The Crisis in American Marriage — Catholic Division


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%.

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% 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% of American adults are married now. (The figure in 2000 was 57%.)

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 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% 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.


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  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    Charles Murray writes in The Wall Street Journal this week about “The New American Divide” (see ).

    America is coming apart. For most of our nation’s history, whatever the inequality in wealth between the richest and poorest citizens, we maintained a cultural equality known nowhere else in the world—for whites, anyway. “The more opulent citizens take great care not to stand aloof from the people,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville, the great chronicler of American democracy, in the 1830s. “On the contrary, they constantly keep on easy terms with the lower classes: They listen to them, they speak to them every day.”

    The main thrust of his observations is that in the U.S., we now face a problem of “cultural inequality.” He draws a comparison between the fictional neighborhoods of Belmont (white upper-class) and Fishtown (white working-class) over the past forty years. One of the most striking things is the disparity between Belmont and Fishtown when it comes to the matters of religion and marriage. As to marriage: “In 1960, extremely high proportions of whites in both Belmont and Fishtown were married—94% in Belmont and 84% in Fishtown…. In Belmont, marriage stabilized during the mid-1980s, standing at 83% in 2010. In Fishtown, however, marriage continued to slide; as of 2010, a minority (just 48%) were married.”

    As to religiosity: “it is worrisome for the culture that the U.S. as a whole has become markedly more secular since 1960, and especially worrisome that Fishtown has become much more secular than Belmont. It runs against the prevailing narrative of secular elites versus a working class still clinging to religion, but the evidence from the General Social Survey, the most widely used database on American attitudes and values, does not leave much room for argument.”

    The working class has become both less religious and less inclined to marry over the past 50 years, while the upper class has suffered only a slight drop in both areas over the same time period. Meanwhile, the economic indicators of both have diverged. Fishtown is about the same today as in 1960, while Belmont’s income has surged. There’s nothing wrong with a surge in the income of the upper class necessarily, and while Fishtown certainly isn’t experiencing a boom, by global standards, there’s no bust either. What’s most interesting is the cultural divide between the two and the author’s intermediate conclusion that “the reforms of the 1960s jump-started the deterioration. Changes in social policy during the 1960s made it economically more feasible to have a child without having a husband if you were a woman or to get along without a job if you were a man; safer to commit crimes without suffering consequences; and easier to let the government deal with problems in your community that you and your neighbors formerly had to take care of.”

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    A First Things Public Square article by R.R. Reno, called “The Preferential Option for the Poor,” draws this argument more towards a meaningful conclusion (

    The social reality of contemporary America is painfully clear. By and large, the rich and powerful don’t desire more wealth nearly as much as they desire moral relaxation and the self-complimenting image of themselves as nonconformists living a life of enlightenment and freedom in advance of dull Middle America. Meanwhile, on the South Side of Chicago—and in hardscrabble small towns and decaying tract housing of old suburbs—the rest of America suffers the loss of social capital.

    The only way to restore social capital and to bring Fishtown and Belmont together is to abandon the behaviors associated with the so-called reforms of the 1960s and 1970s. More importantly – in this Reno and Murray seem to concur – ordinary people need to take it upon themselves to refrain from engaging in the sorts of behavior whose consequences are most tangibly felt when they permeate the poor and working classes. Those who actually care about a preferential option for the poor, in Reno’s words, should “[b]y all means volunteer in a soup kitchen or help build houses for those who can’t afford them. But you can do much more for the poor by getting married and remaining faithful to your spouse. Have the courage to use old-fashioned words such as chaste and honorable. Put on a tie. Turn off the trashy reality TV shows.”

    Murray says something similar: “The best thing that the new upper class can do to provide that reinforcement is to drop its condescending ‘nonjudgmentalism.’ Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn’t hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms. When it comes to marriage and the work ethic, the new upper class must start preaching what it practices.”

    In other words, a return to the social norms of the by-gone era is the only way to restore not just a sense of the sacred when it comes to the sacrament of matrimony but also the only way to return to something that might resemble the America seen by Alexis de Tocqueville. This requires changes first among the cultural and economic elite, and it requires those changes to be made at the cultural level, one American at a time.