SOUTH BEND, Ind. — From college campuses to city centers, young adults are defying their peers and standing up for the Catholic conception of marriage, through their words and their example, bucking dominant cultural trends.
Michael Bradley is one of the emerging leaders of this “resistance movement.” While many of his fellow students were out celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in a decidedly un-Catholic fashion, the University of Notre Dame senior was leading an event that would make the non-Irish eyes of Ireland’s patron saint smile: a conference devoted to the Catholic understanding of marriage.
The event featured a panel of experts who established the theological, philosophical and political foundations of marriage as a union between a man and a woman, while also exploring the potential consequences of redefining the institution.
“My peers are ill-equipped to respond to the aggressive and radically uncivil rhetoric with which they are faced as supporters of traditional marriage,” said Bradley, referring to the fact that Millennials — those who were born between 1980 and 2000 — have grown up in an era when traditional marriage has already been challenged by sky-rocketing divorce rates and a rise in birth control and cohabitation.
“Even on Notre Dame’s campus, there’s a hesitation to speak very publicly about this. I hope the panel was the first step in really combating that dynamic.”
Despite the holiday and the fact that the day of the conference was the first day back from spring break, organizers counted 230 in attendance; Bradley says about half of attendees were young adults.
But young adults weren’t only in the audience; they were also sitting behind the expert’s table.
Of the four invited speakers, three of them were Millennials: Ryan Anderson, 31, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation and the co-author of the influential What Is Marriage? Man And Woman: A Defense; Ron Belgau, 39, a celibate homosexual who created the blog Spiritual Friendship and is completing his dissertation at Saint Louis University; and Sherif Girgis, 28, who is pursuing his Ph.D. in philosophy at Princeton while also earning his law degree at Yale; he co-authored What Is Marriage with Anderson and Princeton professor Robert George.
Girgis said he decided to get involved in defending traditional marriage in a prominent way after he recognized that the “intellectual debate on this issue is impoverished beyond words.”
“So many advocates of same-sex marriage think it’s the only rational option,” he explained. “In fact, it has deep tensions and contradictions … but people don’t know that until they hear it, and there are very few people willing to share it.”
To be clear, the Girgises of the world are the exception of their generation. Young adults are the group most widely accepting of redefining marriage to legally include same-sex couples; a recent poll found that 75% of those between the ages of 18 and 29 support same-sex “marriage.”
“People tend to start out socially liberal and get more conservative as they age,” Girgis said in explanation of these figures. But he also pointed out that Millennials tend to be more individualistic than previous generations and also have experienced a culture of marriage centered on adults’ emotional and sexual needs, which has had a pronounced effect on how young adults understand matrimony.
“In that context, it looks like choice or consent is the only principle of marriage,” he explained. “As a result, it’s not that young people know the argument for conjugal marriage and reject it — they’ve just never heard it.”
Girgis has done his best to “speak the truth about marriage” to his peers. Though he says reactions from his peers have been “mixed,” he has certainly experienced his share of backlash.
“Some people literally won’t talk to me,” Girgis said, due to his stance against same-sex “marriage.”
“Some friendships have been broken by it,” he added.
Anderson has also been the target of scorn from same-sex “marriage” advocates: He was called “out of touch” with his generation for his beliefs on marriage by former CNN host Piers Morgan, and he has faced hostility on college campuses, ranging from his alma mater, Princeton, to Catholic institutions such as Boston College.
More recently, Girgis and Anderson have faced opposition from students and administrators at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. Along with two other marriage experts, Girgis and Anderson are scheduled to speak this week at a pro-traditional marriage event organized by the Stanford Anscombe Society, a student group that promotes traditional social values. Kellie Fiedorek, a 30-year-old lawyer with the Alliance Defending Freedom, will also be speaking.
But a student government organization denied funding to the group for the event, citing that it would create “fear” among Stanford’s “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer” communities. After the Anscombe Society secured funding from outside sources, the Stanford administration presented them with an additional hurdle: The student group would need to pay thousands of dollars in order to provide “event security.”
Stanford’s decision was derided on the national level, and the university altered its course. The Anscombe Society’s event, called the Communicating Values Conference, will proceed as planned on April 5.
Despite the opposition young adults who speak out for traditional marriage face at seemingly every turn, they can be encouraged by nationwide efforts that aim to educate Millennials about the truth of marriage, while also equipping them with the tools to make their case in the public forum. Unsurprisingly, these organizations not only seek to reach young adults, they’re led by them, too.
Caitlin Seery, 27, is the director of the Love and Fidelity Network (LNF), a Princeton, N.J.-based group that’s committed to providing college students with the “resources, support and arguments they need to uphold the institution of marriage, the special role of the family and sexual integrity within their university communities.”
Seery, a Princeton alumna, recognizes that young adults who adhere to the conjugal understanding of marriage are a distinct minority, but she’s impressed by their commitment and resolve.
“These are a talented and courageous set of young men and women,” Seery said about those who stand up against campus norms to argue for traditional marriage and sexual integrity. “The students we work with constantly impress me, both with the courage with which they face these issues on campus and the tone they take in addressing them.”
Seery added that students find the courage to speak out on these issues, and withstand the inevitable scrutiny from their peers, because they believe that they’re advocating for something intrinsically good and want others to experience it.
“It can be discouraging to feel like the minority,” she said, “but there is also much energy to be drawn from being part of a team that’s working for something so good and so true.”
In the nation’s capital, Mitch Boersma, chief operating officer of the Catholic Information Center (CIC), plays an active role in spreading the truth about marriage to young adults in a decidedly socially liberal city. The CIC does so by providing lectures and reading materials to those who come through its doors on Washington’s K Street, but also by “creating a physical space for young adults to gather as a community to live an authentically Catholic life.”
While Boersma recognizes the importance of intellectual enrichment, he says that’s not how Catholics will turn around the marriage debate.
“The tidal wave of support for gay marriage over the last few years is not a result of someone finding the right logical syllogism,” he said. “‘Love is love’ is not an argument; it’s a slogan.”
“But it works,” he said, at getting people to pay attention to the same-sex “marriage” effort.
That’s why Boersma says the best way young Catholics can demonstrate the goodness of traditional marriage is by putting it into action.
“Don’t be afraid to start and grow your family and to encourage your friends to do the same,” advised the recently married 28-year-old.
“Catholic families with four, five, six or more children act as a sort of magnet. It’s a very attractive vision of community, one that can be replicated in towns across the country, but only if there are examples to follow.”
Leading by Example
Chris and Katrina Harrington may not be writing books on the philosophical foundations of conjugal marriage, but they’re advancing the cause in another, perhaps more powerful, way.
The couple met at Notre Dame, when Chris was a senior and Katrina was a freshman. They married right after Katrina graduated in 2011 and started their family immediately: Their now 2-year-old son Ryan, affectionately referred to as the couple’s “honeymoon souvenir,” was born nine months to the day after their wedding. Conor, the Harrington’s second son, was born five months ago.
Katrina says their young family presents a countercultural example of what marriage is.
“Our union shows that being a husband and wife in the Catholic sense is more than living together and divvying up the bills,” she said. “I hope that people can see that Chris and I are living a vocation. Our humbling vocation is not a vacation — but, boy, does it bring us happiness and closer to Christ.”
“In our culture, we seem to have lost the importance of children being raised in a stable home with a father and mother,” Chris added. “We hope that our commitment and fidelity helps demonstrate how rewarding marriage can be as a life-giving sacrament.”
Katrina chronicles the daily joys of being a young married mother at her enormously popular “mommy blog,” Cedars and Tiny Flowers. She admits that she “happily cries” when she sees comments on the site that talk about the impact her example has made, because she “can’t believe that honestly writing about [her] goofy boys helps people find their vocations.”
The Harringtons’ example might not transform the nation’s marriage culture overnight, but Girgis says it doesn’t have to.
He encourages those who support the traditional definition of marriage “to take the long view,” pointing out the slow but steady gains of the pro-life cause over four decades.
“History isn’t a brooding force in the heavens, moving us irresistibly to a particular destination,” said Girgis. “People are free; what happens depends on what we do.”
Girgis, who is engaged to be married this summer, says actions will always speak louder than words, even those in books like his.
“The lived example of countless couples living the goods of marriage and family with fidelity, and of unmarried people living out their own calls to love in ways that support and don’t detract from a flourishing marriage culture, will do more than all the world’s books combined.”
Register correspondent Jonathan Liedl writes from Minnesota.