There’s something wrong with the number of annulments granted to Catholic couples in the United States. And it’s not what its most vocal critics think. 

According to the latest Vatican numbers, the United States counts for 5.9 percent of the world’s Catholics but for 60 percent of the Church’s global annulment numbers (which in 2008 totaled 59,244). An annulment is a finding by a Church tribunal that an apparently valid Catholic marriage was actually invalid from the beginning (for an easy-to-read explanation see In Focus, Pages 9-12). 

Some critics say the high U.S. numbers indicate a lax — and scandalous — attitude in stateside Church tribunals toward the permanence of the marital bond. Defenders say the disproportion owes more to the fact that the Church in the United States is wealthier than many other local Churches and so is able to have an efficient system of tribunals, judges and lawyers. They also point to a law-abiding ethos of Americans that makes them more likely to desire to correct their irregular situations in the eyes of the Church. 

What is more troubling, though, is that both annulment numbers and marriage numbers among Catholics in the United States have been declining in the past several decades — even as the number of Catholics continues to grow. 

One reason for the decline in annulment numbers might be that there are simply fewer Catholic marriages. Another is that Catholics are increasingly unconcerned about regularizing their situation. 

In many ways, Catholics in the Western Hemisphere are adopting the behaviors of secular society: cohabiting instead of marrying, separating without even formalizing a divorce, and in general showing little respect for the importance of and permanence of the marital covenant. 

That’s bad news for the Church in more than one way. Not only are broken marriages or cohabiting couples a major pastoral problem, they are also less likely to produce children who are able or willing to accept the lifelong commitment of marriage or a religious vocation. 

Don’t look to the prevailing culture for any assistance. In fact, in many ways, today’s young Catholic couples have the deck stacked against them. An increasing number have grown up in broken homes, so they are without models of lifelong spousal love and commitment. The phenomenon of a extended adolescence among young people is also poor preparation for marital commitment. And the divorce option has achieved virtual cultural saturation — there’s little more countercultural today than asserting that marriage is to “death do us part.” 

That’s why it is critical that dioceses, parishes and individual Catholics dedicate time, energy and resources to strengthening marriages and breaking a “vicious circle” that Pope Benedict XVI identified earlier this year in an annual meeting with a Vatican tribunal that hears annulment appeals: inadequate preparation or examination of the fitness of couples for Catholic marriage, which leads later to a speedy annulment precisely because of it. 

Parishes need to develop a pastoral plan around marriage. The most obvious requirement is strengthening the marriage preparation program. But it is also important that the parish — especially through the mentoring of couples with years of experience — to accompany couples whose marriages may be in crisis or difficulty. For Catholic couples, the first place to start is strengthening their own marriages daily. There is a wealth of resources, starting with the U.S. bishops’ excellent website. 

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