March 16, 2012


Threats to traditional marriage

It is increasingly evident that a weakened appreciation of the indissolubility of the marriage covenant, and the widespread rejection of a responsible, mature sexual ethic grounded in the practice of chastity, have led to grave societal problems bearing an immense human and economic cost.”

Those are the words of Pope Benedict XVI on March 9 to a group of U.S. bishops who were making their ad limina visits to report on the state of their dioceses. It was the third of five addresses that the pope plans to make to bishops from the United States’ 15 regions.

The first talk, last November, was about the “new evangelization” that the pope expects the U.S. bishops to promote in their ministries.

The second, in mid-January, concerned the threats to religious freedom that the Church is facing in the United States.

This time, the emphasis was on challenges to marriage and family life. The pope’s admonishments couldn’t come at a more important time because marriage as the world has known it throughout history is being threatened here in the United States.

First, there is the fact that fewer Americans are bothering to get married. Only 51 percent of all adults are currently married, compared to 72 percent in 1960.

And Catholics are no exception, as pastors are well aware. In 2007, when 53 percent of American adults were married, that was also the national average for Catholic adults.

Part of the reason for the sharp decline in marriages is simply the fact that men and women are marrying at an older age. It has become common practice in our society for couples to live together before deciding to marry or while they are preparing for marriage.

The pope is well aware of this. He told the U.S. bishops, “In this context, we cannot overlook the serious pastoral problem presented by the widespread practice of cohabitation, often by couples who seem unaware that it is gravely sinful, not to mention damaging to the stability of society.”

The costs of weddings certainly have some effect. College-educated and more affluent men and women are continuing to marry at a much higher rate than less-educated and poorer people.

Fewer marriages result in more children being born to unmarried women. Unmarried mothers accounted for four out of every 10 babies born in the United States in 2007, and the rate might be higher five years later.

And, whereas most unmarried mothers used to be teenagers, the rate of unmarried women in their 20s and 30s rose 34 percent between 2002 and 2007. In 2007, women in their 20s had 60 percent of the babies born out of wedlock.

Then there is the secular push for recognition of same-sex marriages throughout the country. The pope took notice of that, too, telling the U.S. bishops, “Particular mention must be made of the powerful political and cultural currents seeking to alter the legal definition of marriage.

“The Church’s conscientious effort to resist this pressure calls for a reasoned defense of marriage as a natural institution consisting of a specific communion of persons, essentially rooted in the complementarity of the sexes and oriented to procreation.

“Sexual differences cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to the definition of marriage,” he added.

The changes in our society’s attitudes toward marriage are, beyond a doubt, the results of the secularism that has invaded society. The Church’s teachings about marriage seem old-fashioned to many people. Nevertheless, they are the best guarantors of happiness, and that is the point we must get across to young people.

Pope Benedict said, “Young people need to encounter the Church’s teaching in its integrity, challenging and countercultural as that teaching may be. More importantly, they need to see it embodied by faithful married couples who bear convincing witness to its truth.

“Let me conclude by recalling that all our efforts in this area are ultimately concerned with the good of children, who have a fundamental right to grow up with a healthy understanding of sexuality and its proper place in human relationships. Children are the greatest treasure and the future of every society—truly caring for them means recognizing our responsibility to teach, defend and live the moral virtues which are the key to human fulfillment.”

—John F. Fink

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