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.