WASHINGTON — Now that the U.S. Catholic bishops have issued a pastoral letter on marriage, one bishop hopes the committee that drafted it will take further steps to strengthen marriage.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, meeting last month in Baltimore, accepted “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan,” which was drafted by the conference’s Committee on the Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth.
Bishop Gerald Gettelfinger of Evansville, Ind., had proposed an amendment that would have added recommendations for action at the parish and community level and for tougher divorce laws.
The Committee on the Laity refused to consider the lengthy amendment. But Bishop Gettelfinger is hopeful that the practical steps he has recommended will be incorporated into the committee’s ongoing work on marriage at the parish level.
Bishop Gettelfinger’s amendment was based on work done by Mike McManus, syndicated columnist and founder of Marriage Savers. The bishop got to know McManus several years ago when 50 or so Catholic and Protestant clergy in Evansville instituted the Community Marriage Policy, one of McManus’ marriage-saving brainstorms and one of the pastoral “solutions” recommended by the proposed amendment.
All clergy who sign on agree to require engaged couples to take a prenuptial course before they officiate at their marriages.
As the amendment itself noted, a study by the Institute for Research and Evaluation of 114 communities that likewise agreed to the policy indicates significant reductions in the divorce and cohabitation rates and increases in the marriage rate.
In Austin, Texas, the divorce rate fell 50%. In Evansville it dropped 20%.
Bishop Gettelfinger said that Evansville parishes not only required pre-marriage courses under the policy, but set up engaged couples with mentor couples who held regular meetings during the first five years of the marriage.
“They walk them through a couples’ inventory to find out where they agree or disagree on issues that maybe they’ve been ignoring,” the bishop said. They can also help the couple deal with a new baby.
Bishop Gettelfinger’s amendment also called for tougher divorce laws. Noting that in four out of five American divorces, one partner wishes to remain married, the amendment called for laws requiring lengthy delays where children are involved or only one partner wants divorce as well as a contract-breaking penalty for the partner seeking the divorce.
Rick McCord, the Committee on the Laity’s executive director, said McManus’ Community Marriage Policy will certainly be looked at. “We don’t disagree with his ideas,” he said. “We do want to put a Catholic stamp on anything we put in place.”
He added that the committee is working with the National Association for Catholic Family Life on the latter group’s annual conference June 23-26 at Xavier University in Cincinnati. The conference, titled “A Marriage-Building Parish: Blueprint and Building Plans,” will be all about the practical measures McManus wants, he said.
Diane Sollee, the director of Smart Marriages, a Washington organization devoted to preserving the institution of marriage through pre-marriage and in-marriage education, has sympathy for McManus’ position. “There is no question what we need are practical measures such as were recommended in the Gettelfinger amendment. Marriage is like a tapestry that weaves the past into the future. It’s a real catastrophe when that tapestry unravels, as it is now.”
“But I applaud the bishops,” she added, “for their emphasis on marriage as a crucial institution that perpetuates our social and family values. It has such great benefits not only for those who marry, but for the children and for society.”
Sollee added that no church puts such emphasis on the sanctity of marriage as the Catholic Church. It follows that “they should do the utmost at the practical level to preserve it.”
Smart Marriages is the leading exponent of marriage education based on contemporary scientific research into the benefits of marriage, the practical challenges to it and the practical solutions. Sollee, a onetime executive with the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, founded Smart Marriages after concluding marriage education by lay couples for lay couples was a far more effective way of saving marriages than one-on-two professional counseling.
Marriage education, said Sollee, can dispel “the romantic notion that all it takes for success is to find the right person. What marriage education teaches people is that, first, two different people will always have disagreements; and second, they can and should learn to work through the disagreements.”
In fact, research indicates that the strongest single predictor of marriage failure is the habitual avoidance of conflict.
But another emerging predictor is multiple cohabitations: As people move through a series of partners searching always for “the right one,” their expectations of, and commitment to, marriage diminishes.
Marriage education can also convey the benefits of marriage, all attested to by research, to men, women and children, says Sollee.
For his part, McManus, a Presbyterian, considers the pastoral letter “a highly significant document and declaration by the Catholic Church. I don’t know of another church that has done anything like it.”
Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.