March 05, 2012

Marriage and the Catholic Church: We need a counter-revolution

By Hilary Towers and Mike McManus *
Forty three years ago California Governor Ronald Reagan unwittingly provided the spark that launched this nation into a silent revolution that would change the course of marriage - and by extension families, communities, and culture itself - in ways we never could have imagined.

By signing the first No Fault Divorce Law, which allowed one spouse to abandon the other for any reason at all, Reagan paved the way for every other state to follow suit. And they did -- all 50 of them. Divorces had already doubled in the 1960s due to a variety of factors, such as dual income marriages, shifting gender roles, and the replacement of a traditional marriage model with one based on self-actualization. The No Fault craze nearly re-doubled the number divorces from 639,000 in 1969 to 1,189,000 in 1980.

Reagan’s own son, Michael Reagan, wrote hauntingly of its consequence in Twice Adopted,

“Divorce is where two adults take everything that matters to a child – the child’s home, family, security, and sense of being loved and protected – and they smash it all up, leave it in ruins on the floor, then walk out and leave the child to clean up the mess.”

Ronald Reagan later told Michael that signing No Fault was his “greatest regret” in public life.

Some of the other trends led to positive change, like greater gender equality and more sharing of household duties between spouses. But the fallout of the new divorce paradigm for future generations was devastating: higher rates of teen motherhood, poverty, school expulsion, conduct disorders, physical abuse, incarceration and even suicide among children of divorce.

Cohabitation increased more than 15-fold from 1960 to 2010, making it the new norm. Marriage rates have plunged more than 50% since 1970. And while the divorce rate for the first ten years of marriage has declined for those with college degrees since its peak in the 1980s, the chances of divorce or separation for a first marriage begun in recent years remain about 45 percent, 60% for second marriages, and 70% for those with stepchildren.

A great Catholic saint of the 20th century, Josemaria Escriva, wrote:

“In national life there are two things which are really essential: the laws concerning marriage and the laws concerning education. In these areas God’s sons have to stand firm and fight with toughness and fairness, for the sake of all mankind.”

The relevance of the divorce revolution and its consequences for the Catholic Church, in particular, is significant because of the Church's unchanging teachings on the sanctity of marriage, on one hand, and the difficulty encountered by its bishops in translating these teachings into practical help for marriages on the other.

The Catholic leadership has organized a promising public campaign to confront the gay marriage movement. And the U.S. Bishops recently produced a beautiful Pastoral Letter on Marriage, Love and Life in the Divine Plan, which addresses clearly the need to “promote, preserve and protect marriage.” But the Church has yet to “stand firm and fight” on behalf of Divorce Reform in a sustained, unified fashion. The Pastoral Letter’s call to “make use of the many resources, including programs and ministries offered by the Church that can help to save marriages, even those in serious difficulty” has yet to reach the majority of Catholic parishes.

One consequence of the disconnect between the Church’s teachings and what Catholics actually hear seems to be that many Catholics - young adult Catholics, in particular - mimic society at large in their views about marriage and divorce. And while at least one survey indicates the Catholic divorce rate is lower than that of Protestants, data from the General Social Survey (GSS) reveal the number of marriages within the Church has fallen by almost 60% since 1972. Findings from the GSS, combined with those of a 2007 survey of Catholics by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), show several factors may underlie this trend, including a greater percentage of Catholics who are deciding to forgo marriage altogether or to marry outside the Catholic Church.

A closer look at the generational distinctions among Catholics’ views of marriage and divorce in the CARA survey is revealing. While 82% of Catholics in their twenties and early thirties say that the statement “marriage is a lifelong commitment” is “very consistent with my views,” only 39% report “marriage contributes to the common good of society” as such. Only 34% of these “Millennial Generation” Catholics agree strongly with the statement “children bring the husband and wife closer together and therefore closer to God,” and a mere 29% believe strongly that “married love is imperfect yet holy.” Perhaps most disturbing are the findings that for all generations of the Catholics surveyed, 85% identified “infidelity” and 60% identified “falling out love” as circumstances that make divorce acceptable.

That many Catholics express such cynicism and confusion about the Church’s teachings on marriage and family life, and in many cases are marrying outside the Church, suggests a need for meaningful, practical education of the laity, which is currently lacking in most parishes. We now have enough longitudinal data to debunk many of the false hopes upon which the No-Fault Revolution was founded. Research suggests that as many as four out of five of divorces are unwanted by one spouse. Further, recent studies show that between one-half to two-thirds of all divorces in this country do not occur in marriages that are characterized by serious conflict (physical or emotional abuse, extreme unhappiness).

These statistics are important, but Catholics can discern without them the need for a new, bolder approach. Many have either personal or second-hand knowledge of marriages in which one spouse has had an affair and left the marital home. Just peruse some of the Catholic family websites, like Faith and Family, which regularly solicit comments from readers on the state of their marriages. Even the most solid Catholic marriages are strained under the weight of a culture that beckons them relentlessly to self-gratification.

Many spouses in intact marriages have stopped communicating or fallen into patterns of communication that are negative and self-defeating. Some come from divorced homes and struggle with the subconscious option of repeating what they learned from their parents, a threat sustained by the reality that spousal abandonment is a generational phenomenon. Some are addicted to pornography, which is known to be a strong predictor of marital breakdown. And most Catholics have relatives and friends who are living together outside of marriage, about whom they (rightly) worry that if and when marriage does come, it will be short-lived.

But there is hope.

It lies in a counter-revolution, organized and facilitated by an army of clergy and lay people working together to convey the importance of fidelity to the marriage vow – first to Catholics, and then to a world so desperately in need.

The Catholic Church is uniquely qualified for this job. It is the oldest Christian Church and professes to hold the fullness of the truth in sacramental matters, including marriage. The response of the Bishops to the recent attack on religious freedom by the Obama administration is a powerful example of the Church’s capacity to influence both public policy and popular opinion. When the Shepherds of the Church stand united on an issue of moral concern to their flock, the country – the world – stops and listens.

Of course the fullness of the truth on marriage must be taught with charity, but also clearly and without fear of offending. Those who seek the line between clarity and charity need look no further than the tiny Albanian nun who created a revolution of her own. Mother Teresa, the embodiment of love itself, did not mince words in her letter to the Irish people as they debated the question of whether to legalize divorce: “What is the meaning of true love in marriage? A man and a woman who really love each other will never promise, when they marry, “I will love you and be true – for a while”.

A Way Forward

There is a proven method that can be used by priests and the laity to begin the process of undoing the damage wrought by the self-centered marital philosophy of the past four decades. It is available now in a program called Marriage Savers, a comprehensive approach to creating and sustaining lifelong marriages. The goal of Marriage Savers, founded in 1996 by author and syndicated columnist Mike McManus and his wife, Harriet, is threefold: to prepare couples for a lifelong marriage, strengthen existing marriages, and to restore troubled marriages. These goals are accomplished primarily using two strategies.

First, Marriage Savers has worked with clergy to establish Community Marriage Policies® (CMPs) in 229 cities and towns throughout the United States, in which pastors and priests join together to strengthen marriages with the conscious goal of pushing down a community’s divorce and cohabitation rates.

An independent study by the Institute for Research and Evaluation (IRE) found the organization reduced divorce rates by an average of 17.5% over seven years in a city/county, with nearly a tenth cutting divorce rates 48% to 70% (e.g., Austin, TX, Kansas City, Mo., Modesto, Calif. and El Paso, Texas). Based on the initial findings of the IRE study, it is estimated that approximately 100,000 divorces have been averted since 2001. The CMPs also reduced cohabitation rates by one-third compared to control cities, and raised marriage rates in some cities, such as Evansville, Ind. and Modesto, Calif.

Second, Marriage Savers trains couples in healthy marriages to be Mentor Couples who help other couples at five stages of marriage:

1.Prepare for lifelong marriage by requiring couples to take a premarital inventory and to meet with Mentor Couples to discuss their results and learn conflict resolution skills. The result in the church that pioneered Marriage Savers in the 1990s: 20% of couples have decided not to marry, but 90% of those who married have had lasting marriages.

2.Enrich existing marriages using such resources as Ten Great Dates. Couples come to church on 10 Friday nights to view a short DVD on a topic such as “Resolving Honest Conflict” or “Becoming an Encourager,” then go on a date to complete a workbook assignment and discuss that evening’s topic. Couples report these evenings are fun, easy and productive.

3.Restore distressed marriages by training and employing the use of Mentor Couples whose own marriages once nearly failed using Choosing Wisely/Before You Divorce, a DVD/Leader’s Guide/Workbook kit requiring no formal training. Although no formal study has yet been conducted on the success rate of this particular Marriage Savers ministry, informal data from numerous churches suggest that as many as four out of five marriages might be saved. It is for this reason that the Restoration ministry is considered a critically important piece of the Marriage Savers program.

4.Reconcile separated couples with Marriage 911, a 12-week workbook course, designed for the spouse who wants to save a marriage when a mate wants a divorce. It is taken with a same-gender friend, who uses a Support Partner Handbook and provides accountability and encouragement.

5.Couples in second marriages typically divorce at a higher rate than those in first marriages. If they attend a Stepfamily Support Group, they learn from other step-couples how to become successful parents and partners. Instead of losing 70% to divorce, the experience of most Marriage Savers churches is that four in five stepfamilies can be saved.

There are a variety of pre- and post-marriage programs available to Catholics, including Marriage Encounter weekends and individual pre-Cana instruction with priests. Retrouvaille is a national program for couples in crisis that has proven to be very effective for those couples to whom is accessible.

But all of these approaches differ from the strategy offered by Marriage Savers, which was created to be parish-based and run by lay couples under the direction of their pastor. Marriage Savers trains volunteer Mentor Couples to implement the program. These mentors become available to counsel marriages on the verge of disaster within their own parish, thereby relieving pastors of much of their duties as “marriage counselors” - a job description many pastors (understandably) find overwhelming.

The underlying principle is that a relationship based on trust is formed over time between the older and younger couples, both of whom frequently develop stronger marriages from the experience.

Community Marriage Policies and Marriage Savers Congregations would also be a practical way to achieve major goals of the Pastoral Letter of the USCCB, outlined on its last page:

•Proclaims and witnesses to the fullness of God’s Revelation about the meaning and mystery of marriage.

•Accompanies and assists people at all stages of their journey…

•Invites and includes the gifts of many, beginning with married couples themselves…

•Encourages and utilizes many methods and approaches in order to serve individuals and couples whose circumstances in life, whose needs, and whose preparation and readiness to receive the Church’s ministry can vary widely.

•Celebrates and incorporates the diversity of races, cultures, ethnicity and heritage with which God enriches the world ...

The Catholic Church can and should be leading the country in the effort to lower rates of divorce and cohabitation and strengthen marriages, and Marriage Savers is a good place to start. The Mentor Couple model is “marital counseling” at its best. No cost, no clinical diagnoses. Just four people serving the cause of a counter-revolution destined to succeed.
Hilary Towers, Ph.D., is a psychologist and mother of five. She is a parishioner of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Woodbridge, Va.

Mike McManus is Co-Founder and President of Marriage Savers, a ministry that has reduced divorce and cohabitation rates in more than 200 cities. He is also a syndicated columnist, writing “Ethics & Religion” for 30 years.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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