WASHINGTON — Consumerism, a culture of distraction and fear of commitment: These and other factors are driving today’s young people away from marriage, according to a theologian reflecting on the words of Pope Francis during his U.S. visit.
“In short, the habits of life promoted by the culture prior to marriage scarcely help form in young people the habits needed for a life of marriage and family,” David Schindler, dean emeritus at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family at The Catholic University of America in Washington, told CNA in an interview.
“Young Catholics,” he said, are not immune to this “cultural trend, wherein the time between ages 20 and 30 becomes a period when you graduate from college and get an apartment, and you live, and you get to know people and have a lot of space for yourself.”
The problem with this trend is that when young people finally make up their minds to get married, they are not prepared for such a commitment, because “it makes all kinds of demands. It interrupts careers, for example,” Schindler noted.
He referenced the words of Pope Francis, who warned Congress and the U.S. bishops during his visit to the United States last month that the culture is a key contributor to the phenomenon of young people choosing not to get married.
In his Sept. 26 address to U.S. bishops in Philadelphia, Pope Francis stated that “we are living in a culture that pushes young people not to form families: some because they don’t have the material resources to realize a wedding or a life together. But others just choose this because they think they’re better off this way; but that’s the temptation: to not lay a foundation, to not have a family.”
He went on to say that in a society with more large retail stores and fewer small neighborhood shops, choices are more abundant, but business and relationships have become more impersonal. With the rise of social media and virtual “friends” and “followers,” many suffer from “loneliness, with fear of commitment, in a limitless effort to feel recognized,” the Pope said.
Living in this state, youth are thus “paralyzed” when faced with the prospect of marriage and put off their decision until conditions are “perfect.”
“Meanwhile, life goes on, without really being lived to the full,” Francis added. “For knowledge of life’s true pleasures only comes as the fruit of a long-term, generous investment of our intelligence, enthusiasm and passion.”
The problem Pope Francis was diagnosing takes multiple forms today, Schindler said.
Culture of Distraction
First, a “culture of distraction” hinders people from pursuing a deeper relationship with God through daily contemplative prayer — which is the most important thing a person can do, especially to combat the negative effects of this culture, he said.
“We are greatly afflicted today with an activist Christianity that is increasingly enabled by our omnipresent technological devices,” Schindler added.
“The problem is that, if you’re not centered in the one thing necessary, which is the relationship to God,” he said, “then you end up searching for depth and for infinity of some sort, but it’s inevitably a bad infinity. It’s just one thing after another, instead of something that takes you into the true depth of reality.”
Another false promise of today’s culture is that commitment is bad because it is by nature exclusive, depriving us of other choices, Schindler explained. Thus, “we have difficulty in saying ‘forever.’”
However, he added, commitment “enables inclusivity of the right sort — an integrated inclusivity that enables reaching the depths and not merely the surfaces of love.”
For example, an Olympic athlete or a professional musician has spent years perfecting his craft and saying No to many other distractions and commitments along the way. Only through limiting his options and saying No to many other good things could an artist or athlete become great, Schindler explained.
In the same way, a couple can only achieve a deep love for each other through exclusivity, commitment and sacrifice.
“Marriage is about relationship and love and being present to other people in a way that takes time, involves sacrifice and the like,” he said.
The Poor in Relationships
Because many do not have deep relationships with God and others — which are “necessary” to our very being, Schindler said — there is a “poverty” here that is key to understanding Pope Francis when he talks about caring for the poor.
“The people that really, truly suffer the most in our culture, and most need our assistance, are the people that are without relation,” he said. These include unborn persons who are rejected by their parents, as well as those who lack a “coherent family.”
Schindler also stressed that the effects of today’s culture don’t just reach young single people; they also affect even those who get married and have children.
“In a word, the answer to consumerism is coherent relationships — and coherent means relationships where people don’t walk away when it gets difficult, where they’re in it with you forever,” he said.
For many young people who are the children of divorced parents, this is a major problem.
People approach marriage today as if they’re buying a house, Schindler said. Just like they might “upgrade” to a new house at the first opportunity, they may divorce and find another spouse they feel fits their needs better down the road.
However, “the root reason why divorce is evil,” he continued, is because the child “is not merely metaphorically but truly the unity of the two spouses.” Thus, if the spouses split and divorce, the child’s very identity is “split.”
“The price children, and men and women, are paying for this in our culture today is unimaginable,” he said.
And when couples do get married, many turn to contraception to prevent children, or in vitro fertilization to create them, Schindler continued. Both of these practices violate Church teaching because they undermine children as a gift, treating them as an object or a product that one is entitled to when one feels that it will “fit” into their life plans.
The Best Remedy
With all these problems and negative effects presented to us by a consumeristic culture, what is the best remedy for young Catholics?
First and foremost, it is “daily prayer,” Schindler said, “by which I mean, especially in our culture, truly contemplative prayer” that is not self-centered, but silent “adoration and listening” before God.
“You can’t reach God, who infinitely transcends us, without at the same time reaching into your own depths, which involves being quiet,” he said.
“It’s not very glamorous to propose prayer,” he admitted. “But I think we need most to follow the saints. We don’t need more administration and more programs, and the multiplication of websites and the multiplication of meetings. All those things may have their place, but they usually come at the expense of remaining mostly on the surface of things.”
When you practice contemplative prayer, he said, “you think about things differently. You become more patient. Your dealings with people, what you expect out of life, all those things unfold differently.”
In addition to prayer, young people need to personally encounter the witness of strong marriages and religious communities, which can inspire them to make commitments of their own, Schindler stressed.
“Young people will get over their fear of commitment when they see and experience its being lived,” he said. “Whatever else we do, we must put before them an alternative that shows the beauty of a freedom that has said forever, that is being lived — above all, in families and in consecrated life.”
“We need to show them the beauty of local community, of the depth of joy that can come from ‘staying in place’ and not moving about so incessantly.”