If, as Pope John Paul II said, "the future of the world and of the Church passes through the family," there is no more fundamental Catholic mission than strengthening the life source of families: marriage.
Undoubtedly, an important part of defending marriage means ensuring that society's legal structures don't place undue burdens on marriages or families, or undermine it through the enactment of marriage imitations like "same-sex" unions (see Page 4).
But arguably more critical is shoring up marriage itself, a reflection worth making in this traditional month of weddings. A quick glance at statistics in the United States today shows that this effort will require new energy and significant effort (see related stories, Pages 9-12). But the numbers also hold some lessons:
The numbers show that some factors reduce a person's likelihood of divorce: older age, higher income, more education, having a religious affiliation, absence of divorce in one's birth family and having a child after marriage.
Some good news -- Catholics seem to be doing a better job than the rest of society in preparing for and entering into marriage: Twenty-five percent of Catholics are likely to divorce (compared, for instance, with 39 percent of Protestants).
Part of the reason could be that the vast majority of couples seeking to be married in the Catholic Church participate in some sort of Church-mandated marriage preparation program, most of which last six months.
In coming months, other concrete steps are likely to be unveiled by the U.S. bishops' conference, which has made strengthening Catholic marriages one of its top five strategic priorities. The bishops have launched a website -- www.foryourmarriage.org -- with resources both for engaged and married couples, and are planning to release a document on marriage as early as this fall.
Of course, top-down approaches can only go so far. Couples themselves, with the support of communities, including the parish, must do the heavy lifting. But there are as many different variations of a happy, healthy marriage as there are spouses.
What is universal to all good marriages is the daily re-dedication of both husband and wife to love and care for each other in total and generous self-giving.
Another common trait is prayer and a strong spiritual life. At a January World Meeting of Families, Pope Benedict XVI urged families to pray together, especially the Rosary, and to work to implant Gospel values into their daily lives.
"Today more than ever, there is a need for the witness and public commitment of all Christians to reaffirm the dignity and the unique and irreplaceable value of the family founded on marriage between a man and a woman," the pope said.
He might have added: The future of society and the Church depend upon it.
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