Much has been made of Catholics’ negativism toward Church teaching and practice on marriage, as was reflected in survey results released by several European bishops’ conferences and some U.S. dioceses. The mostly self-selected respondents predictably disagreed with the Church about many things, leading progressive Catholic media to claim this showed the need for change.
The surveys were part of the run-up to the extraordinary assembly of the world Synod of Bishops in October. A second, ordinary assembly is scheduled a year later to develop recommendations. Final decisions — probably a year after that — will be up to the pope. As reactions to the survey results made clear, the lobbying is already intense.
That many Catholics, especially in Europe and North America, disagree with the Church on issues like birth control and remarriage after divorce is hardly news. What needs to be recognized, and usually isn’t, is that this disagreement has a context: the ongoing breakdown of marriage in Western society that affects Catholics along with everyone else.
The nature of the crisis can be glimpsed in two sets of U.S. figures.
Between 1960 and 2012, the percentage of Americans who are married fell from 67.6 percent to 53 percent, while the birth rate per thousand dropped from 23.7 to 12.6 — a new record low. In the same time period, the percentage of births to unmarried women skyrocketed from 5 percent in 1960 to 41 percent in 2011 — 29 percent for whites, 53 percent for Hispanics and 72 percent for blacks.
And Catholics? Catholic marriages in the U.S. plummeted from 317,000 in 1993 to 241,000 in 2003 to 164,000 in 2013. The picture is similar for receptions into the Church — for the most part, infant baptisms. They dropped from 1.1 million in 1993 to 877,000 in 2013 — a decline of 265,000 a year, or nearly one-fourth.
This didn’t come about overnight. In his pastoral letter Go Forth with Hearts on Fire, Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington, Va., makes the point that “the results of the sexual revolution” and the spread of contraception brought on the epidemic of marriage-related pathologies and created a major obstacle to evangelization.
And what is the natural way of handling an epidemic? Care for the sick and take steps to prevent the epidemic from spreading. As applied to the epidemic of marriage breakdown among Catholics, this points to the need for a two-part response: tending the sick (pastoral care) and seeking to stem the epidemic (teaching the Church’s doctrine on marriage with clarity and conviction).
Pope Francis evidently understands the importance of this two-pronged formula. In an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, he praised Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae condemning artificial contraception as “prophetic.” Pope Paul, he said, “had the courage to stand against this majority, to defend moral discipline, to exercise a cultural brake.” Rather than “changing doctrine,” he added, doctrine should be applied in ways that recognize “people’s situations and that which is possible for people to do.”
That is Pope Francis’ approach. As applied to the synod and marriage, he is pained by the situation of divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriages haven’t been annulled and would like, if possible, to find a way for them to receive Communion — but not at the expense of the doctrine that marriage is indissoluble. Despite the polls and the lobbying, surrendering to the epidemic of marriage breakdown simply guarantees its spread.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.