Making the case for marriage

By Brian Fraga, Our Sunday Visitor, February 7, 2020

Statistics tell a troubling story about the state of marriage as an institution.

Various social surveys indicate that anywhere from 25% to slightly more than 40% of all marriages end in divorce within the first five years. Scarred by the trauma of growing up in broken homes, fewer people today are getting married.

According to statistics from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, there were 144,000 Catholic sacramental marriages in the United States in 2017, a nearly 50% drop from 2000, even as the national Catholic population grew by almost 3 million people in that time.

Those who exchange wedding vows are doing so later in life, about age 27 for women and 29 for men, according to U.S. Census data. In 1975, the average marrying age was 23 for men and 21 for women.

Most adults who get married today do so after living with a boyfriend or girlfriend. A recent Pew Research Center survey indicates that nearly 60% of adults under 45 have cohabitated outside of marriage at some point in their lives.

“Young couples have seen broken marriages, broken relationships and broken trust. They have an overall lack of trust in marriage,” said Tim Roder, the associate director of the U.S. Bishops Conference’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.

Roder told Our Sunday Visitor that most engaged couples do not learn about the Catholic Church’s teachings on marriage and family until they go through a marriage preparation program in their parish.

“It’s often the first time they’re hearing about the Faith and the good news about marriage and family,” Roder said. “That’s an unfortunate situation, but it’s a teachable moment, and we have to capitalize on it.”

Roder and other people involved in marriage renewal and preparation ministries told Our Sunday Visitor that the Church has a compelling case to make for why marriage is not an outdated institution that modern people can dismiss as a relic from primitive humanity.

The healthy side of marriage

One one level, extensive social science research highlights how marriage benefits the spouses. Married people, on average, live longer, make more money, report higher levels of personal fulfillment and say they are happier in their sexual relationship.

Children who grow up in intact homes tend to be physically and emotionally healthier, are less likely to have been physically or sexually abused, are not as prone to abusing drugs and alcohol, are more likely to attend college and less likely as teenagers to get pregnant or impregnate someone.

“There is still one gold standard in terms of outcomes for kids, and it is the intact family,” said John Paul DeGance, the founder and president of Communio, a Virginia-based nonprofit that consults with churches on their marriage preparation and renewal programs.

The social science data, in a sense, affirms what the Catholic Church has long taught on marriage: Men and women were created for one another, and the permanent, faithful and fruitful union of a husband and wife is ordered to their benefit and the good of society.

“The well-being of the individual person and of human and Christian society is intimately linked with the healthy condition of that community produced by marriage and family,” the Second Vatican Council Fathers wrote in Gaudium et Spes (No. 47), the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.

Beginning with the creation of man and woman in the divine image, Scripture attests to how God himself is the author of marriage. As the New Testament recounts, Christ elevated marriage to a sacrament. Marriage is at once an image of God’s love for humanity and a sign of Christ’s union with the Church.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the Church “attaches great importance to Jesus’ presence at the wedding at Cana. She sees in it the confirmation of the goodness of marriage and the proclamation that thenceforth marriage will be an efficacious sign of Christ’s presence” (No. 1613).

The sacramental marital bond becomes a channel of God’s grace for the spouses, which enables them to rise to the demands of their vocation and fulfill their unique role in evangelizing the world. Every newly married couple, in essence, becomes a new branch in the tree of salvation history, said Peg Hensler, the associate director of Marriage Ministries and Natural Family Planning for the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey.

“That’s a beautiful teaching from Vatican II, when we started seeing marriage as a call to holiness that is equal in importance in the Church to the priestly vocation,” said Hensler, who told Our Sunday Visitor that all Christians — married or single — cannot reach their full potential without love.

“That people are still getting married clearly shows that there’s something about marriage that people still want,” Hensler said. “There’s an inkling there. People sense it’s a sacred covenant.”

Importance of intact families

The U.S. bishops conference made their own case for marriage in a series of presentations in 2006 and 2007, which were prepared as part of the bishops’ National Pastoral Initiative for Marriage.

The presentations drew from the Church’s magisterial documents, social science research, best pastoral practices and the bishops’ own statements to show how and why marriage benefits men and women more than cohabitation or serial monogamy.

“Marriage is the basis for the family, the fundamental human society. Healthy marriage and family life helps to ensure social stability and improve the quality of life for all members of society. Communities and governments act in their own best interests when they take concrete steps to support marriage and family,” the bishops said in one presentation.

The bishops’ conference presented evidence to show that couples who persevere through difficult times in their marriage are still often happier than those who divorce. The presentations also demonstrated how marriage is a source of enrichment and fulfillment for men and women, how it benefits children and why it is indispensable for a stable society.

“A healthy society depends upon the health of marriages, which stabilizes families and children,” said Ryan Verret, who along with his wife, Mary-Rose Verret, co-founded Witness to Love, a marriage preparation and renewal ministry.

“It’s so apparent just in the generation that we’re growing up in,” Verret told Our Sunday Visitor. “Twenty years ago, everybody in our families was Catholic and going to Mass. Now, there’s so much divorce and people not going to Church.”

Verret’s comment underscores a truth that children who are raised in intact Catholic families are more likely to attend Mass and be active in their parishes while growing up. That is why DeGance, of Communio, said the future of evangelization really has to be focused on marriage ministry and family catechesis.

“The reality is when you try to correct youth formation exclusively through youth ministry, it’s like trying to put out a fire by fighting the smoke. You’re not going to be able to put out the blaze until you get to the home,” said DeGance, 40, a married father of eight children.

It is in the family — with the permanent bond of marriage as its foundation — that children are primarily formed. Writing in Familiaris Consortio, his 1981 encyclical on the role of the Christian family in the modern world, Pope St. John Paul II wrote that the right and duty of parents to give education “is essential” and connected with the transmission of human life.

“It is original and primary with regard to the educational role of others, on account of the uniqueness of the loving relationship between parents and children; and it is irreplaceable and inalienable, and therefore incapable of being entirely delegated to others or usurped by others” (No. 36), the pontiff wrote.

“As parents, it’s not just about slugging it through life, but it’s about how in every conversation, every decision, ultimately little eyes are watching and little ears are listening,” Mary-Rose Verret, of Witness to Love, said. “It’s about going through problems and challenges together in a loving way that witnesses to the children that stability and that tenderness.”

It is from their mothers and fathers that children first learn about virtue, love, forgiveness, patience, hard work, perseverance and accountability. They take those lessons into the world, benefiting their neighbors, friends, classmates, coworkers, communities and society in general.

“As the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live,” Pope St. John Paul II said in a November 1986 homily.

“By the time a kid shows up for kindergarten, so much of the success that child will have later in life is already ‘baked’ into them,” DeGance said. “Schools show up after that most critical element of formation and try to add to it, and what we’re seeing so frequently in homes where there isn’t a healthy marriage (is) that there is only so much a school can do to repair the damage that came from the misformation of human capital.”

DeGance added that it is important to note that a husband and wife not only form and educate their kids; children also change their parents to become better people.

“We often focus on how much we form our kids, but we can’t underestimate on how much our kids form us in helping us to become the men and women that our kids see us as,” DeGance said.

Relying on God’s grace

The role that children play in forming their parents speaks to “the school of human enrichment” and a “school of deeper humanity” that marriage and family can be, as the Second Vatican Council Fathers wrote in Gaudium et Spes. In Familiaris Consortio, Pope St. John Paul II described the family as “the first and fundamental school of social living.”

In Paragraph 1609, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that after the Fall, “marriage helps to overcome self-absorption, egoism, pursuit of one’s own pleasure, and to open oneself to the other, to mutual aid and to self-giving.” For most people, those who are not called to the priesthood and consecrated life, marriage is the means by which they are to become holy.

“God protects our marriages. Those graces protect us from the world, from sinfulness, from evil and from our own mistakes,” said Hensler, who described the marital bond as supernatural and the graces that God offers in the sacrament as essential to living out the marriage vocation.

Wisdom from Married Saints

Family draws you closer to God: “Soon we’ll have the intimate happiness of the family, and it’s this beauty that brings us closer to him.” — St. Louis Martin

Everything should point to heaven: “Everything has a specific end: everything obeys a law. God has shown each one of us the way, the vocation, and the life of grace that lies beyond physical life. Our earthly and eternal happiness depends on following our vocation without faltering. What is a vocation? It is a gift from God — it comes from God himself. Our concern, then, should be to know the will of God. We should enter into the path that God wills for us, not by ‘forcing the door,’ But when God wills as God wills.” — St. Gianna Beretta Molla

God comes first: “Our bond with God must be stronger than our love of our family and relatives.” — Blessed Franz Jagerstatter

Pray for your spouse: “Let him see the fruit but not the sap, my life but not the faith that transforms it, the light that is in me but not a word of him who brings it to my soul; let him see God without hearing his name. Only on those lines, I think, must I hope for the conversion and sanctity of the dear companion of my life, my beloved Felix.” — Servant of God Elisabeth Leseur

“For me, it’s very comforting to know that even if we fail in our humanity, that God will not fail us, no matter what,” Hensler said. “As long as we turn to God for help, and we can do that all day long, that is what is going to be what compels us to want that lifelong marriage.

“As a totally flawed person who’s probably made every mistake in the book, to know that I don’t have to rely on me to get this right, that I can rely on God, that God will be there if I turn to him and trust in him, that we will get through anything, and I mean anything, is so reassuring,” Hensler said.

Drawing on social science research, the bishops’ conference in its 2006 and 2007 presentations on making the case for marriage, said the benefits that men and women experience in marriage are the “gifts of a loving relationship between two people who are equal but different.”

“Marriage is challenging. It requires something of us,” Roder said. “It requires us to be selfless, not selfish. When couples end up hearing this message in a balanced, reasonable way, they’re like, ‘Wow, I want that,’ but they also realistically say, ‘But I don’t know if I can do that. That sounds like a tall order.’

“My response to them is, ‘Well, that’s the point of the sacrament,’” Roder added. “We need those graces because God knows we cannot do this on our own. God pours out his blessings and grace on us, but we have to put them into practice.”

Noting social science data that indicates marriage provides women with psychological benefits and helps men become better fathers and less likely to quarrel, the bishops’ conference wrote in a 2007 presentation that those outcomes “resonate with the teaching of the Church on the complementarity and equality of men and women, as well as on the goods of marriage.”

“St. Paul tells us that marriage is wrapped up in the great mystery of salvation, and that Christ’s love for the Church, the love a husband has for his wife is supposed to be an icon of that,” DeGance said. “On the flip side, the love of a bride for her groom is a living, breathing icon of the Church’s fidelity to Christ.”

Restoring hope

Church teaching, backed by social science research, makes a compelling case for why and how marriage benefits spouses and children. But for too many people, sadly, the lived reality has fallen short. Studies show that every 13 seconds, a divorce takes place in the U.S. Another reports that about 40% of all births are now out of wedlock.

Experiencing the trauma of divorce as children and growing up in broken homes understandably has made young adults, such as millennials, cautious about “taking the leap” into the lifelong commitment of marriage. For many, cohabitation offers what seems to be a safe trial run.

“They’re terrified by the trauma they experienced or that they saw others experience, so they see cohabitation is a rational reaction to it, as a way to hedge your best and if it gets bad, they can get out of it easily,” DeGance said.

The recent Pew survey indicated that most American adults see cohabitation as a step toward marriage, but there is some social science data that indicates cohabiting adults are at a higher risk for divorce than couples who did not live together before marriage. The main reasons seem to be that cohabiting couples often “slide into” marriage without fully discerning if their partner will make a suitable spouse, and that living as two single people does not really prepare a couple for the demands of married life.

“Many young people are searching for a soulmate in a marriage partner. They want an intimate and enduring relationship where they can share their deepest dreams and desires,” the bishops conference wrote in a 2006 presentation entitled, “Why Isn’t It Good to Live Together Before Marriage?”

“In a misguided effort to achieve this intimacy, they often enter into a cohabiting relationship. In so doing, they undermine their chances of attaining the very thing they most want,” the bishops wrote.

Mary-Rose Verret described working with one cohabiting couple to prepare them for marriage. When they asked her what would be different for them after their wedding day, Verret told them that nothing much would change unless they humbled themselves, went to confession and changed their lives so that they could be open to the graces of the sacrament.

“In a misguided effort to achieve this intimacy, they often enter into a cohabiting relationship. In so doing, they undermine their chances of attaining the very thing they most want,” the bishops wrote.

“They both started crying, because they wanted something better than what they had,” Verret said. “It was amazing to see that reality. No one had been that upfront with them. They had been sliding all along toward the sacrament.”

Despite the hesitancy young adults and others may express about marriage, the lived reality still indicates that having a lifelong, happy marriage is a natural longing that most people are wired for.

“This is God’s handiwork. It’s part of God’s plan from the very beginning for the majority of people,” said Roder, who added that many things the wider secular culture holds as goods — cohabitation, premarital sex, radical autonomy — actually weaken one’s chances to have a happy marriage.

But even for people who have bought into what the culture sells, there is still hope that they too can find happiness and fulfillment in marriage. After all, as Roder noted, Christ’s first public miracle was at a wedding banquet.

“Jesus came to restore what was broken and lost,” Roder said. “There is a real message of hope there, and we’d be doing a disservice to Jesus Christ and the Gospel if we didn’t lead with that.”

This article first appeared HERE.