National Catholic marriage rate plummets

The National Catholic Register reports: The number of marriages being celebrated in the Church in the U.S. has dropped nearly 60 percent since 1972.

That’s a pretty steep decline. I’m sure this means something important. What is it, do you think?

32 comments

  1. Did the rate begin falling in 1972, or is that simply an arbitrary date chosen for the purposes of this reporting. While I often enjoy the Register, it is admittedly a conservative journal, and so might be giving this date for it’s own reasons. If the rate was increasing or steady prior to 1972 and then suddenly began a decline, I would want to ask the hard questions about possible reasons.

    1. This is the date when the General Social Survey began to be administered first on an annual basis and more recently every other year. So it is the beginning of a comparable set of data

      1. Jack;

        Thanks…that makes good sense then. I imagine that there will be some pointing to this and citing Vatican II, Humanae Vitae etc as the cause. While either of those may be pertinent to the issue, I would be interested to see if the trend was already on the decrease prior to this date.

  2. Greeley and Hout in The Truth About Conservative Christians point out that the real sexual revolution has been the acceptance of exclusive unmarried partnerships among adults who are single or divorced. This is true (in fact even more so) among conservative denominations. Yet, as they point out, where is the preaching against “living in sin.” Surely this is a far great threat to marriage than some other issues. What to do about it?

    American is not a swinging society. A high percentage of both married and unmarried people live in exclusive relationships. Perhaps Christian denominations need to find a way to “bless” exclusive relationships that are not yet marriages rather than just ignoring them.

    Marriage in many societies has been a two stage process. Ordination in Catholicism has been looked upon in some centuries as a multi-stage process of one sacrament. Maybe marriage should be thought of as a multistage process.

    Perhaps there could be a “blessing” for causal dating; another for steady dating, etc.. Since Catholicism has emphasized the sacrament as being conferred by the couple, these ceremonies need not always be in church or done by a priest. Perhaps “engagement” as a celebration of the couple beginning to live together could be the ceremony that might take place in various non church settings with a greater amount of creativity. Maybe “marriage” as a final life long commitment would take place in Church.

  3. Below are my remarks in response to article at this link.

    http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/blog/?p=14062

    Problem and Question
    The raw marriage statistic is rather uninformative.
    Are fewer Americans marrying versus living together across demographics?
    Are cradle Catholics marrying outside the church?
    Is this a result of deferred age of marriage?
    Does this have anything to do with longevity and smaller proportion of marriage age people in RC population?

    Why do religious leaders not eagerly make the distinction between civil unions as being exactly that in which the government has a legitimate interest and Christian Marriage being something quite different? Sacramental Marriage is about higher things. Civil unions are about inheritance, legitimacy, child support, alimony, tax deductions, insurance. There is a positive argument for recognizing two different realms and their different motives and objectives. Let the government legislate civil unions and leave the churches alone to teach and support Matrimony between one male and one female. The one need have nothing directly to do with the other so long as the State does not restrict or compel the Church to do anything about Christian Marriage other than what the Church itself chooses.

  4. No doubt the dramatic decline in Church marriage rate has complex causes. None the less, I’d like to see some researcher compare this rate with the drop-off in religious vocations and then ask whether a common contributing factor may be at work in both statistics. According to the current research,

    “In 1972, the average age at first marriage reported in the GSS for Catholics ages 18 to 40 was 20.9. In 2006 (the last time this question was asked), it was 23.9.
    Thus, the decline in Church marriages is more about not marrying at all than marrying older. ”

    Matrimony, like religious vocation, is still undertaken at a time of life when young people are often living at home but in any case probably talking with their parents. To what extent has the support of parents (and the size of families) played a role in encouraging vocations in the past? How many Catholic mothers could encourage a 20-to-30-year-old to pursue a vocation within the Catholic Church in these times, when Church practice and teaching are becoming more narrow especially with regard to women’s participation? Also, parents of young people in this age group expect to help pay for their children’s weddings and to help plan them. Most parents also advise their offspring about major life decisions such as education, career choice, and marriage. What are parents advising engaged or cohabiting couples to do about weddings? If there were a strong family desire or expectation of church weddings, I’d expect to see a higher rate of church weddings. In other words, ask the parents what’s going on!

  5. Out of curiosity, has marriage preparation changed in that time? I plan on getting married within a year or so, and I have to pay at least a couple hundred dollars for marriage encounter weekends and such, be an active registered contributing member of a parish for six months or more, and contact the Church anywhere from six months to a year prior to the date after being a registered member. I can see that being a turn off for folks in their 20s, when Mass participation becomes more spotty and you don’t have lots of money to spend just to get started on marriage preparation. I personally know several people who went with small weddings performed by non-denomitaional ministers after deciding the Church had too many rules and too much red tape. I’m not commenting whether it is good or bad to have so much lead-time and preparation before a wedding, but I do think it causes some people to have second thoughts about getting married in the Church when getting married in other denominations or chapels is so easy and often let you have the ceremony wherever you want.

    1. I have only anecdotal evidence to back up what you say , Jack, but I think you’re on the right track. I know brides who called the rectory multiple times only to be told that “Father is too busy to talk to you right now”. I know brides who had their hearts set on marrying in a natural setting, only to be told that Catholic weddings must take place in a church. (This last from a priest who scolded the parish from the pulpit for wanting to keep their church open – “The building isn’t important”.) Then, each parish and diocese has its own sub-set of rules and regulations regarding music and other details.
      In addition, the practice of moving priests every few years means that often the couple and the priest are total strangers.
      Is it any wonder so many couples, especially those involving someone from another faith tradition, decide they can be married just fine without a priest as witness?

      1. As one who deals with couple getting married in the church, I can say that the converse is also true, I assure you. Most couples (OK…most Brides) come to the Pastor or Priest …and music Director… with a laundry list of things that they “want” at their wedding….many of which have no place in a Catholic wedding. I agree that the red-tape required to sort through for a wedding is substantial, but given the seriousness of the sacrament, perhaps it shouldn’t be easy to begin with.

  6. It seems to me the data suggests that people can be fulfilled sexually without getting married and that’s what they are doing including Catholics–they’re not getting married, they’re living together or just simply “hooking up” as it is called today. So it appears that perhaps the secular culture is more influential in forming “moral” values than the religious one. The old saying as sexist as it might sound holds true, “why buy the cow if you can get the milk free?” If you reject Humanae Vitae or worse know nothing about it and could care less and reject any and all biblical teachings concerning sexuality, why get married in the Church? But other issues of welcome, of helping brides and grooms to have a good experience when for the first time they contact the Church about a very important event in their lives plays into I suspect. We have a high percentage of mixed marriages in our parish, the majority of which take place in the Catholic Church, but we are quite willing and very flexible about dispensation from the form of marriage for the ceremony to take place in the Protestant church that has significance for the non-Catholic.

  7. It seems clear that more people would be willing to commit to the vocation of marriage if only the Church did not require celibacy of them… oh, wait.
    Never mind.

    In all seriousness, long term commitments to EVERYTHING seem to be considered a thing of the past by many- to jobs, to employees, to political parties, to religious denominations, to financial obligations, to sex partners.
    we want what we want when we want it, forget delaying, or worse, foregoing the gratification of every desire.

  8. There is a lot of judgment on this thread – those young people! out having sex and everything without the sanction of the Church!

    What the article says is that people aren’t getting married in the Church, not that they aren’t getting married. “If you reject Humanae Vitae or worse know nothing about it and could care less and reject any and all biblical teachings concerning sexuality, why get married in the Church?” That statement is very true. Why would anyone who sees the Church eager to punish people based bound up in a distorted view of marriage and human sexuality want the Church around on their wedding day?
    Don’t forget, every person who has a bad experience with Church officials has a family.

  9. Jeramiah Mahon :
    In all seriousness, long term commitments to EVERYTHING seem to be considered a thing of the past by many- to jobs, to employees, to political parties, to religious denominations, to financial obligations, to sex partners.

    This is an important thought as long as it is observational and not judgmental.

    How long did the Church go without being directly involved in marriage, except to counsel the married to treat each other as Christians should?

    Is it possible that Christian Marriage is something very different from civil unions/matrimony?

    Can the church adjust to the realities of culture today as simply as it winked as medieval sexual behavior outside marriage when well-know citizens has well-known mistresses up to and including popes?

    Can we welcome within our church communities those living together legally or illegally if they are following their own consciences?

    Can we offer Sacramental Marriage to those mature enough to understand and undertake its weightier commitments in a sacramental service amidst their church community instead of a social event shoehorned into church spaces and church strictures?

    The question, not an advocated position, is, given that society is already acting in non-Christian ways and is unlikely in the near term to return to Christian Marriage as the norm, can the Church adapt to a two tier system of partnered people and Sacramentally Married people for the sake of charity toward many, withholding judgment, and teaching the higher calling of Sacramental Marriage?

    1. Excellent points, Tom. Had a vincentian mentor who used to dream and talk about different models of the sacrament of marriage based on age, maturity, undestanding of sacramental life, etc.

      Many Hispanic cultures have this notion – couples marry and even have children but it may take years before they finally have their marriage blessed/sacramentalized. It is a “radically” different way of looking at the sacrament but one can argue using history/tradition that the early and middle age church saw marriage more as a “ministry” than a “solemnized state or condition of life”.

      1. Nope, altho Frank got pretty liberal in his old age. His favorite EP insert was to pray for a happy but early death for JPII.

  10. In terms of judgements, we are certainly free as Christians to judge behavior; we are not free to judge salvation. When the Israelites fashioned a golden calf and worshiped it, Moses certainly made a judgment about that act on coming down from the mountain. Today many worship at the golden calf of secular ideas of morality. Shouldn’t there be a Moses-like response to that from the Church?

    1. Fr. Allan,
      When did we start following Moses? Moses is not our model for Christian living. Jesus hated the sin and always loved the sinner without judgement. There are also those who are worshiping at the calf of their own self righteousness.

    2. When did we start following Moses? Jesus did not judge. He hated the sin and always loved the sinner. There are those who are worshiping at the golden calf of their own righteousness.

      1. Jesus did not judge? Have I been reading different Gospels all these years? And since when does judging someone mean you can’t love them at the same time?

  11. Fr. Allan J. McDonald :

    In terms of judgements, we are certainly free as Christians to judge behavior; we are not free to judge salvation. When the Israelites fashioned a golden calf and worshiped it, Moses certainly made a judgment about that act on coming down from the mountain. Today many worship at the golden calf of secular ideas of morality. Shouldn’t there be a Moses-like response to that from the Church?

    I am very reluctant to judge people and consequently restrict their rights and opportunities unless I know more than I usually do about their motives and consciences.

    I am , and no cleric I know anything about is, not of the status of Moses.

    I think the Christian response is to teach and demonstrate the incarnate love of Jesus.

    I think it is much more useful to teach loving ways of living and to explain why Christians find other ways not to be loving rather than to judge and condemn others.

    Who knows, people who formerly worried about coming to church and being judged may come to church in order to learn what we have in mind.

      1. When the prophets were recorded they were reputedly quoting the Word of the Lord which had come to them or reporting the visions they received. This is quite different from individual preachers or parishioners judging the behavior of others and making rules as to what they may and may not do and whether they are entitled to charitable interpretations of their behavior.

        Thanks Bill, for pointing out what you have, also.

  12. Fr. allan – you just opened a “huge” barn door. Let’s not get started on how the church in latin american (even up to today) interpreted and enforced their own gospel which looked upon the indigneous populations as heathen and less than human despite numerous church figures e.g. Bartolome de la Casas and others who strongly tried to correct the hierarchy.

    This pattern has been repeated over the centuries in south america, asia, africa. And, yes, they would say that their ministry was one of love.

    1. They corrected the hierarchy by calling them to implement the Catholic faith which in its pristine beauty sees all human life as precious, from conception until natural death. I see no conflict in that and the prophetic mission of the Church. I do see where that mission has veered off course and has experienced correction.

  13. I’m late to the conversation but there is also the fact that marriage is largely a young adult thing and only 17% of Catholic millennials are at Mass on a given weekend. Basically 80% of 20 something Catholics aren’t attending regularly or at all. Put that together with the fact that fewer young adult Americans are getting married and a 60% marriage drop is not surprise. The number of adults received through RCIA has also plummeted from a high of 178,000 in 2001 to 129,000 last year. But RCIA is also a young adult thing and the majority are entering for marriage/family reasons.

  14. “Most couples (OK…most Brides) come to the Pastor or Priest …and music Director… with a laundry list of things that they “want” at their wedding….many of which have no place in a Catholic wedding.”

    So, most couples are told that their wishes for the most important day in their lives must be tossed because they don’t fall within the rules? How many come back for a second meeting?

    I’ve heard many similar comments about brides and their mothers. The last person I’d want at my wedding is a priest or music director who feels bored and/or put upon!

    I’m no fan of Bridezillas who want a wedding in a Catholic church because it makes for nice photos. ( I’m no fan of over-the-top wedding receptions, either. The object shouldn’t be to show off one’s wealth, but rather to celebrate with friends and family.) But – show me where families have had any input in what has place and meaning in a catholic wedding. Show me where families have had input in setting requirements for Pre-Cana, six month waiting periods, etc.

    1. “Most couples (OK…most BRIDES) come to the Pastor or Priest …and music Director… with a laundry list of things that they “want” at their wedding….many of which have no place in a Catholic wedding.”

      So, most couples are told that their wishes for the most important day in their lives must be tossed because they don’t fall within the rules? ”

      Why not? Do they get to make a similar list for their children’s baptism or confirmation? Do deacons or priests get to have similarly incompatible things at their ordinations? It sounds like there’s a “customer service” assumption here that doesn’t fit.

      1. I have several comments on “customer service”

        1. Does the Sense of the Faithful go out the door when a ceremony is at hand?

        2. What about James Joyce’s “Here comes everybody”? Is there even the tiniest possibility that some of the rules and their enforcement are based on making certain the Church projects an upper class, sophisticated image?

        3. Any outfit that ignores “customer service” shouldn’t be surprised to be losing customers.

  15. BRIGID M RAUCH :

    I have several comments on “customer service”
    1. Does the Sense of the Faithful go out the door when a ceremony is at hand?
    2. What about James Joyce’s “Here comes everybody”? Is there even the tiniest possibility that some of the rules and their enforcement are based on making certain the Church projects an upper class, sophisticated image?
    3. Any outfit that ignores “customer service” shouldn’t be surprised to be losing customers.

    We are here at the same point that another thread is pursuing regarding confirmation and first communion. How does the church opt out of the social competitiveness business?

    The same answer works as suggested above and there.

    Separate the sacramental [done in the midst of the Sunday assembly] from the social of the following celebrations and from the legal of birth/marriage registration. IIRC, French civil law requires the separation of the civil marriage from the sacrament of matrimony and the RCC lives with it.

    Maybe we would end up with fewer but more sincere and durable sacramental marriages and could reduce the size and expense of marriage tribunals and the cynicism about annulments.

    Certainly it would be easier to suggest that the bride, groom, or any parent of either does not own the Sunday Mass during which they happen to make their sacramental marriage vows nor have the right to compose them, especially if they have seen this throughout their childhoods.

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