For most people, talk of “crisis” and “Catholic Church” inevitably brings to mind the scandal of clergy sex abuse. And with good reason. It remains the dominant mainstream media narrative about the Church, and for Catholics the damaging effects of the betrayal of priestly and episcopal fidelity are likely to last a generation or more. 

But there is another fidelity crisis in the Catholic Church that is not only ongoing and gaining in strength, has potentially even greater long-term consequences and yet is virtually ignored and unremarked on: the radical decline in the number of Catholics marrying in the Church. 

Consider this single staggering statistic from the analysis we commissioned this week from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University: In 1972 in the United States, 415,487 couples married in the Catholic Church. Last year, even though there are nearly 17 million more Catholics in the United States, only 168,400 couples wed in a Catholic Church (see story, Page 4). 

What gives? The CARA researcher who performed our analysis, Mark Gray, identifies a number of potential causes: fewer Catholics are deciding to marry at all; more Catholics are deciding to marry outside the Church, especially if they are divorced; and more Catholics are marrying non-Catholics, outside a Church ceremony. 

Some local Churches have begun searching for a solution. In San Francisco, where Catholic weddings have dropped 47 percent in the past two decades, archdiocesan officials last month announced a task force to “focus on renewing existing marriage preparation programs, making parishes as inviting as possible to engaged couples and making the moment of engagement a substantial time of catechesis for couples.” 

In recent years dioceses around the country have beefed up their marriage preparation requirements significantly, in recognition of the need to help young couples be able to meet happily the demands and pressures of marital life. Ironically, though, the stiffened requirements, particularly if perceived or presented simply as bureaucratic hurdles, may be discouraging couples from marrying in the Church. 

“Sometimes [marriage preparation] is not as conducive as it might be in showing hospitality and welcoming people to marry in church,” Msgr. James Tarantino, the San Francisco archdiocesan vicar for administration and moderator of the curia, told Catholic San Francisco. 

Making marriage preparation programs more inviting (but no less challenging) is surely part of the solution. But for every couple that approaches the Church to marry, there are many others who never take even that first step. That suggests a much deeper problem: Many Catholics seem unaware of what the Church means by a sacramental marriage, of its opportunities for grace and its advantages over civil marriage. 

The solution likely will need to be just as complicated as the problem, and involve every sector of the Church. Bishops will need to allocate resources to marriage preparation and the support of troubled marriages. Priests, in their homilies, office hours and one-on-one conversations, will have to find a way to engage people where they are in their life’s journey with the beauty and liberating power of Church teaching. Married couples need to dedicate time continually to deepening their own marital love (one excellent resource is the U.S. bishops’, and also be a generous source of strength and counsel for struggling couples around them. 

But the first step is to recognize and name the decline in sacramental marriages for what it is: a true Church crisis.

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