Reading the 2001 “State of Our Unions” report reminds you of the opening lines of Charles Dickens' Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The report, issued annually by Barbara Whitehead and David Popenoe's National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, charts trends and attitudes regarding marriage in the United States.

This year's report, “Who Wants to Marry a Soul Mate?”, released in June, continues research begun last year on the largely neglected area of dating. What are today's 20-somethings looking for in the dating world and, more importantly, what are they looking for in a future spouse?

They're looking for the best — a soul mate with whom to share an “intimate community of … love” (to pirate Vatican II). They're also believing the worst: Cohabitation, they think, will help them find that soul mate. In other words, they want a spouse with whom to share the deepest feelings, but they're inclined to buy some of today's prevailing orthodoxies hook, line and sinker. For example, less than half (42%) think finding a spouse of the same religion is important.

Reading this report suggests that Catholic young-adult, family-life and preCana programs have a tough row to hoe. Nonetheless, there are embers worth kindling. Some 86% of young adults recognize that “marriage is hard work,” while 88% think the divorce rate is too high and America would be better off with fewer divorces.

The report also points up brushfires worth extinguishing. For example, 62% deem it acceptable for an adult woman to have an out-of-wedlock child if she hasn't yet found the “right” man to marry. While almost 9 out of 10 think there's too much divorce, only 47% want to change the law to make divorce more difficult to obtain. Around 80% say marriage is the business of nobody but the two people involved.

Whitehead and Popenoe sum up their data this way: Marriage is seen as “emotionally deep and socially shallow.”

Alien Arrangements

What does this mean for Catholics? That we must contend with the toxin of the sexual revolution that has privatized marriage and sexual relations. Young people now widely believe that society has no legitimate interest in marriage, the building block of society. Nearly half the respondents, 45%, do not believe the state should even license marriages.

In such a worldview, marriage is not a natural institution. It has no inherent properties, no natural contours. It is a purely conventional arrangement, a contract whose terms are defined by the two parties and nobody else.

Such a viewpoint obviously is incompatible with the Catholic faith. Not that we stand alone on that front — a privatized notion of marriage is without precedent in human history. Except for the last three decades or so, the idea that society has no legitimate interest in the arrangements by which it is continued is utterly alien to history and anthropology. The track record of the last 30 years indicates that the long stretches of human history knew something we are determined to ignore.

“State of Our Unions” also reports that American marriages are increasingly losing their “child-centeredness.” Conventional wisdom in America today denies that parents should avoid divorce “for the sake of the children,” even though social science increasingly amasses data indicating that children do much better when parents stay together.

Whitehead and Popenoe note that since 1975 “the presence of children in a marriage has become only a very minor inhibitor of divorce.” In an international survey, U.S. respondents lead the world in disagreeing (about 70%) with the proposition that “the main purpose of marriage is having children.”

Don't interpret this to mean that children are irrelevant. If marriage is OK without kids, so are kids without marriage. The Whitehead-Popenoe study tapped into an ongoing survey of high-school seniors conducted since 1976 by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. In the period 1991–95, a majority of girls (53.3%) agreed for the first time that “having a child without being married is experimenting with a worthwhile lifestyle or not affecting anyone else.” The majority of boys (51.0%) surprisingly only concurred later, in the period 1996–99. By that time, female support only increased, up to 56.4%.

Marriage and family are distinct institutions, as Karol Wojtyla noted in Love and Responsibility (1960), but in the ordinary situation the former leads to the latter. Children are also not merely achievements to be tacked on to one's curriculum vitae, however loudly the biological clock may be ticking. What the Rutgers report suggests, however, is that increasing numbers of young people no longer “hear” what Humanae Vitae had to say about the indissolubility of the procreative-unitive nexus of the sexual act. Humanae Vitae in some ways presupposes a “culture” — a culture of life — that finds resonance in the larger culture in which young people are living. The Rutgers data suggest that the general failure of the Church in the U.S. to address this issue long-term, and not just as a check-off on the PreCana inventory, represents either gross ignorance of long-term cultural trends or the dirty little secret of silent complicity in them.

Cohabitation Confuses

The data on cohabitation is even more disturbing. Notwithstanding the ever-growing data indicating that premarital cohabitation is bad for marital health, 62% of respondents say that living together is a good way to avoid divorce. Some 43% even said they would “only marry someone who agreed to live together first.” In the period 1996–99, strong majorities of both male (65.6%) and female (58.9%) high-school seniors also generally agreed that premarital cohabitation is a good index of marital compatibility.

Some of the report's insights build on research into dating begun by the National Marriage Project last year. In its 2000 report, “Sex without Strings, Relationships without Rings,” the project reported that 54% of young singles agreed there are people with whom they would have sex whom they wouldn't marry. In this new ethic, young people do distinguish between casual sexual encounters and premarital “soul-mate” relationships. Paradoxically, 6 out of 10 young unmarried women agree that they “wish guys would be more interested in them as a person and less as a sex object.”

Examining the present situation, one can see how much water has passed under the bridge in the past 25 years since Persona Humana, the Vatican Declaration on Sexual Ethics, issued in 1976. When was the last time you heard the word “fornication?” Probably even more remotely, when was the last time you heard fornication called a sin?

The 2000 report indicated that the median age when Americans now marry (males 27, females 25) is the oldest in U.S. history. Age can bring maturity. It can also bring less elastic people more settled in their ways. When ideals clash with reality, the “soul mate” can be less prone to compromise. This fixation on my ideals is put under even greater stress when kids arrive: Howling infants with dirty diapers are generally unconcerned about their parents' self-fulfillment. Searching for a soul mate can be an expression of the deepest aspirations of marriage to form a communio personarum. But it can also be justification for a sterile (and ultimately doomed) egoisme-a-deux.

“Who Wants to Marry a Soul Mate?” studies a broad sample of young people today standing on the threshold of marriage. While it does not single out Catholics for special examination, I have no reason to believe the thinking of the average young American Catholic would substantially differ from that of the general population. One would hope it would; in-depth intramural research is needed. Pessimistically, however, I don't think the research would produce radically different results.

That said, Catholic family-life leaders ignore this report at the peril of designing and promoting useless family-life and marriage-preparation programs that do not address what is going on in the larger culture. Priests ignore it at the peril of not understanding what's happening in the pews. Catholic spouses-to-be need to know what stresses and challenges they will face. And Catholic parents need it to guide their kids in a world very different from the one in which they married.

John M. Grondelski, a moral theologian, writes from Warsaw.