Marriage and societal trends

In early March, I had the opportunity to be a part of a panel on an episode of KCRG’s “Ethical Perspectives on the News” program. The topic was “Why Marry? What Young People Need to Know.” The conversation amongst the panelists—including myself, a sociology professor from the University of Iowa, and a Lutheran pastor—focused on trends in marriage in recent decades, and the phenomenon of many young people choosing to just live together (i.e. cohabitating) instead of getting married. My participation in this panel has resulted in much reflection and reading on the topic. You are welcome to watch the episode on YouTube by searching for “Ethical Perspectives on the News” followed by the title.

Unfortunately, the marriage trends in our society don’t look good. Sociologist Mark Regnerus reports, “As recently as 2000, a majority—55 percent—of Americans between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four were married, compared with only 34 percent who had never been married. Since then, the two groups have swapped places. By 2014, 52 percent of Americans in that age group had never been married, while only 41 percent were married.” He goes on to say, “[The median age of marriage] now stands at an all-time high of twenty-seven for women and twenty-nine for men, and is continuing to inch upward.” (https://www.firstthings.com/article/2017/10/the-death-of-eros). The apparent loss of desirability of marriage among young people in our society is something we as Catholics should lament and find ourselves asking, “What happened, and what can we do about it?”

In his new book, “The First Society,”  Catholic author Scott Hahn provides insight into those questions. He points out, “Now, marriage is officially defined as nothing more than a romantic partnership that has been recognized by the state” (3). While there are a variety of reasons why many young people are choosing not to get married, a fundamental issue is the reduction of marriage in our society to merely a civil institution. If marriage is nothing more than a mere contract between two parties that comes with certain rights and privileges such as tax advantages or hospital visiting rights, but nothing more, why go through all the trouble to get married? Marriage in our society has been gutted of its original nature and substance, leaving a rather unattractive shell behind. It’s no wonder, then, that many don’t see the value in getting married when they can just live together.

The reality, however, is that marriage has been around since long before any government was in place to recognize it or regulate it. Civil laws regarding marriage, therefore, are add-ons to the nature of marriage rather than the fundamental definition of it. Marriage is so much more than a legal contract recognized by the state. Rather, marriage is a sacred covenant relationship instituted by God from the beginning as the building block of humanity. As Scott Hahn puts it, “The union of man and woman as husband and wife (and, God willing, father and mother) is the very foundation of not just every human society, but of all humanity … As it was at the beginning, so it remains today: the family is the first society, both in order of time and of importance” (14). If we hope to see marriage trends reverse, then we need to get back to the fundamental nature of marriage itself.

Thankfully, as Scott Hahn points out, “God’s truth and Church teaching reach both further into the past and further into the future than any cultural trend or social norm or economic system” (71). In other words, regardless of societal trends and popular opinion, the fundamental nature of marriage as God designed it doesn’t change. His church is entrusted with conveying that message to the world. The best way we can do that is through witnessing to the truth, beauty, and goodness of God’s design for marriage in words and actions. 

Those of us who are sacramentally married can show young people the attractiveness of a sacramental marriage by embracing God’s vision of marriage and heroically living it through the grace given in the sacrament. 

As Scott Hahn says, “There will be no rebuilding of a culture of marriage until we, as Christians and specifically as Catholics, begin to live out the truth of marriage as God intended it” (125). Marriage is the very foundation upon which humanity is built. It is at the heart of human society. It is, therefore, worth every risk and every sacrifice to show the world the attractiveness of marriage as God intended it.

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