NASHVILLE — Aquinas College in Nashville, Tenn., and the Ruth Institute, a San Marcos, Calif.-based institute promoting marriage, have teamed up to host a conference to answer the challenges marriage faces today.
Called “Love and Life in the Divine Plan and in Real Life,” the two-day conference Friday and Saturday, Feb. 25-26, takes its inspiration from the U.S. Bishops’ 2009 pastoral letter Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan.
In order to prepare and equip people to defend the truth about marriage, the conference will focus on the four threats to marriage identified in the bishops’ pastoral letter: contraception, divorce, cohabitation and same-sex unions. The conference will also cover Christian anthropology and the real gift of God’s love as related to the overall theme.
“This is a great way to present the material, to get the people to read the bishops’ letter and see the bishops know what they’re talking about with these issues,” said Ruth Institute founder and President Jennifer Roback Morse.
Morse speaks nationwide about the true understanding of lifelong, committed marriages. She also testifies on the subject at legislative hearings, most recently before the Rhode Island Legislature as they considered same-sex “marriage.” She has recently unpacked the bishops’ letter for the National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers.
Dominican Sister Mary Peter Muehlenkamp, president of Aquinas College, saw excitement build immediately when she announced the conference.
“At Aquinas College we recognized the need to make people more aware of this document and to equip them with the intellectual framework to articulate the truth that we know by faith,” Sister Mary Peter said.
She views the college, which was founded by the Dominican Sisters of Saint Cecilia (also known as the Nashville Dominicans), and the Ruth Institute as “likely collaborators, given that in our respective fields we are striving to make the general public more aware of what it means to recognize and preserve the dignity of the human person.”
A ‘Way to Holiness’
Morse calls the collaboration “a match made in heaven.” She credits the idea for the talk on Christian anthropology to Sister Mary Peter, who had heard Sam Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute, talk on the subject. He will speak at the conference.
The lineup includes Janet Smith, who holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, on contraception; Doug Allen, a professor of economics at Simon Fraser University, on divorce; and Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, on cohabitation. Morse herself will speak on “Same-Sex Unions and Artificial Reproductive Technology.” All will make presentations explaining the natural reasons why the bishops are right, Morse said.
Nashville Dominican Sister Jane Dominic Laurel finds this conference particularly important “because it’s a perfect example of working in conjunction with the bishops … to help the bishops in their mission of teaching and preaching and bringing the Gospel to the world by bringing the Gospel to the families, to young people and, hopefully, to all the nation through EWTN.” The Eternal Word Television Network will film the conference for broadcast at a later date.
“One of the most beautiful things about the document is it shows the importance of marriage and the dignity of marriage as a way to holiness, (how) God brings us to sanctity and to himself and his love in marriage,” said Sister Jane Dominic, a theology instructor at Aquinas. She will give a talk on “The Rich Gift of God’s Love.”
Wilcox, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, believes the conference is essential. “We know from the data that marriage is in serious straits in the United States,” he said. For one thing, since the 1970s there has been a dramatic increase in divorce, particularly among working-class and poor Americans.
That’s a source of concern for yet another reason, because “people who are in intact marriages are more likely to attend church and Mass,” he noted.
Cohabitation on the Rise
But the biggest trend in numerical terms is the increase in cohabitation. He pointed out that more than 65% of couples getting married today cohabited prior to marriage — “and that’s a lowball estimate.”
Those couples are more likely to experience difficulty in marriage. More importantly, he said, is the dramatic increase in childbearing in recent years among cohabiting couples.
“Kids born to cohabiting couples,” he said, “are three times as likely to see their parents break up before age 5, leading to more instability in the lives of children in the nation.”
The fallout is often very deep, he says. “When the family breaks down, it’s much less likely to find itself in church on any given Sunday.”
In her presentation on same-sex unions, Morse will also focus on artificial reproduction for two reasons. First, she finds that the topic often comes up in same-sex unions. Those involved “feel themselves entitled to use artificial reproduction in unlimited fashion.” The principles of law are undermined by same-sex “marriage,” which may eventually redefine parenthood as well.
The second reason? “What I see in my world in talking with a lot of young people,” says Morse, “is that artificial reproduction is the next big threat to marriage coming down the pike” because it’s shaping women’s decisions. It means they don’t have to take marriage seriously; they can become mothers without marriage, she continued, underscoring that, as in all areas, “the bishops’ position is completely coherent.”
“The Church is way out ahead of the curve predicting in advance,” Morse concludes. “While the whole rest of the world thinks [contraception, divorce, cohabitation, etc.] are great, the Church says: ‘This is not going to work.’”
With her subject, Sister Jane Dominic hopes to bring the conference full circle to what God has planned for marriage: love, intimacy, risk, vulnerability, sacrifice and suffering — God’s way of loving us.
She envisions a connection of the conference with the theology of the body and the New Evangelization.
“A part of the New Evangelization has to address people of our time where they are,” she explained, “and where they are is still suffering from the wounds of contraception, divorce, premarital sex, the hook-up culture and living together. People are carrying around profound woundedness. The New Evangelization is recognizing the need to address that woundednes and then bringing to it the theology of the body.”
Sister Jane Dominic concludes, “One of the most beautiful gifts the conference can bring is the truth that heals and that sets you free from the wounds of the times.”
Morse envisions another result with the conference. She sees it fulfilling one of her missions in life: “to help Catholics appreciate the fact the Church, our mother, knows what she’s talking about.”
Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.