WASHINGTON — An oft-repeated tale says Catholic marriages fare only slightly better than those among the rest of the American population — which is said to have a divorce rate of about 50%. If it were ever true, new research tells us it’s no longer the case.
"I’ve long been under the impression, without investigating the numbers, that this idea of Catholic marriages failing at about 50% is faulty," said Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colo.
So the bishop was pleased to see data compiled by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate that shows Catholic marriages doing well, relative to marriages in the general population. Officials of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) share his enthusiasm.
"The lower rate of divorce among Catholics compared to the overall population is an encouraging statistic that we can learn from," said Bethany Meola, assistant director of the Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The Georgetown center reported in late September that a variety of national surveys show "Catholics stand out with only 28% of the ever-married having divorced at some point."
While 28% remains a troubling statistic, the research suggests that this figure compares favorably with the 40% divorce rate for those with no religious affiliation, 39% for Protestants and 35% for those of other religious faiths. Overall, 26% of all American adults have divorced, whereas 20% of Catholics have done so.
When statisticians looked more closely at the data dealing with Catholics, they found that Catholics who marry people of the same faith have a lower divorce rate than Catholics who marry non-Catholics. Among mixed marriages, Catholics who marry Protestants or non-religious spouses have a divorce rate of 49% and 48% respectively. Catholics who marry someone of an "other" non-Protestant religion, such as Judaism, have a 35% rate, while Catholics who marry Catholics have a 27% divorce rate.
"Practicing Catholics, especially those who enter matrimony with a practicing Catholic, have significantly lower divorce rates," blogged Msgr. Charles Pope, pastor of Washington’s Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Catholic Church, after studying the new research. "Of course, it makes sense, doesn’t it? The faith lived seeks God’s help."
Christian Meert, diocesan director of the Office of Marriage and Family Life in Colorado Springs, Colo., isn’t surprised by the numbers either.
"If they are both Catholics and practice the sacraments and pray together, they will grow through every event in their lives," Meert told the Register. "They also have received an incredible grace through the sacrament of matrimony, a grace that helps them through the difficulties life brings."
Though Bishop Sheridan says Catholic marriage rates must improve, he suggested that a growing number of Catholic dioceses have made progress with solid marriage-preparation standards and a focus on doctrinal teachings that forbid contraception and explain natural family planning (NFP) to engaged couples.
"From everything I have read and heard, NFP really does add to the intimacy of the husband and wife," Bishop Sheridan explained. "It calls the husband and wife to bring attention to the sexual relationship. I have heard a great number of testimonials about this."
Bishop Sheridan welcomed Christian Meert and his wife, Christine Meert, into his diocese after meeting the couple about a decade ago. Together, the French immigrants founded and began running the growing business CatholicMarriagePrepOnline.com.
The interactive Internet-based curriculum has become widely used throughout the world to help Catholics discern and prepare for marriage.
"It became our program with a few tweaks and moderations, and they have marketed it internationally," Bishop Sheridan said. "I know other bishops are paying attention to it."
Meert said that, in the past, many of the programs did a poor job. "Many of them were stuck in dealing with just communication and finances, when the duty of the Church is to catechize, evangelize these couples and help them encounter Jesus and convert," Meert said. "The duty is to help them learn about the teachings of the Church, the formation of conscience, the sacrament of matrimony, prayer and all that pertains to the spiritual life."
Meert hopes the growing popularity of pre-Cana programs, which adhere strictly to Church teachings on married life, will make a difference and improve success rates of Catholic marriages.
The USCCB’s Meola credited a variety of modern diocesan marriage-preparation programs throughout the United States with strengthening Catholic marriages and lowering divorce statistics.
"One likely reason for this lower divorce rate is that the Church has been a leader in modeling the need for adequate time for marriage preparation and formation, and many high-quality marriage-preparation programs are available throughout the country," Meola explained.
Meola said marriage-preparation courses make a difference because they instill that marriage is a lifelong vocation. "It’s not a product to be bought and then discarded at one’s convenience," Meola said. "The ‘pause’ of marriage preparation helps couples pray, discuss and reflect on the significance of what they are planning to undertake. … Hopefully, the more the good news about God’s plan for marriage can be promoted and witnessed, the more young people will be attuned and open to God’s beautiful plan for them."
The Georgetown research also found a decrease in the rate of annulments in the United States, which accounted for a staggering 49% of worldwide annulments in 2011. In 1990, one annulment was introduced for every 4.5 Catholic marriages. Though the United States continues to lead with this statistic, the number had dropped to one for every 6.5 marriages in 2011.
Bishop Sheridan expressed hope that the promising data indicate a strengthening of Catholic marriages, but he worries it may signify something else. "We cannot automatically assume that a drop in annulments means marriages are doing better," the bishop said.
"My concern is that fewer people who could potentially benefit from a decree of nullity are petitioning for it. A growing number may be unaware that it exists. I sometimes worry that divorced people are sort of looking away, going to Communion and living as if it’s just fine and they don’t have to do anything. I think it’s a question we have to ask and begin to explore."
writes from Colorado.