By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
In the July/August 2020 issue of Christianity Today, there is an article by Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at UT Austin, entitled “Vanishing Vows: Can the Church Save Marriage?” It previews his book, The Future of Christian Marriage, and reports interviews of young Christians in Mexico, Spain, Poland, Russia, Lebanon, Nigeria and the United States in order to understand why marriage is declining so rapidly. To appreciate this decline, consider a Census Bureau survey in 2005 showing that 50% of men between 25 and 34 were married, while in 2018 only 35% were – that is a big drop in about a decade.
Among the reasons cited in Regnerus’ interviews for postponing or forgoing marriage altogether were economic and social uncertainties. Surprisingly, no one surveyed thought marriage could actually be precisely “a means to combat or mitigate material, social, or psychological uncertainty.” (37). In the past, many people expected to marry poorer and then work together for material security, but today many defer marriage until they feel independently established. We tend now to see marriage as an achievement: “Marriage, even in the minds of most Christians, is now perceived as a capstone that marks a successful young adult life, not the foundational hallmark of entry into adulthood.” (38). Regnerus thinks this connection to material success makes marriage a social-justice issue. For culturally, it is “fast becoming an elite, voluntary, and consumption-oriented arrangement that takes place later in life. The advantaged now consolidate their wealth and income by marrying, while the disadvantaged are left without even the help of each other. But how many of us see clearly that marriage is about social justice?” (39). To see the truth in his point, consider how weddings today are often expected to be expensive, and how they often try to mimic elite celebrity experiences.
Accounting for the decline in marriage and responding to it is, of course, more challenging than what can be done in a single article, but one helpful insight I learned from Regnerus is the importance of seeing marriage as a vocation – as a call received from God to commit oneself in love. It is not a private achievement but an adventure unfolding under God. Even after the careful discernment that we should exercise when considering marriage, we will still probably feel like nervous or at least unfinished pilgrims when we step to the altar. Some uncertainty is good, given what marriage is. If we focus on our search for God, and on marriage in obedience to him along our pilgrim journey, then we are more likely to find the courage to marry than if we seek marriage ultimately to serve a private project or need: “In other words, meeting a mate seemed more likely to occur – or be on its way soon – when our interviewees focused on holiness before loneliness.” (41).
Marriage, Regnerus argues, is an institution belonging to this world (cf. Mt 22:30) and it cannot fulfill our desire for total satisfaction. It has a specific identity leading to something like the “three goods” St. Augustine identified for it: fidelity, children and a sacred bond. It is a wonderful gift, if it is received for what it is and not distorted into a custom-made idol that like all other idols will inevitably disappoint. As our age attempts to redefine marriage, or rather to replace it with other associations (like the soulmate, trophy, playmate, or whatever else we think we want for our private projects), society is growing more anxious about it. More and more, it is only the rich, or those who feel powerful enough to placate their anxieties and ambitions, who feel the confidence to marry. Key to returning our culture to marriage will be accepting marriage for what it is: “Demand too much from it, and you will be disappointed. All of our social, cultural, and legal efforts have not fundamentally altered the nature of the union. Marriage isn’t changing. It’s receding.” (40).
In Amoris laetitia §131, Pope Francis said very similar things about marriage: “Marriage is a means of expressing that we have truly left the security of the home in which we grew up in order to build other strong ties and to take on a new responsibility for another person. This is much more meaningful than a mere spontaneous association for mutual gratification, which would turn marriage into a purely private affair. As a social institution, marriage protects and shapes a shared commitment to deeper growth in love and commitment to one another, for the good of society as a whole. That is why marriage is more than a fleeting fashion; it is of enduring importance.”
Christians can help the world by re-demonstrating what marriage is. We need, Regnerus says, to remember “the foundational nature of matrimony” and guard “against the out-of-this-world material and psychological expectations about marriage that have gone stratospheric today.” (41). Accordingly, we need to encourage young people to look forward to marriage not as a toy or prize, but as an adventure, as a chance to be rich or poor, healthy or sick, growing together in unconditional love under God, through death and into eternal life.
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving.