The steady advance of initiatives around the country to grant same-sex couples marriage “rights” is sometimes painted by its opponents as a foremost threat to the institution of marriage and to the future of society itself.

There’s no question that legalized same-sex marriage would represent an epochal shift in the way our society formally views marriage. But in some ways, it is fair to ask whether the battle against same-sex marriage is a little like rearranging the deck chairs as the Titanic goes down — our society, including many of its Catholic members, has lost an appreciation, both in understanding and practice, for what marriage is really all about. 

And, unfortunately, the weakening of traditional marriages has a domino effect: Broken homes produce people with wounds that make it difficult to stick to a lifelong, loving commitment themselves. And the cycle continues. 

Consider some facts. 

  • While 50 percent of marriages in the United States still are estimated to end in divorce, the divorce rate is down slightly — but only because the marriage rate has dropped almost twice as quickly in recent years. 

The same trend holds among Catholics. According to a recent report, for example, the Archdiocese of Boston registered a 55 percent decline in the number of church weddings over the last decade. The U.S. bishops have been working for years on revised standards for marriage preparation, but that won’t help if Catholic couples don’t make it to the altar. 

  • According to a 2005 Rutgers University study, 8 percent of coupled households consist of unmarried heterosexual partners. 
  • That same study said that only 63 percent of children in the United States grow up with both biological parents — reportedly the lowest figure in the Western world. 

Along with the emptying from marriage of lifelong commitment is the uncoupling of marriage from one of its primary social functions: the generation and education of children. 

The beginning of the slide was artificial contraception. As some gay activists have noted, with some justification, contraception has rendered the vast majority of American heterosexual marriages just as sterile as homosexual couplings. And the rise of the use of in vitro fertilization has further cemented the separation of marriage and procreation. 

For secular society, and probably for many Catholics, all this gives little cause for alarm. In fact, it is celebrated in pop culture. ABC’s popular “Modern Family” television show, about three decidedly nontraditional families, has attracted a slew of Emmy nominations. 

So, battling same-sex marriage initiatives is necessary and laudable, but hardly sufficient. Ours is a culture that must rediscover the challenges and beauty of self-sacrificing, lifelong love between a man and a woman, and its fundamental importance to the raising of loving, balanced children. 

This will be no easy task. But the strongest defense of marriage is the example of strong marriages. 

Catholics have a vast treasury of wisdom — in which too few have immersed themselves — to propose to a society desperately seeking love: the breathtakingly uplifting vision of marriage and family articulated by the Church over the centuries, and maybe especially by Pope John Paul II in his Theology of the Body. Rediscovering this treasury and making it better known may not only help a few Catholics discover a happiness that is closer than they think; it may also keep the Titanic from sinking.

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