Marriage and church weddings have been on my mind lately as some of my closest friends have gotten engaged and have begun to plan their weddings. The amount of time and money that goes into planning a wedding is astronomical, and the Church does not make either burden easier. I never understood why someone would want to elope, but after watching and listening to what some of my friends have gone through in planning their weddings it now makes a lot of sense to me.
Amid the fury of friends’ wedding plans, I saw an article in The Atlantic titled: “The Spiritual Significance of a Traditional Church Wedding.” The article got me to thinking…”Are Church weddings a thing of the past?”
Emma Green at The Atlantic gives some startling statistics:
In 1970, there were roughly 426,000 Catholic weddings, accounting for 20 percent of all marriages in the United States that year. Beginning in 1970, however, Catholic marriages went into decades of steady decline, until the turn of the new century—when that decline started to become precipitous: Between 2000 and 2012, Church weddings dropped by 40 percent, according to new data from the Official Catholic Directory. Given other demographic trends in the denomination, this pattern is question-raising: As of 2012, there were an estimated 76.7 million Catholics in the United States, a number that has been growing for at least four decades.
One does not have to look at the Official Catholic Directory to realize there has been a decline in Catholic marriages. Despite the growth in the Church for almost 50 years, marriages have not kept up. This leads Green to ask the question: “If there are so many American Catholics, why aren’t they getting married?”
There are as many answers to this question as there are Catholics who have “opted-out” of a traditional Catholic marriage. Green offers a few possible answers:
- lack of awareness about the importance of marriage in the Church
- an across the board fall in the number of marriages in the US. (In 2000 there were 2.3 million marriages and in 2011 there were 2.1 million marriages.)
But Green hits the nail on the head when she writes: “the deeper cause is the changing relationship between people and traditional institutions.”
I understand the reasons why many people are disconnected from tradition institutions today. I get why people have become disenfranchised and frustrated with the Church. Unfortunately, their frustration with the institutional church has often led them to abandon the sacraments. This should sadden us. While the sacraments are an extension of the institutional church, they move beyond it. Sacraments are an important part of our Catholic faith and they are powerful moments of encounter with God along our earthly pilgrimage. The sacraments are about an I-We-God relationship. They are about the relationship between the individual, the Church/world, and God. You might say “duh…”, but unfortunately we can no longer take this for granted.
Pope Francis is well aware of the modern world’s institutional and sacramental crisis.
If we take Avery Dulles’ Models of the Church as our guide, Pope Francis has been working tirelessly to challenge us and the world to approach the Church not as an institution, but as a community, a sacrament, a herald of the Gospel, a servant, and a community of disciples. His papacy will be a great success even if the only thing he is able to do is help the world see the Church less as an institution and more as the Body of Christ.
Moving the world’s thinking away from the Church as institution will help heal old wounds, but I am not sure our sacramental crisis is completely an institutional one.
Frequently I hear liturgists and other academics ask the question: “Is modern humanity capable of the liturgical act?” I do not know the answer to that question. My sense is that we are capable of the liturgical act, but that we need a lot of practice. The Church needs to spend its time and resources studying this question. The answer to this question has a direct bearing on the life of the Church. It is the answer to the world’s sacramental crisis and all of the questions it has created.
For this reason, the answer to the question “Are Church weddings a thing of the past?” is much deeper than it might appear at first glance. It cuts to the heart of modern humanity, and it should force us to reflect on ourselves, the Church, and the modern world. If we begin down that road we might not like what we see; however, we must have faith that no matter our brokenness God, who can do all things, can heal the wounds of the world.