For now, let us simply acknowledge that the variety of liturgical, doctrinal, and lifestyle-related divisions within the Church is an enormous obstacle to finding a spouse, especially when layered on top of the massive divisions in our society as a whole.
Parent and Mentor Influence, Several Ways
First Way: Example
There is some positive news regarding Catholic marriage and families. The 2014 USCCB study showed that 79% of Catholic parents were married and that the majority of Catholic children were growing up in a household with two married, Catholic parents. Since parents’ divorce affects children’s marital success, this is overall good news (though one wishes the number was even higher).
But there’s nuance even here. In my survey, I asked about respondents’ parents’ marital status and whether they seemed happy. Most said their parents were pretty happily married, even if there were some “rough patches.” However, a number of them admitted that their parents were unhappy, whether a divorce ever happened or not.
“My parents have been unhappily married as long as I’ve been alive,” shared one.
“They spent a lot of time distant, fighting, and trying to hurt each other,” said another.
Even among my married friends and on social media, I hear, “Marriage is hard” a lot and see plenty of examples of the strife and sacrifice it entails—even from the people who verbally encourage their single friends and followers to marry. Though it’s good to be reminded that marriage is hardly a Hallmark movie, I often wish married people displayed more of the joy that makes the sacrifice worth it. It must be there… right?
Parents and mentors can encourage single Catholics to marry all they like, but their words mean little if their example of marriage is so bleak that it scares single people away.
Second Way: Mixed and Incomplete Messages
I also asked whether respondents’ parents encouraged marriage and emphasized it more or less than other vocations, career, etc. Here, answers varied widely, but several interesting points emerged.
Some said their parents encouraged marriage so much that they did not feel supported when discerning religious life or simply being single in their adult years. Pressure to marry, or lack of encouragement to be open to God’s will, actually pushed these young adults further away from marriage.
Some said their parents emphasized education and career much more than marriage. Within this category, there were at least two basic sub-categories. The first were parents who were unhappily married or divorced themselves; it is perhaps easy to see why these did not emphasize marriage much to their children. The other sub-group were parents who were happily married themselves but seemed to assume that marriage would happen naturally, and that their advice and encouragement was more needed in other areas.
In a similar vein, some respondents said their parents either didn’t talk much about marriage at all, or encouraged marriage but did not encourage dating.
The latter categories—parents who were silent on marriage or encouraged marriage but did not encourage dating—interest me most. This is perhaps one of the most important yet least well-known phenomena in the Church today: parents, teachers, and mentors of young people present important information about marriage and sexuality, but forget to present a road-map for how to get to marriage in the first place—or, at times, actively discourage the steps that young adults need to take to achieve marriage.
Growing up as a practicing, orthodox Catholic myself, I found that the most prominent word used in any presentation on marriage or dating given by teachers and mentors was “wait.” Teachers and mentors constantly told us to wait to have sex until we were married; sometimes, to wait to kiss or hold hands until we were married to close to it; to wait to date until we were ready to get married; and to wait on God and be satisfied with Him alone until He sent us spouses.
All good advice. But rarely were we told when we would be ready for marriage, or how to get ready. Rarely were we told when and how to take an active role in finding a spouse, with God’s assistance. Never were we told when to stop waiting and start dating.
I recall speaking with a young man who said he suddenly “woke up” in his early twenties having never dated at all and realized that he was old enough to start discerning marriage. No one had ever told him that it was time; he was waiting, waiting for a permission that was never coming.
There’s a problem with the way many devout Catholic teens and young adults have been taught about marriage and sexuality, a problem of mixed and incomplete messages that can be summed up thus: wait to date until you’re ready to marry, but marry young and have many children! Marriage is holy and desirable, but you should be satisfied without it until God gives you a spouse. Marriage is good, but in a good-for-you kind of way… that is, difficult and possibly miserable.
How Do You Date, Anyway?
The previous obstacle leads naturally into the last one I’ll cover in this article: many young people don’t know how to date, either because no one ever broached the subject with them, or because so many mentors gave them conflicting advice on how it should work. Our society might be the first to have a near-total lack of universal courtship customs.
“I thought when I got to college, getting asked out and going on dates all the time would just be normal,” one of my friends said during our sophomore year of college, but most of us had never been on a date at all. I know countless women, sometimes near or past thirty, who haven’t been asked out in years. The “wait” messages we had received growing up implied that there were guys out there just chomping at the bit to date us when the time came, but where were they?
Anthony Esolen and others have also pointed out this phenomenon: for many devout Catholics, dating simply isn’t happening. I see two primary reasons for this.
First Reason: Emphasis on “Intentionality”
For my generation, if mentors taught young people anything about dating and courtship itself, they did so with a heavy emphasis on “dating for marriage” and being “intentional”: good things, but so easily twisted into a shape that causes further problems.
Young people hear, “Be intentional,” and think it means that they have to intend to marry a person—or at least to enter an exclusive, marriage-oriented relationship with him or her—in order to go on dates at all. This is, of course, an impossible chicken-and-egg situation.
Ironically, this often leads people to dive into committed relationships too quickly, lest they lack “intentionality,” and then (too often) suffer painful breakups that keep them out of the dating pool for a time while they heal and emotionally detach. (Similar to the discernment story above, this takes a long time and contributes to a later marital age.)
Or, it may lead people—most often women, in my experience—to reject almost any opportunity for a date, because the rush to exclusivity that “intentionality” seems to require is always too daunting a commitment.
Second Reason: Loss of a Common Code
In case I have alarmed my readers by seeming to dismiss “intentionality,” let me clarify: dating intentionally, with marriage as the goal, is extremely important.
However, many single young adults have completely misunderstood how to be intentional, because no one has taught them the practical steps of a successful courtship. Each person or group has a different idea of when and how to ask for a date, when and how to accept or reject a date, how many dates should happen before entering an exclusive or “official” relationship, when physical gestures of affection should occur, when to meet each other’s families, and so much more.
While a man is still getting to know a woman in group settings and trying to gather enough information to find out whether he wants to date her, his woman has secretly dismissed him as cowardly and non-committal. When a woman thinks she has “friend-zoned” a man, he thinks her friendliness is a sign of romantic interest. Every step of the dating procedure is similarly full of missed expectations (“Why did—or didn’t—he want to kiss me on our third date?”), or burdened with the extra step of explicitly agreeing on what the expectations should be (“Just in case you were planning on kissing me…”).
It’s great to practice communication skills, but communication used to be much easier, because those expectations were set by the culture. Young people benefited from the combined experience and wisdom of many generations and were given ready-made boundaries that all good people knew and followed, safeguarding their chastity and smoothing the road to the altar. Now that this entire aspect of our culture has been obliterated, single people have to reconstruct it on their own… with every new person they go out with. It’s absolutely exhausting.
I leave aside the strangeness of dating apps and the lack of opportunities for single, post-college Catholics to meet each other in person. This article already covers a lot of ground. Suffice it to say that faithful Catholic young adults who have no other obstacles to marriage still desperately need a common language of signals and behaviors for courtship, but there is no single source from which to learn it.
When it comes to dating and marriage, Catholics suffer from most of the same problems that the secular world suffers from: pornography, their parents’ divorces, lack of responsibility and desire to commit, and much more. However, even Catholics who have escaped these snares encounter unique obstacles to marriage.
They are told to discern their vocations carefully, and they do—sometimes for many agonizing years. They are told to wait to date until they are ready for marriage, so they do—but no one has told them when they will be ready or how to get ready.
No one has told them how to ask for a date, accept a date, go on a date, enjoy a date. Ironically, many have been taught far more about marriage and sex—the beauty of it in God’s plan, the dangers of its misuse—than about the many steps they must take before the time when marriage and sex are possible. (Learning about NFP and Theology of the Body at sixteen, in mixed company, three years before I would ever go out to dinner with a man, seems pretty strange now that I think about it.)
Part of getting ready for marriage is also wanting marriage at all. With the example of parents who too often showcase the suffering and strife of marriage more than the joy, it’s no wonder that young adults are delaying their own marriages.
It’s tempting to think that finding the right person would eliminate most of the strife and bring about the joy, but who is the right person? In most Catholic young adults’ minds, no one can be the “right” person without having the same views on a multitude of aspects of doctrine, liturgy, and lifestyle. The “right” person might be many miles away, only to be found on a dating website if at all. And sending a messages over a long distance, asking a multitude of questions about controversial issues, is hardly the easiest way to build a human relationship, much less a romance.
But let us not lose hope. Most of these problems can be ameliorated by the parents, mentors, and Church leaders who have unwittingly caused or allowed them. And, all four can be surmounted by single, marriage-minded Catholics themselves, with a little learning, prayer, and courage. Part One of this essay has presented problems; Part Two will present solutions.
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