Getting People to Choose to Get Married

COMMENTARY: Catholics, even when religiously illiterate and seeking a church wedding just to please the parents, nevertheless viscerally think of marriage as a ‘sacrament.’

The Church certainly needs to help young people to decide for marriage.
The Church certainly needs to help young people to decide for marriage. (photo: Unsplash)

Catholics across the country celebrate National Marriage Week beginning today, with the World Day of Marriage taking place this Sunday. 

Assessing recent studies, Catholic marriage numbers are not good.

In 2000, there were four marriages celebrated according to the Church’s norms for every 1,000 Catholics. In 2019, that number was two, even though the Catholic population grew by 6.9 million during that period. There were 426,309 Catholic marriages in 1969, but only 97,200 in 2020. 

For comparison, general American marriage rates were relatively static: Almost 2.16 million marriages took place in the United States in 1970 and 2.13 million in 2018, even though the U.S. population grew by 126 million between 1970 and 2020. In 1970, the average age of marriage was 21 for women and 23 for men; in 2021, those numbers were 28 and 30, respectively. Catholics and Americans in general both show tendencies to delay, if not forgo, marriage.

Last year, the Vatican’s Dicastery of Laity, Family and Family Life issued “Catechumenal Pathways for Married Life,” a document that suggested something akin to a period of “catechumenal preparation” before celebration of sacramental marriage. Critics note that while that idea may possibly help men and women who have decided to get married, it does not address a prior question: How do we deal with those who have either not decided or decided against marriage? 

The latter does not refer to those who have decided to remain single and chaste as they seek a spouse but to those who intend some form of (semi)-exclusive relationship outside of sacramental marriage, e.g., cohabitation or non-Catholic “marriages” (civil, in other religious groups, etc.). Before we get people to prepare for marriage, we first need to get them over the decisional threshold for marriage. 

Part of that challenge comes from cultural shifts about how Americans regard marriage. The National Marriage Project (NMP) has been tracking trends and publishes an annual “State of Our Unions” report. Its 2022 report examined the question of deciding to marry through the lens of the shift toward later marriages. Its results might surprise you: On various indices, the differences between “early” (age 20-24) and later (28+) marriages were not significant.

Arguments for delayed marriage assert that education, finding a first job, starting to establish some financial security, enjoying one’s freedom, acquiring “life experience” and finding similar potential in a spouse all take time. 

Far more interesting are the cultural views embodied by the early versus late marriage approaches. The “State of Our Unions” report contrasts them as a younger “cornerstone” versus a later “capstone” approach to marriage. The former sees marriage as a building block in young-adult identity formation and stability. The latter regards marriage as a kind of reward “capping” those processes. 

Because the NMP is nonsectarian, its reports rely heavily on social-science data. Our analysis will add a Catholic theological perspective. That’s important because the data could help inform our pastoral approach to helping people over the marriage-decision threshold.

One reason there might not be such a divergence between earlier and later marriage, suggests the NMP report, is that while the age to marry is increasing, the age for sexual intercourse is not. While young people may be engaging in sex at about the same ages as their counterparts did one or two generations ago, social pressures are different: With less stigma and greater social toleration afforded fornication, people who want to marry young today may be more likely to do so out of choice than out of compulsion. Since Catholic theology teaches that marriage is constituted by exchange of consent, in some sense, younger people may be freer today to choose marriage freely. (This, of course, does not nullify the social-science data that indicates premarital cohabitation is actually conducive to subsequent marital problems, even breakup.)

That said, the NMP report offers several challenges to the growing American cultural consensus favoring capstone marriage. That consensus, in fact, fosters a self-validating circle by prejudicing younger people ready and willing to marry from doing so on the basis of unproven assumptions. 

It also makes other assumptions that may, in fact, be wrong. Capstone marriage claims that older people have a better awareness of who they are, their more-formed identity contributing to stability. But it doesn’t address the fact that the longer people live alone, the more likely they will be “set in their ways” and more used to reckoning with only their own wills. 

Arguably, “cornerstone” marriage sets out earlier on the mutual task of creating a “we,” as opposed to reconciling two “I’s.” Jim Dalrymple argues for younger marriage by noting that delay brings into a “relationship … a decade or more of ossified eccentricities.”

Respondents to the NMP study added that the capstone approach often assumed an implicit negative view of marriage: One “had” to exercise one’s “freedom” before marriage foreclosed it.

If the age of sexual intercourse has remained constant while marriage has been delayed, and if fornication still contributes to subsequent marital instability, then delayed marriage carries the baggage of greater, rather than less, instability: People could spend more time fornicating. It may even prevent marriage: When a man and woman decide to “live together” outside of marriage while working on building their financial and other independence, they are also building separate economic, living and property arrangements that acquire lives of their own and inhibit marital merger. 

Paradoxically, those arrangements also militate against leaving this separate-life-together when the parties realize they should not marry but lack a sufficient burr to disturb their inertia. I am not arguing for fornication or precipitous decisions to marry. But theology still colors the fumes on which secular marriage rides. Protestants, who deny that marriage is a sacrament, have never considered marriage a religiously transforming event — it affects only one’s social status. Catholics, even when religiously illiterate and seeking a church wedding just to please the parents, nevertheless viscerally think of marriage as a “sacrament” — a cornerstone that helps build marriage through grace rather than a celebration of an arrangement constructed entirely by human hands. 

One question the NMP report touches only obliquely, but that is more central to Catholic marriage, is procreation. Unlike secular thinking, Catholic theology still sees marriage and procreation as related: Spouses should be open to life. The prolonged provisional status of fornication is typically anti-procreative. And while economic fragility does affect young people’s decisions to marry and then have children, it is arguable that — by mere human lights — the “right time” for kids often seems to be “not now.” 

At the same time, capstone marriage as the “crowning achievement” of two people’s “preparation” to wed often further delays parenthood and pushes against the wife’s biological clock because it assumes the need for more time to make two distinct persons into one. That, of course, ignores parenthood as causing “two [to] become one flesh.”

All told, the Church certainly needs to help young people to decide for marriage and to be more likely to do so earlier. How we foster that against today’s cultural pressures is good fodder for a National Marriage Week discussion.

Cardinal-elect Víctor Manuel Fernández was appointed by Pope Francis on July 1, 2023, to become the next prefect for the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

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