Talk about a good question. The mother of a 31-year-old daughter asked me, “Well, Father, what is marriage?”
Her daughter has been living with a male companion for two years. Last fall, her daughter gave birth to the couple’s child. While the arrival of this baby added a new dimension of responsibility to her daughter’s life as well as to the father’s life, apparently no marriage is contemplated. The mother, a Catholic, asked me, what difference would marriage truly make?
Several months ago, a Southern Baptist official hit the nail on the head by saying that for so many Americans, marriage today actually means nothing, and the situation is getting worse. He was referring to the wave of acceptance of same-gender marriage in this country.
Years ago in my high school religion class, the teacher, a priest, told us that when artificial birth control becomes the accepted, even preferred, norm, public opinion gradually will tolerate abortion, then intimacy outside of marriage, and finally, euthanasia. We teenagers, magnificently enlightened as we were, exclaimed, “Please, Father, get real!” Actually, history has proved him right. He was prophetic.
What is marriage in the minds of most Americans? It is hard to say. Many still want the joy of being parents; but we must face it, many do not. Economic shifts and circumstances along with social changes for the past half-century have meant that spouses, even if they are parents, in some ways are ships passing in the night, pursuing goals that have priority over their marriage.
For them, marriage is not about a genuinely common life — certainly not a common spiritual life, not about children, and surely not about sacrificing anything for a commonly cherished purpose. The Me, Myself and I Generation has had its effect.
Once, divorce was rare, but it is no longer, not even among Catholics. Always marriages have been troubled on occasion, but divorce is a fixed part of the culture today. I was stunned at a reception following the Catholic wedding of two Catholics. Greeting the bride’s father, I said that I hoped the new couple would be very happy. He, a practicing Catholic, replied, “Well, I told her (his daughter, the bride) that if it did not work, just divorce him and come home.” What encouraging advice for a newlywed!
A sound personal sense of the meaning of marriage is crucial. I wonder what contemplation about marriage precedes very many weddings, and how much long, hard thought, with tough confrontation of realities and possible situations ahead, takes place before many modern weddings.
Another person, bewailing the plight of marriages in this culture, asked me, somewhat impatiently, what the Church is doing to combat this declining respect for marriage and family.
The Church in this country is very well aware of what is occurring. Any parish priest spends so very much time with people in troubled marriages. Dioceses have policies, and religious education programs carefully convey the Church’s teachings about marriage to students.
This is fine, but very, very few young people receive their most important lessons about marriage from homilies at Mass or from religious education classes, however persuasively the subject might be handled.
Their own parents are their foremost teachers, followed by the examples of others whom they see and by the increasingly powerful images put forward by popular opinion and well-known public figures.
It is clear. Catholic principles regarding marriage are fading, even among Catholics.
One day, we will reap the whirlwind.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.