Where Are the June Weddings?
Church teaching on marriage is attractive, but it requires talking about it. We're not
Once upon a time, not too long ago, June used to be associated with marriage. People spoke of “June weddings.” But while Stevie Wonder might have just been calling to say “I love you,” there was something prescient in his lyric about “no wedding Saturday within the month of June.”
Marriage as an institution is in decline, both in the Church and in society. Last winter, I wrote an article [here] noting the implosion of Catholic marriage in the past half century. In 1969 there were 426,309 Catholic marriages; in 2020, there were 138,837 (updated CARA numbers). No doubt COVID impacted the latter year’s numbers, but—even just studying every five years—Catholic marriages in 2010 already were below (well below) 200,000 per annum. Furthermore, the raw numbers do not tell the whole story. In 1970, the Catholic population of the United States was 47.9 million; in 2020, it was 67.7 million. So while Catholics grew by 20 million over the period, Catholic marriages fell by over 287,000 in the average year. (For the CARA data, see here).
U.S. statistics at large seem not that grim. In 1970, there were 2.16 million marriages in the United States, in 2018, 2.13 million. But while the raw numbers remained static, the U.S. population in the interim grew by 126 million. (For U.S. data, see here).
Even if they marry, people marry much later than in earlier times. The National Marriage Project notes that in 1970 the average age that women married was 21; men, 23. In 2020, those ages were 28 and 30.
Sociological and demographic data indicate better “outcomes” in a marriage-anchored society. People tend to live longer and healthier. Prosperity tends to increase. Social stability is enhanced and social dysfunction reduced.
Yet marriage is in decline. So, too, is American life expectancy. Economic advance is stagnant. Families are broken, and it doesn’t take a criminologist to see crime is rising. All these factors undoubtedly coalesce to create a perfect, mutually reinforcing storm. Skyrocketing house costs, for example, increasingly push home ownership out of more people’s reach, deferring their starting lives together.
What is amazing – and confusing – is the absence of a national, social conversation on this question. Why?
Politicians may cherry-pick their preferred issues. The Left may want to talk “racism” and “student debt” and “the top 1 percenters.” The Right may want to talk “incentives” and “the fentanyl scourge” and “spending-stoked inflation.”
But what everybody avoids like the plague is the moral question and its cultural impact.
To address the decline of marriage, one must grapple with the problem of lifestyle libertinism: one lifestyle is as good as another, as long as it is freely picked; none should be treated (certainly not in law) as “normative” to the exclusion of any others; we cannot interfere with “lifestyle choices.”
It’s paradoxical that our elite who voice this destructive orthodoxy are, in their own marital and family generating practices, quite traditional. That’s why no small number of social commentators are arguing that marriage today is becoming a class-based phenomenon, a preserve of upper classes both sufficiently secure economically and sufficiently controlled morally to hold to a traditional order.
What order? Finish school → get married → have children.
That recipe may seem to be revolutionary in some quarters of American life, but it should not seem so out-of-touch to Catholic ears. Or does it?
Familiaris consortio, that synodal apostolic exhortation that has gone into some degree of eclipse, spoke of marriage preparation in terms of “remote” and “proximate.” To put it bluntly, “remote” preparation would focus on the meaning of marriage, sex, and family before—years before—there was a concrete other in the picture. “Proximate” would center on marriage preparation directly leading with a future spouse to marriage.
What are we doing in terms of “remote” preparation?
Young people are inundated with all sorts of sexual messages. The proliferation of adult-run obscenity masquerading as “drag shows” points to the degree of sexual indoctrination being pushed in society. Young people are interested in addressing these questions, but is the Church talking about them with the same frequency, openness, and intensity that the culture is?
Catholic youth may know that the Church teaches something. That, in itself, is a big assumption. But whether they know why the Church teaches that thing is anyone’s guess.
The Catholic vision can be enticing, attractive, even embracing, but it requires talking about it. Regularly. We’re not.
Before starting with big theology, let’s start with a basic question: “Why do you want to get married?” You’ll likely get pushback from some, that they really don’t (the first discussion). Once that’s chewed on, then “What do you expect of marriage?”
I’ll close with an observation that still strikes me. Back in the late 1980s, I attended the Summer School of Polish Language and Culture at the Catholic University of Lublin (KUL) in Poland. KUL offers programs each summer at various proficiency levels for people—traditional students and non-students—who want to learn Polish.
As I was not in a beginner’s group, the teachers wanted to encourage conversation. They threw out a topic: “What are you looking for in a spouse?”
The reaction was interesting because there was something of an awkward silence. A plurality of the class was made up of American and Canadian college students who, apart from wanting to learn what was in many cases their ethnic language, were signed up for college credits. The teachers sensed that reticence and probed it. One undergrad admitted, “In the West, we generally don’t talk about stuff like that.”
Asked whether they ever hoped to get married and getting an affirmative answer, the teachers observed, “Well, if you don’t talk about what you want, how do you—and anybody else—know it?”
I’ve put two kids through college. My third will soon hit the stage in high school that he’ll be looking at colleges. Culturally, we invest years in getting ready for “the college decision.” Already as freshmen, counselors ask whether the student is “challenging himself” in ways to make himself stand out on college admissions.
We spend years talking about career success. But life success and ways to achieve it — this elicits either cursory treatment or outright omertà.
What’s wrong with this picture, at least in the Church?
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