Mae West’s quip — “Marriage is a great institution, but I’m not ready for an institution” — seems less funny these days and more descriptive of how people really feel. While most people continue to praise the value of marriage, everything from our divorce and cohabitation rates to our tax rates suggest we don’t really believe it.
There are a lot of institutions that merit disregard or distrust, but marriage is so central to society and the durability of families that its decline is the subject of growing concern. A new study released by the Institute for American Values suggests that the impact of divorce is one reason for the precipitous decline of mainline Protestant Churches. The Catholic Church’s struggle may not be as dramatic, but the fall in sacramental marriage statistics suggests we are not immune to a similar decline.
Indeed, one might ask if efforts to redefine marriage arise in part from a greater disregard for its importance. Redefining an institution is less problematic if the institution itself is less valued than it once was.
All of which leads us to World Marriage Day on the second Sunday of February. This may be a celebration that escaped you, as it did us. It began in 1981 (see story, Page 14), and we would argue that it was never more needed than now.
As reported recently in a column by Lutheran theologian Martin Marty, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan four decades ago said that the biggest change he had seen in the previous 40 years was “that the family structure has come apart all over the North Atlantic world.” This is not a new phenomenon. The popes have been writing about it as well. The controversial encyclical Humanae Vitae was at its heart an encyclical on marriage and the marital relationship.
The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Laity called the family “the first and vital cell of society.” Yet society has in many ways impacted this “vital cell” so negatively that society itself is overwhelmed by the symptoms of its erosion: its impact not only on the men and women involved in divorce, but most of all upon the children.
Blessed John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio 30 years ago exhorted all who are married “to bear witness to the inestimable value of the indissolubility and fidelity of marriage,” calling it one of our “most precious and urgent tasks.” Indeed, the Church has no more convincing means of revealing the importance of marriage than the witness of its people.
Renewal starts from within, and couples must start with themselves. If their own marriages are strong, then they can better exemplify the value of marriage before the skeptical eyes of the larger community. The U.S. bishops have recognized that couples need help. Bolstering sacramental marriages is an urgent priority of the bishops, but this task will ultimately only be accomplished in the parish.
It is here that couples can encourage and strengthen each other. It is here that men can support each other as husbands and fathers, where women can support each other as wives and mothers. The parish is where the spiritual nourishment that every marriage needs can be found in retreats, Holy Hours, reconciliation and sound counsel.
While it is true that communities depend on strong marriages, it is equally true that strong marriages need supportive communities. This Feb. 10, we encourage homilists to talk about the importance of marriage and family and the ways that we can support each other in Christ’s love, to be witnesses both to the institution and the reality behind that institution.