U.S. Catholic bishops on Wednesday launched an ambitious plan to promote marriage, an institution they see as being under extreme pressure, not specifically from those who favor homosexual unions but from the general difficulty of getting and staying married.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also approved plans to collect more information on clerical sex abuse as the church struggles to respond to victims of priest pedophilia in a scandal that surfaced more than two years ago.
The multi-year marriage plan approved by a wide margin by the bishops will include a pastoral letter and also features focus groups -- group discussions -- with single, engaged and married people, a survey of Catholic clerics and a national research project.
The bishops have previously made their opposition to homosexual marriage known, but one architect of the marriage initiative noted that gay marriage was not the focus now.
"The debate about 'same-sex marriage' has demonstrated that most Americans understand and support marriage as the lifelong union of a man and a woman," said Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri. "However, many struggle to connect this ideal with what they encounter in life. What can we offer them?"
In arguing for the plan, Boland asked a series of gloomy rhetorical questions reflecting the pressures on marriage, especially sacramental marriage within the Catholic Church.
He said the U.S. marriage rate had dropped by more than 40 percent in the last 30 years, with the rate of Catholics who marry within the Church declining by a comparable rate.
Boland said "cohabiting relationships" are now seen as a preparation for marriage or an alternative to it, in opposition to Church teaching, and 35 percent of those who have been married have been divorced at least once.
He said the project will only work if the bishops listen to "the ministers of the sacrament of marriage" -- married couples -- in crafting the church initiative.
The bishops also voted in open session to join a new alliance that would be the broadest Christian group ever formed in the United States, linking American evangelicals and Catholics in an ecumenical organization for the first time.
The alliance, called Christian Churches Together in the U.S.A., is set to kick off next year. It would also include mainline Protestants, Orthodox Christians, and black and other minority churches, though with about 67 million members the U.S. Catholic Church would be the largest denomination.
Church leaders also authorized a third-round of annual audits of all U.S. dioceses to determine whether they are complying with the bishops' policies on preventing clergy sex abuse.