By Jennifer Senour
Traditional marriage may have fallen out of favor in recent years, but don't tell that to Christopher and Elizabeth Gilbert, who celebrated their second anniversary last month. In an increasingly countercultural move, Gilbert popped the question just after his college graduation, and after an eight-month engagement, the two were wed in May 2006.
Members of a generation better known for "hooking up" and "shacking up," these two young Catholics bucked the prevailing trends and headed for the altar before heading to the bedroom. After 24 months of wedded bliss, they couldn't be happier with their decision. But is it everything they expected?
"It's more," Gilbert said. "We entered into engagement with an appreciation for the sacrament of marriage, but we didn't necessarily have the language to speak the truth we knew."
During their engagement, Gilbert began his master's program at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, where he first discovered Pope John Paul II's theology of the body.
"It was new to me, but it was familiar," he said. "As Catholics, we knew and accepted the Church's teaching on contraception. We understood that chastity was imperative to the success of our relationship, and we had an awareness of the presence of God in one another, but now we had language to express these truths."
They're not the only ones living that language. Theology of the body, Pope John Paul's teachings on the specific meaning of the physical human body and how that relates to the fundamental questions about love, sex and relationships, is speaking to a deep need in the hearts of many in a generation coming of age in a culture marked by cynical secularism.
But beyond the secular realm, statistics show what seems to be a growing disdain for the Sacrament of Matrimony even within the Church, as Catholic divorce rates approach record levels. A recently released CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) report shows 23 percent of adult Catholics have divorced.
What do these numbers mean for faithful young Catholic couples who are choosing to embrace the Church's teaching on the sanctity and indissolubility of marriage? For starters, couples practicing natural family planning (NFP) report a divorce rate closer to 2 percent, according to the New Orleans chapter of the Couple to Couple League (CCL).
The CCL, one of the leading instructional organizations promoting NFP, is doing its part to reach a new generation, using new technology to suit the tastes of a younger audience and integrating Pope John Paul II's teachings on sexual love into its materials.
"Today's young Catholics are more sexually and technologically informed than past generations. They've seen the fallout from the sexual revolution," explains Kate Cassidy, bartender and wife of three years. "For us, when we entered into marriage, we did so with the expectation that we would do things differently."
Doing things differently means anything from embracing the practice of NFP and the teachings of theology of the body to eschewing long courtships and engagements in favor of more abbreviated periods of dating and discernment.
"There was no reason for us to put off marriage once we had carefully discerned. This is our vocation," said Karen Stitt, a 23-year-old substance abuse counselor from Washington, D.C., who will wed her college sweetheart this coming August. "It's no secret that the world thinks marriage is a joke. I get comments all the time. People are incredulous that I'm planning to get married at my age. They're astonished by the fact that we don't live together. It's just something I've gotten used to. But they're missing out on something so beautiful."
It is perhaps this otherworldly understanding of marriage that fuels another CARA statistic, showing that 86 percent of young Catholics (ages 18-35) are either married or "somewhat likely" to eventually wed, despite cultural pressures to stay single and free. That's also despite what they saw at home growing up -- according to 2004 U.S. Census data, 38 percent of men and 41 percent of women in their 50s have divorced at least once.
Many credit Pope John Paul II's theology of the body as their source of understanding of the permanence of this gift of self as the foundation of their marriage.
"Divorce isn't an option for us because it's a lie," Gilbert said. "Despite our culture's willingness to opt out, marriage is for a lifetime, and it's beautiful. Divorce is a disfigurement of this beauty, but it doesn't destroy the beauty, or the permanence. We might choose to opt out, but God never will. That's the heart of the message of theology of the body."
And dioceses across the nation are taking note, working to incorporate material from theology of the body into their pre-Cana instruction, equipping couples to face the challenges of married life.
Father Jonathan St. Andre, T.O.R., director of evangelization and coordinator for marriage preparation at Franciscan University of Steubenville, instructs young, engaged couples and singles alike, and sees a willingness to "go the distance" in those he mentors.
"Young people are answering the call to take up the cross, to embrace the beauty as well as the suffering of their vocation, whether to religious life, marriage or the single state," Father St. Andre said. "There's a growing understanding that sacrifice isn't optional, but essential. And that the gift of self is the most valuable gift one can give."
Jennifer Senour writes from Ohio.