Our economy is shaky and young adults don't believe they can commit in an uncertain world -- let alone raise children.
The Vatican has scheduled a special Synod on the Family for next October. Great. Being a family, we can use all the wisdom and light the Church can shed on us. We hope, however, that in the parlance of the young, the Synod "gets real." When it is all over, will we be left with more than pious advice, like "the family that prays together, stays together," and ongoing clerical debates over whether divorced Catholics can receive the Eucharist? As important as those issues are, there is an elephant-in-the-room crisis that cries out for attention. Before you can have a family, you have to have a marriage. Or, at least, that's the way it used to be.
Sociologists and economists report that marriage is fast going out of style. There are all sorts of reasons. Our economy is shaky and young adults don't believe they can commit in an uncertain world -- let alone raise children. Even though divorce statistics have flattened out, and even dropped in recent years, the canard about 50 percent of marriages end in divorce still frightened young Americans, so many of whom have come from families that have been split apart by divorce. "Who wants to relive the horror that I experienced when mom and dad split?"
Marriage has been painted as a social trap that truncates the careers and life options of young women. The freedom of living alone or with friends and making one's own money and own life choices versus marrying some beer-drinking, sports-obsessed "baby man" is no contest. "Maybe I'll hook-up with a guy for a while and see how it goes, but definitely no marriage -- and definitely no kids."
Young men, who increasingly face low wage and low security jobs, are hardly eager to get married, either. Even if they meet someone who would make a suitable wife, how can they get serious about marriage? If he is a college grad, he probably has debts. And then there is the problem that she, too, has debts to her alma mater or Uncle Sam.
Until the arrival of the Pill, and drugs like RU-484 that cause abortions, St. Paul's warning, "Marry or burn" made practical sense. However, our post-Christian culture screams a very different message: "Sexual freedom is your right. The new free and easy sexual mores blend nicely with current economic realities. So why marry?"
Let us suggest some themes that flow from the current anti-marriage trends. In the mid-1960s, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a renowned sociologist and one of the last great U.S. senators, did a study of the black family in America. At the time, his research was something of a bombshell. His major finding was that fully 30 percent of African American children were born out-of-wedlock.
Moynihan claimed that this trend was the first quivers of a coming social earthquake. There was much tongue-clucking then over that figure. However, today, when the out-of-wedlock among white Americans is 30 percent and the percentage with the black community has risen to 72 percent, few seem concerned. Even the term "out-of-wedlock" is condemned as judgmental.
One shock is the sharp decline in our national birthrate. In the last year, our already historically low birth has dropped 10 percent from 2.1 to 1.9 births per female. Without the recent influx of young immigrants, this figure would be even lower. Another side effect of our birthrate decline is that Social Security payments to seniors, who are increasing in number and longevity, is imperiled.
But beyond these marriages and the family statistics, there are the searing everyday stories: Teenaged girls who become sexually active and end up with families, with few skills needed to earn a decent wage in our new economy. Without support from their own, often chaotic families, their lives are bleak. So, too, for the boys who impregnated them. Their futures are long hours working at low-skill, low-paying jobs. And, then there are their children, particularly their sons, who grow up without a father.
A relevant Synod on the Family must address these conditions and these stories. Evangelization is about bringing Christ's Church to these current realities. Among the questions the Synod should address are these:
-- Will the Church, from pulpits to publications, define and vigorously project a sacramental vision of marriage, a vision of marriage as a means of living a Christ-like life? And, conversely will we vigorously confront the hook-up, co-habitation culture that is poisoning marriages before they start?
-- Will the Church turn greater attention and resources to marriage preparation programs and, especially to support groups for newly marriage couples? Will the Church draw on the huge numbers of Catholic couples who could be a great resource to couples struggling with the difficulties of the married life?
-- Will the Church educate Catholic citizens on how to confront government policies that discourage marriage, such as tax laws with marriage penalties and low tax credit deduction for the noble work of raising the next generation of taxpayers?
-- Will the Church lead the way against the state's monopoly of education, where a totally secular view of sex, marriage and family are preached?
For this we pray.
KEVIN AND MARILYN RYAN, EDITORS OF "WHY I'M STILL A CATHOLIC," WORSHIP AT ST. LAWRENCE CHURCH IN BROOKLINE.
Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline, Mass.