The Catholic Church is entering a pivotal phase on marriage and the family.
With the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, beginning Oct. 5, Pope Francis’ recent creation of a commission that will look into streamlining the matrimonial process, and the Holy Father’s recent celebration of the wedding of 20 couples at the Vatican, the Church needs to make up ground it has lost or ceded to popular culture and reclaim the family.
Much has been written about the recent wedding ceremony. According to the Vatican, the group included couples who were cohabiting, couples who were divorced (and annulled) and at least one spouse who already had a child.
The message underlying the Pope’s gesture, and the possibility of unintended consequences, has been the subject of intense discussion among Catholics. But there was one statement in the Roman diocesan press release before the wedding with which we must all agree: “Those who will get married Sunday are couples like many others.”
Indeed, according to a 2013 Child Trends international report: “Dramatic increases in cohabitation, divorce and nonmarital childbearing in the Americas, Europe and Oceania over the last four decades suggest that the institution of marriage is much less relevant in these parts of the world.”
In the United States, the marriage rate is the lowest ever recorded, unmarried cohabitation is rapidly becoming an acceptable alternative to marriage, and more than half of births to women under 30 years of age now occur outside of marriage.
Among existing marriages, many are fragile and strained.
A new study suggests that divorce rates have actually doubled over the past two decades among people above the age of 35. The same report indicates that while divorce rates are declining among Millennials, this is most likely because they are choosing cohabitation over (or at least before) marriage.
The divorce rate rises sharply with each successive remarriage, and research suggests the reason is not low marital quality, but weak commitment. An increasing number of divorcees are choosing to cohabit rather than remarry — a perilous situation for children, according to social-science and family-law research.
So the facts are clear: The task ahead for the Church is a mighty one, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. That Pope Francis is well aware of the challenges we face — and the need for a robust plan of action to meet them — is evident in his call for renewal within the Church: “An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others.”
One is hard-pressed to find a matter in greater need of such a bold and proactive approach than the current marriage crisis. It is in this vein that 48 international scholars and marriage advocates have signed a letter to members of the synod on marriage and family The letter is a call to action for the whole Church and includes concrete proposals directed toward reducing cohabitation and divorce rates and increasing the number of lifelong, faithful, happy marriages.
Visit the official website Commitment to Marriage.
Central to the spirit and purpose of the letter is the suggestion that we begin to build small communities of married couples who support each other unconditionally in their vocations to married life — a proposal based in part on social-science data that show family and friends’ support for marriages influences marriage satisfaction and the likelihood of staying married — and that the risk of divorce is transmitted through social networks. These communities would provide networks of support grounded in the bonds of faith and family, commitment to lifelong marriage and responsibility to and for each other.
The letter also makes recommendations on how to create and sustain such communities.
For example: Commission the Pontifical Council on the Family to sponsor research on the role of pornography and “no fault” divorce in the marriage crisis; educate seminarians on social-science evidence, empowering them to speak about these subjects in their homilies; create small, vibrant networks of strong married couples as mentors at the parish level; encourage the reconciliation of married couples who have been divorced by civil courts; and initiate a consortium of attorneys and legislators to combat violations of religious freedom in divorce courts.
In his homily during the wedding ceremony Sept. 14, the Holy Father described marriage as a journey — a sojourn through the desert, made possible only in the light of the cross.
“The path is not always a smooth one, free of disagreements; otherwise, it would not be human. It is a demanding journey, at times difficult, and at times turbulent, but such is life. ... Marriage is a symbol of life, real life: It is not ‘fiction.’ It is the sacrament of the love of Christ and the Church, a love which finds its proof and guarantee in the cross.”
In light of the Holy Father’s call to a radical New Evangelization, we can and should embrace the idea that all married couples are on this journey together.
No couple can do it alone, no matter how strong their resolve or fervent their prayer lives. We need each other’s spiritual and practical support to be faithful to our vocations. And the world desperately needs to see that fidelity to marriage vows — even under the most undesirable and difficult of circumstances — is not fiction, but truth.
Hilary Towers is a developmental psychologist and mother of five children.
Her scholarly background is in behavioral genetic research on adjustment and relationships.
She currently writes on the subjects of marriage and spousal abandonment,
especially as those issues are treated within the Catholic Church.