A great deal of ink has been spilled on the Petraeus scandal. We hesitate to spill more, but we can’t help but note that much of the finger-pointing seems a bit off target. 

Gen. David Petraeus, as nearly everyone knows, has confessed to having an affair with Paula Broadwell. Both are married to others and have children. An investigation has entangled others in this apparently endless scandal: a general, a Florida socialite, even an FBI agent. 

While one can argue that none of this is our business — unless national secrets were compromised — it certainly contributes to a suspicion of people in high places that already permeates our society. No matter how noble, how celebrated, how values-oriented, even how prayerful someone is, we have seen again and again how the mighty fall — usually in the glare of the paparazzi and with all of the finger-pointing that is part of the popular sport of celebrity gossip. 

What gets ignored is the fact that this isn’t just the comeuppance that comes to celebrity. The disregard of marriage vows is widespread in society — not just in the media and popular culture, but also in our communities. Ask not at whom the finger points. It points at us.  

Indeed, the statistics on marriage, divorce, cohabitation, the number of children now raised without both biological parents present and, of course, all the attendant casualties of “no fault divorce” are significant. Our country has the highest divorce rate in the Western world. More than one-fifth of Americans get divorced before they’ve been married five years. Half of all marriages end in divorce. 

Thirty percent of all marriages involve someone who will be a stepparent, yet almost two-thirds of those marriages fail. The impact of divorce on children is multiplied by successive failures. Marriage itself as an institution is failing, with both civil and sacramental marriage rates down, and rates of cohabitation and children born out of wedlock are way up. Contrary to stereotypes, all of this impacts those with limited education and income more than those who are wealthier and more educated. 

Infidelity is not the only cause, but experts say it is significant. Accurate numbers are hard to come by, but an estimated 28 percent of married men have had affairs as have 18 percent of married women. More common may be the kind of “serial monogamy” predicted by the futurist Alvin Toffler: a series of partners in marriage or cohabitation. 

The impact of all of this on the institution of marriage, on children, and on society as a whole is incalculable. Each marital collapse has a ripple effect on the larger community. Children, even adult children, lose a sense of trust and stability, and this earthquake increases the chance of future instability as the children of divorce and betrayal struggle to achieve and maintain fidelity in their own lives when those they trusted let them down. 

As the bishops are acknowledging with some of their recent marriage projects, it is this crisis that ultimately is the greatest threat to the institution of marriage. While gay marriage may seek to redefine marriage, heterosexuals have already done a pretty good job of showing that they themselves have little faith that “what God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Mt 19:6). Strengthening marriages may be one of the most critical challenges the Church faces today.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor