It’s so common it’s a cliché: Little girls grow up dreaming of a Cinderella wedding, complete with a white ball gown and Prince Charming. 

For most people, it seems, that’s still the ideal: marrying the man or woman of their dreams and living happily ever after, sharing their love with children who will in turn marry and have grandchildren. 

But for many people these days, reality doesn’t match the ideal. A recent Pew study, conducted in collaboration with Time magazine, found that just over a quarter of 20-somethings are married, compared with two-thirds of the same group in the 1960s. People are delaying marriage and living together before marriage. More people approve of alternative family arrangements such as single-parent households, unmarried parents living together and same-sex couples raising children. Thirty-nine percent of respondents said the whole notion of marriage is obsolete. That goes up to 44 percent of those aged 18-29.

A public good 

The former chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Defense of Marriage committee begs to differ. 

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., is leading the group in its efforts to remind the U.S. public — not just Catholics — why marriage matters. 

“We believe that the gift of marriage is a gift of our Creator,” the archbishop said. “In [Genesis], it says, ‘Male and female he created them.’”  

And God didn’t create marriage just as a convenience for individual men and women; he created it as the basic building block of human society, Archbishop Kurtz said. As such, marriage — defined as the public commitment of one man and one woman — is a public good. 

“The marriage of men and women will always be personal,” he said. “But it is not private. They have a role in building a just society, in their care for each other and in their care for children if they are blessed with them. The love of a husband and wife for each other, the love of a mother and father for their children is a public reality.” 

For the last 2,000 years, the Church has taught that the gift of human sexuality is meant to allow husbands and wives to express a “deep, faithful love for each other” and to be open to children. 

“Marriage is not a social construct,” Archbishop Kurtz said. “It is built into our very existence as human beings.” 

Still valued 

As evidence, he points to a number of statistics about marriage that have not received quite so much media attention. 

The same study that found nearly 40 percent of people believe marriage is obsolete also found that only 25 percent of single respondents don’t want to get married, and only 16 percent of those who are cohabiting don’t want to get married, and wide majorities of women, men, those who are married and those who never married say that being married makes it easier to raise a family. 

At the same time, the movement toward allowing same-sex marriage is gaining steam. It is already allowed in Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont and Washington, D.C., and proponents are pushing to have a same-sex marriage ban in California declared unconstitutional. 

To help spread that word, the committee is creating a series of four videos. The first two — stressing the complementarity of men and women and the blessing of children as a gift from God — have been completed, Archbishop Kurtz said. Other videos are planned to discuss how marriage is important for the common good (“Families are schools of charity”) and why it is important for the laws of the land to uphold marriage as the union of one man and one woman. A fifth video, in the style of a telenovela, will be taped in Spanish and touch on all four themes. 

The bishops began studying marriage about six years ago, when they took note that fewer couples were coming to the Church for sacramental marriage, Archbishop Kurtz said. 

The studies have resulted in the creation of a Subcommittee for the Defense of Marriage — under the Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth — and 2009’s national pastoral letter on marriage, “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan.” It also sparked a public service campaign called, “What Have You Done for Your Marriage Today?” to support married couples and help them keep their unions strong. 

Convenience factor 

In discussions with social scientists who study marriage, Archbishop Kurtz said, he has keyed in on the prevalence of couples living together before marriage, often with no intention of marrying when they first move in. Eventually, they “slide into” marriage, in the words of Scott Stanley, a research professor and co‑director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. That is, instead of making a clear decision to commit to one another for the rest of their lives, they end up getting married because it seems easier than breaking up. Such marriages are more likely to fall apart in the long term. 

Those problems existed before the push for same-sex marriage gained traction, Archbishop Kurtz said 

“The movement to change the definition of marriage did not cause the difficulties we are talking about, but it has crystallized them,” he said. “That movement emphasizes the mutual satisfaction of adults with one another. That’s why it’s so important for us to emphasize that marriage is not private. It is a public event.” 

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.

Revealing The Truth (sidebar)

As debates over the nature of marriage heat up, the Ave Maria School of Law created the Center for Research on Marriage, Religion and Public Policy in October. Maggie Gallagher, one of the nation’s leading defenders of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, leads the center.  

“It’s important to continue fighting for marriage and family in the political and legal arenas,” Gallagher said in a statement. “Truth is truth. If marriage is the union of a husband and wife, because children need a mother and father, we can’t abandon non-Catholic children. We have an obligation in justice, as well as love, to fight against an unjust civil order that redefines marriage and its purposes.”  

Gallagher, author of “The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier, and Better-Off Financially” (Broadway Books, $15.95), is a scholar, syndicated columnist and chairman of the board of the National Organization for Marriage. 

She has said that she wants the center to offer “working scholars” conferences, where people from different disciplines can offer research and insights. 

On the web

U.S. Bishops’ Committee for the Defense of Marriage:

For Your Marriage: