Challenges abound for Catholics hoping to boost traditional marriage

America’s middle class is fast becoming the marriage-less class, according to a recent report by a team of marriage scholars. The findings pose a serious challenge for the Catholic Church in the 21st century, but Catholic leaders say they have solutions that can help turn the tide back toward a marriage-based society. 

U.S. high school graduates traditionally make up the backbone of America’s middle class, according to the 2012 State of Our Unions Report, an annual publication of the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values’ Center for Marriage and Families. Yet this same group is giving up on marriage, and the corresponding decline is destroying both family life and middle class prosperity. 

Nearly 60 percent of Americans ages 25 to 60 are high school graduates, according to the report. But 44 percent of children of high school graduated mothers are now born out of wedlock, a dramatic increase from 1982, when 13 percent of their children were born outside of marriage. The study’s data shows that high school graduates are now almost indistinguishable in their marriage patterns from those who haven’t completed high school, where 54 percent of children were born outside of marriage.

Educational correlation

It’s the college-educated class that is becoming the married class, the report warns, where just 6 percent of children were born out of wedlock. The study’s data show 80 percent of teenage girls born to college-educated parents still live in an intact home, but little more than half of their peers with parents that have only a high-school degree can say the same. 

The decline of marriage in this “forgotten 60 percent” also follows a loss of wealth in the middle class. Pew Research Center findings show the concentration of wealth in middle-income households declined from 61 percent to 51 percent between 1971-2011, while the number of married couples heading households dropped from 74 percent to 55 percent. 

The report’s authors recommend a variety of policy and social initiatives to promote marriage from changes in the tax code and welfare programs to bolstering marriage reconciliation and premarital education, and public awareness campaigns that engage popular culture and social media.

Economic incentives

Kathy Saile, a social policy expert with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, agreed with the report’s conclusion that eliminating marriage penalties on taxable income, Medicaid and Social Security could incentivize low-income couples to get married. 

“That certainly should be one of the goals of the safety net,” said Saile, who is director of the USCCB’s Office of Domestic Social Development. 

married couple
Support for marriage needs to extend beyond pre-Cana classes, say those who work in Catholic ministry. Photo by Sam Lucero

She pointed out that marriage offers poor and low-income couples their best chance for escaping poverty and government dependency. 

“We believe there should be no cap on the child tax credit,” she added. The Earned Income Tax Credit for a family in 2010 amounted to $2,805, and Saile said this helped keep 3 million families above the poverty level. 

“For a family earning minimum wage, or above minimum wage, a $2,800 check means you could pay off a medical bill, car repair, or the rent to stay in your home,” she said. 

A February 2013 Rutgers study showed 52 percent of workers with a high school degree or less were unemployed. This follows a June 2012 Rutgers study showing only 30 percent of recent high school grads had full-time employment and a median hourly wage of $7.50. 

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour or $15,080 per year — approximately $8,000 below the federal poverty level set for a family of four. 

The challenges of wages to marriage, however, become even more stark when housing is involved, Saile said. A renter would need to make an average $18.25 per hour in order to keep the cost of housing at one-third of his income, according to a 2012 study published by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. But it’s well above the average $14.15 per hour made by a renter of a two-bedroom apartment. 

“We need to have jobs with decent wages,” Saile said. “Those jobs need to help people to earn enough money to support their families and spend time with them.”

Cohabitation’s threats

Even with economic and policy changes, the State of the Unions Report identified that American leaders must reverse the “trial marriage” mentality of living together before marriage. The report identified that not only do the couples have a higher risk of divorce, but they have twice the rate of breakup than married couples by the time their child turns 12. 

The $50 billion wedding industry and its expectations may also be discouraging couples from marrying. A May 2012 survey by Brides magazine found the average wedding cost nearly $27,000, or 69 percent of the U.S. median personal income of $39,000, or 180 percent of a minimum wage earner’s yearly intake. 

Bill May, president of Catholics for the Common Good, said changing cultural attitudes toward marriage and cohabitation begins with restoring marriage to a child-centric, not adult-centric, institution. 

“We’ve really lost sight of the truth that marriage is about uniting kids with their moms and dads ... it’s not about a person’s individual happiness,” he said. “We need a new culture to present young people a vision of a happy, healthy marriage.” 

May said that one Los Angeles parish gave a unique witness by sponsoring a group wedding and paying for the reception. Many low-income couples, including cohabiting ones, he said, embraced the chance to get married in the Church.

Continuing support

Sheila Garcia, associate director for the USCCB’s Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, said the USCCB has launched two waves of marriage promotion ads in television and radio. But she said they made a “real breakthrough” with the 2007 launch of a comprehensive marriage resource site called ForYourMarriage.org, which has so far gained 2 million visitors. 

“It’s aimed at ordinary people: those thinking about marriage, people trying to get married, and even for people already married,” she said. “It has very practical, down-to-earth information about marriage.” 

But Frank Hannigan, director of Family Ministries at the Archdiocese of Chicago, believes the future of marriage ministry must be online and involve more than pre-Cana. 

“What we’ve been falling down on is the follow-up on couples after the wedding,” Hannigan told OSV. 

Hannigan said he wants to see “continuing education” for couples become the standard in U.S. parishes. 

He said most young people are engaged with the Internet and social media, so that’s where the Church needs to engage them. The archdiocese offers comprehensive marriage and natural family planning courses and resources for dating, engaged and married couples through its MarriageMinistries.com, CatholicMarriagePrepClass.com, and FamilyMinistries.org websites. 

“We’ve had couples write back to us ‘you were our last hope’ of getting married in the Church,” he said. 

He said parishes hosting date nights, enrichment speakers and public blessings at Sunday Mass for married couples, and married permanent deacons providing spiritual direction for marriages, all provide positive witness. Ultimately, it’s that witness that he said would give the friends and children of a married couple the confidence to embrace marriage. 

“If all couples were in happy, holy marriages, think how society would be different,” Hannigan said. “To me, it’s an amazing possibility.” 

Peter Jesserer Smith writes from New York.