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February 06, 2012
The crisis in American marriage
By Russell Shaw *

By Russell Shaw *

I was chatting with a priest who is a judge with the marriage tribunal of his large Eastern diocese when he shared an interesting tidbit of information. In his diocese and the other dioceses of his state, the number of requests for marriage annulments has lately fallen by 10 percent.

Good news? Fewer marriages on the rocks? Not really, he explained. “People are getting married later, some don’t bother to marry at all, others marry outside the Church, and others don’t come to the tribunal when their marriages break down.”

“Then,” I hazarded, “this 10 percent drop is just a new phase in the same old set of problems?” The tribunal judge nodded—that was the size of it.

All of which is confirmation that the Catholic sector of the crisis of American marriage is going strong. The most telling statistic may be the sharp drop-off in the sheer number of Catholic marriages. Back in 1990, with the Catholic population at 55 million, there were 334,000 of them; in 2010, when Catholics numbered 68.5 million, marriages had fallen by nearly half to around 179,000.

If it’s any consolation, what has been happening to Catholic marriage reflects developments in American marriage. Marriages in this country dropped from 2.44 million in 1990 to 2.08 million in 2009, even as the population of the United States was rising 60 million. A Pew Research Center study says that just 51 percent of American adults are married now. (The figure in 2000 was 57 percent.)

Many factors combine to account for the decline of marriage—from economic pressures to the campaign to recognize homosexual relationships as marriages, which undermines the unique status of traditional marriage understood to be a relationship between a man and a woman—and only that.

Among Catholics, poor religious formation—or none—very often has a central role. Undoubtedly, too, divorce plays a key part, especially no-fault divorce, which Michael McManus says should be called “unilateral divorce.” There have been more than a million divorces yearly in the United States since 1975, and very many of these were of the no-fault variety.

Significant in this context is the huge increase in cohabitation—523,000 cohabiting couples in the U.S. in 1970 and 7.5 million in 2010. McManus, a non-Catholic journalist who is founder of a group called Marriage Savers, says the rise is driven partly by “understandable fear of divorce” among couples who anticipate fewer hassles ahead if they don’t bother marrying at all.

The social costs of divorce are well established, and to a great extent it’s the children of divorced couples who are paying them. Kids from non-intact families are three times as likely as other kids to be expelled from school or become teenage out-of-wedlock parents, six times as likely to live in poverty, twelve times as likely to land in jail.

Various solutions have been proposed to the no-fault plague, among them legislation called the Second Chances Act. It provides a one-year waiting period before divorce along with education in reconciliation as an option. Sponsors William J. Doherty, a University of Minnesota scholar, and Leah Ward Sears, former Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, cite studies showing that among 40 percent of divorcing couples, at least one spouse is open to reconciliation.

McManus scoffs at the cliché “you can’t legislate morality.” He writes: “Nonsense. For forty years public policy has been legislating immorality by favoring divorce and cohabitation over marriage, and the consequences have been devastating….The timeless institution of marriage can be revived.”

It’s sure worth a try.

Russell Shaw is the author of more than twenty books, including three novels and volumes on ethics and moral theology, the Catholic laity, clericalism, the abuse of secrecy in the Church, and other topics. He has also published thousands of articles in periodicals, among them The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times, L’Osservatore Romano, America, Crisis, Catholic World Report, The National Catholic Reporter, and many others. From 1967-1987 he served as communications director for the U.S. Catholic bishops and from 1987-1997 was information director for the Knights of Columbus. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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