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Marriage trends signal declining role of church
By JAMES D. DAVIDSON
Many studies have shown that the interfaith marriage rate is increasing among Catholics. Our study indicates that this trend continues. However, our survey is unique in confirming two additional marriage trends: Marriages are increasingly taking place outside the church, and the trend toward unsanctioned marriages includes marriages between two Catholics as well as interfaith marriages. Together, these trends indicate that Catholics are paying less and less attention to the church when they are marrying.
Previous studies have shown quite consistently that the interfaith marriage rate among Catholics has been rising throughout the course of this century. This trend has been documented in national surveys analyzed by Norval Glenn in Social Forces (1982); Alan McCutcheon in the Review of Religious Research (1988); Matthijs Kalmijn in the American Sociological Review (1991); William Sander in the Journal of Marriage and Family (1993); and the author and several colleagues in The Search for Common Ground (Our Sunday Visitor, 1997).
Our 1999 survey indicates that this trend continues (see Table 14). When we asked married Catholics if their spouses were Catholic, 70 percent said yes. Thirty percent were married to someone of another faith or no faith. However, the percent of Catholics married to a Catholic declines from 79 percent among pre-Vatican II Catholics (59 years of age and older) to 73 percent among Vatican II Catholics (39-58 years of age) and 62 percent among post-Vatican II Catholics (ages 18-38). The percent of Catholics married to a non-Catholic rises from only 21 percent among pre-Vatican II Catholics to 38 percent among post-Vatican II Catholics. In other words, the percentage of young Catholics involved in an interfaith marriage is almost double the rate for older Catholics.
More and more Catholics also are marrying outside the church. Overall, 70 percent of Catholics say their marriages were sanctioned by the church, and 30 percent were not married in the church. However, the trend is to bypass the church. While 88 percent of pre-Vatican II Catholics were married in the church, only 59 percent of post-Vatican II Catholics say their marriages are valid in the eyes of the church. Only 12 percent of marriages among pre-Vatican II Catholics took place outside the church. Forty percent of marriages involving post-Vatican II Catholics were not sanctioned by the church.
Third, the trend toward marrying outside the church is occurring among marriages involving two Catholics as well as in marriages involving a Catholic and a member of another faith. Among Catholics who are married to Catholics, unsanctioned marriages have increased from only 6 percent for pre-Vatican II Catholics to 15 percent among Vatican II Catholics and 31 percent among post-Vatican II Catholics. Thirty-five percent of pre-Vatican II Catholics involved in interfaith marriages were married outside the church, compared to 59 percent of Vatican II Catholics and 55 percent of post-Vatican II Catholics.
We also ran the data for cradle Catholics (who comprise 89 percent of our sample) to see if the pattern is the same for people who were raised in the church. The pattern for cradle Catholics was within one percentage point of the figures shown in Table 1.
Since 93 percent of pre-Vatican II Catholics and 90 percent of Vatican II Catholics are (or have been) married, the trends for these groups are quite stable. However, only 51 percent of post-Vatican II Catholics are (or have been) married. Thus, the percentages for this cohort are subject to change as more and more young people marry. As they do, we expect that the percentage of young Catholics involved in interfaith marriages will increase and that the percentage of interfaith and even intrafaith marriages taking place outside the church will increase. These seem to be reasonable expectations, given the fact that post-Vatican II Catholics are more likely than pre-Vatican II Catholics to say that one can be a good Catholic without marrying in the church.
These trends indicate that more and more Catholics are paying less and less attention to the church when they are selecting marriage partners and deciding where they will be married. While church leaders might not be able to do much about the social and cultural forces that are contributing to these trends, they can address conditions in the church that might be fostering them.
Leaders in catechesis, youth ministry and young-adult education might want to give increased attention to Catholic identity, the sacramental nature of marriage, the benefits of marrying a person of the same faith and the increased likelihood of divorce in interfaith marriages. They also might want to explore new forms of marriage preparation that are tailored to the needs and lifestyles of todays young adults. Finally, they might experiment with new forms of liturgy oriented toward young adults and new forms of support for newlyweds, especially those involved in interfaith marriages.
National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 1999