Exclusive analysis: National Catholic marriage rate plummets

It is June — that time of year when many of us will be receiving wedding invitations. One thing that may have changed from years past is the likelihood that the address on that invitation is for a country club, beach or community center rather than a Catholic parish. 

The number of marriages celebrated in the Church has fallen from 415,487 in 1972 to 168,400 in 2010 — a decrease of nearly 60 percent — while the U.S. Catholic population has increased by almost 17 million. To put this another way, this is a shift from 8.6 marriages per 1,000 U.S. Catholics in 1972 to 2.6 marriages per 1,000 Catholics in 2010. 

Comparing marriage rates 

The “crude marriage” rate (marriages per 1,000 of a population) for Catholics marrying in the Church is significantly different than the overall crude marriage rate of the United States. In 2009, the most recent data available, the crude marriage rate in the U.S. overall was 6.8 marriages per 1,000 people. 

It’s not that Catholics are less likely to marry than non-Catholics. In 2010, 53 percent of Catholics surveyed in the General Social Survey (GSS) indicated that they were currently married. By comparison, 51 percent of non-Catholics surveyed were married (including 55 percent of Protestants and 43 percent of those without a religious affiliation). Instead, many Catholics are choosing to marry outside of the Church. 

We can see this trend in polling data as well. In a 2007 survey conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, 46 percent of unmarried Catholics who indicated some likelihood of marrying in the future said it is “somewhat” or “very” important to them to marry in the Church. 

There are some other trends that are leading to the declining numbers of marriages in the Church. 

A smaller percentage of Catholics are choosing to marry at all. The percentage of Catholics in the GSS indicating that they are married dropped from 79 percent in 1972 to 53 percent in 2010. Among Catholics ages 18 to 40, this percentage dropped from 69 percent to 38 percent during this period. 

Some of this can be explained by Catholics waiting longer to marry, but the shift here has been slight. In 1972, the average age at first marriage reported in the GSS for Catholics ages 18 to 40 was 20.9. In 2006 (the last time this question was asked), it was 23.9. 

Thus, the decline in Church marriages is more about not marrying at all than marrying older. CARA’s 2007 survey on marriage provides some additional context. In this study, Catholics who had never married were asked, “How likely do you think it is that you will get married at some point in your life?” Twenty-four percent of these never-married Catholics responded, “not at all likely.” 

Other reasons for decline 

Divorce is another factor in the growing gap between the overall crude marriage rate in the U.S. and in the Church. The percentage of adult Catholics who are divorced or separated, divorced and remarried or widowed increased from 8 percent in 1972 to 22 percent in 2010. Some who divorce get remarried in civil ceremonies without seeking an annulment. These marriages are included in the total number of marriages in the U.S. but couldn’t be celebrated in the Church. 

Another factor is the increasing number of marriages among Catholics to spouses of another faith.  

According to the 1991 GSS, 78 percent of married Catholics ages 40 and younger had a Catholic spouse. This dropped to 57 percent in 2008, with an increasing number of Catholics reporting a Protestant spouse (28 percent) or one with no religious affiliation (15 percent). 

Some Catholics celebrate their interfaith marriage in the Church. The percentage of marriages celebrated in the Church between a Catholic and a non-Catholic has remained quite stable in recent decades. In 2009, 26 percent of marriages in the Church were between a Catholic and a non-Catholic. 

The likelihood that a Catholic will marry a non-Catholic is related to how numerous other Catholics are in his or her community. In 2009, in dioceses in which Catholics were about 10 percent of the total population, the average percentage of marriages in the Church between a Catholic and non-Catholic was 41 percent. In dioceses in which 40 percent or more of the population was Catholic, only about 16 percent of marriages in the Church were interfaith. 

Rates are relative 

Not all dioceses have experienced the same marriage-rate decline. Four reported an increase in their crude Catholic marriage rates in the last decade: Peoria, Ill. (4.2 marriages in the Church per 1,000 Catholics in 2000 compared with 5.2 in 2010), Monterey, Calif. (3.4 to 4.3), Amarillo, Texas (5.1 to 5.2), and Beaumont, Texas (3.7 to 3.8). However, in each of these dioceses the total number of marriages celebrated in the Church declined. The resulting increases in marriage rates are due to fewer numbers of Catholics living in these dioceses. 

In six dioceses, the total number of marriages celebrated increased, but the marriage rate fell due to more rapidly growing Catholic populations. These include: Corpus Christi, Texas (222 more marriages in 2010 than in 2000), Charlotte, N.C. (+112), Brownsville, Texas (+30), Knoxville, Tenn. (+18), Raleigh, N.C. (+17), Lincoln, Neb. (+1). 

In the 10 dioceses with the highest rates for Catholic marriage in 2010, mostly concentrated in middle America, the rates are similar to the total crude marriage rate in the U.S. (6.8 in 2009). In the dioceses with the lowest crude rates, many are likely choosing to marry outside the Church. It’s also possible that in the dioceses near the U.S.-Mexico border, some of the Catholic marriages may be occurring outside the diocese. 

The Diocese of Las Vegas has the country’s lowest Catholic marriage rate (0.9 marriages in the Church per 1,000 Catholics). This may be related to the presence of the city of Las Vegas — said to be easiest place in the world to get married (outside the Church, that is).  

Mark M. Gray is a research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

[See also the OSV Newsweekly editorial on the plummeting Catholic marriage rate.]

Highs and Lows of Catholic Marriage (sidebar)

Marriages in the Church per 1,000 Catholics by diocese in 2010 

Highest Rates  

Salina, Kan. 7.3  
Owensboro, Ky. 7.3  
Wichita, Kan. 6.2  
Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo. 5.9  
Oklahoma City, Okla. 5.8  
Belleville, Ill. 5.7  
Bismarck, N.D. 5.7  
Yakima, Wash. 5.7  
Tulsa, Okla. 5.6  
Rapid City, S.D. 5.6  
 

Lowest Rates 

Las Vegas, Nev. 0.9 
Brownsville, Texas 1.0 
El Paso, Texas 1.2 
Dallas, Texas 1.2 
Sacramento, Calif. 1.2 
Juneau, Alaska 1.2 
Laredo, Texas 1.3 
Gallup, N.M./Ariz. 1.4 
Brooklyn, N.Y. 1.5 
Orange, Calif. 1.6 
 
Source: Official Catholic Directory 2011 
 

Percentages of U.S. adult Catholics who are married, 1972-2010 (sidebar)

1972 79%
1973 70%
1974 74%
1975 66%
1976 70%
1977 68%
1978 72%
1979 ---
1980 65%
1981 ---
1982 63%
1983 62%
1984 63%
1985 65%
1986 62%
1987 58%
1988 57%
1989 61%
1990 62%
1991 61%
1992 ---
1993 64%
1994 59%
1995 ---
1996 56%
1997 ---
1998 56%
1999 ---
2000 55%
2001 ---
2002 58%
2003 ---
2004 64%
2005 ---
2006 58%
2007 ---
2008 55%
2009 ---
2010 53%
 

Percentages of U.S. adult Catholics, ages 18-40, who are married, 1972-2010 (sidebar)

1972 69%
1973 63%
1974 67%
1975 58%
1976 63%
1977 58%
1978 64%
1979 ---
1980 56%
1981 ---
1982 54%
1983 50%
1984 55%
1985 56%
1986 54%
1987 48%
1988 49%
1989 47%
1990 54%
1991 52%
1992 ---
1993 57%
1994 48%
1995 ---
1996 49%
1997 ---
1998 48%
1999 ---
2000 48%
2001 ---
2002 49%
2003 ---
2004 49%
2005 ---
2006 45%
2007 ---
2008 40%
2009 ---
2010 38%