Numbers don't lie. Which is unfortunate, because when it comes to living marriage as God intended it to be lived — faithfully, fruitfully and for as long as both shall live — the numbers show that Catholics are failing abysmally.
Ninety-eight percent of Catholic couples today use some form of contraception. Thirty percent of Catholic men are sterilized. Roughly 25 percent of Catholic marriages end in divorce.
Up to 85 percent of Catholic couples married in the last decade cohabitated before marriage. More than 90 (and perhaps more than 95) percent of unmarried adult Catholics are sexually active. And more than 5.5 million Catholics have divorced and remarried without an annulment.
Those numbers are sobering. More sobering still is the recognition that those figures don't just come from one study. They come from dozens of studies conducted by numerous organizations that span the ideological spectrum, from the far-left Guttmacher Institute to the evangelical Barna Group and the Catholic Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
Which is to say, it's not an agenda driving those numbers. It's reality.
So what's the Church to do about it?
Recently, Our Sunday Visitor spoke with Father Roger Landry, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., who's prepared hundreds of couples for the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony and speaks nationally on the theology of the body, about what Catholics can do to strengthen the institution of marriage. Here's what Father Landry had to say.
What priests can do
1. Preach it: Proclaim God's plan for marriage from the pulpit. Use arguments from Scripture as well as natural law. Basically, teach the biblical understanding of the human person as Jesus did in the Gospels and Pope John Paul II did in his theology of the body. The fullness of the Church's teachings on marriage, family and love really are good news. Share that good news with those who need to hear it.
2. Stop delegating marriage preparation: When couples come to the Church for marriage preparation, it's a supremely teachable moment. Even though priests' duties are numerous and growing, we need to make the time to talk one-on-one with the couples we marry. A priest's sacred vocation gives us the ability to talk about God's plan for marriage with greater authority, provide more objective advice and help people know when we're talking to them about marriage that we're seeing the big picture and not comparing their situation to our own.
3. Remind couples they have a mission: Marriage is not just about the couple and their love. It's about reflecting Jesus' love for his bride, the Church, in the midst of the world. The biggest vocations crisis the Church faces today is a lack of couples conscious of that mission and trying to live it out with zeal. So do everything you can to help couples discover their mission and inspire them to live it.
4. Counter the culture of divorce: Don't stand on the sidelines as parishioners' marriages fall apart. Have the courage to speak out as Jesus did, proclaiming, interpreting and explaining the Church's teachings on the indissolubility of Christian marriage.
What married couples can do
1. Remain open to life: Publicly witness that marriage is also about children, the fruit of the one-flesh-union. Without that witness it's much more difficult for the Church to speak out credibly against same-sex marriage.
2. Educate your children about the Christian understanding of marriage: Parents need to recognize that the culture is giving their kids a deeply misguided understanding about the human person and human sexuality. That's why they must be particularly proactive about explaining the Church's teachings on marriage. They have to develop a vocabulary to talk about the birds and the bees and do it at a much earlier age than their parents and grandparents did. Remember, it's easier to form minds than change them.
3. Defend marriage in the public square: We need couples who appreciate the gift God has given them in their own marriage to stand up for marriage in their communities, opposing efforts to redefine marriage and opposing officials who seek to undermine marriage.
4. Learn to forgive: At the heart of most broken marriages is an unwillingness to forgive or even try to forgive the wrongdoing of one's spouse. If they want their marriage to last, couples must try to forgive problems both big and small and not let resentments build up. They also have to recognize that they didn't sign up to be married to someone "for as long as we both shall love," but rather "for as long as we both shall live."
What unmarried Catholics can do
1. Study the theology of the body: It's never enough to just know what the Church teaches. Catholics also need to know why the Church teaches what it does, especially in the areas of marriage and sexuality. The theology of the body is an incredible resource that can help Catholics understand the deepest truths about who they are and how God calls them to love.
2. Recognize that the Church's teachings on sexuality are part of the Good News: These teachings are not fundamentally a "no" to something, but a "yes" to someone. It's a "yes" to the love of God and a "yes" to true love for another person. Abstaining from all forms of sexual sin now — unchaste relationships, pornography, etc. — prevents singles from using another person as an object and prepares them for truly saying "yes" to the spouse God has chosen for them.
3. Recognize we're all called to holiness: Like married people, single people are called to make a gift of themselves to others. They can't sit on the sidelines. The whole point of life is to make an unselfish gift of ourselves. The more single people live this way now, the more they prepare themselves for healthy, strong marriages later.
4. Don't confuse "falling in love" with "being in love": Falling in love is something that strikes us from without, but this feeling rarely lasts, and it's not the foundation for a happy, lasting marriage. That foundation is being in love, a choice to sacrifice one's self for another's true betterment.
It goes much deeper than mere sexual attraction, shows itself in concrete acts of self-sacrifice, and accepts the other person in the totality of who they are, as God made them. That's the kind of love singles need to pursue and eventually build their own marriages on.
See also "Fighting to prevent same-sex marriage"