As marriage rates continue to decline, how can the Church draw more people to the altar? – EWTN Global Catholic Television Network

As marriage rates continue to decline, how can the Church draw more people to the altar? – EWTN Global Catholic Television Network

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By Daniel Payne

CNA staff, July 11, 2024, 6:00 a.m. (CNA).

Experts say the Catholic Church must focus at the parish level to boost falling marriage rates among the faithful, as the low marriage rate in the Church reflects the decline of the institution of marriage in wider society.

According to data from Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, the number of Catholic marriages declined by about 70% between 1969 and 2019.

The decline reflects a broader decline in marriage across the United States, where a record 25% of 40-year-olds in the U.S. have now never been married, according to Pew Research.

Marriage experts and advocates have long offered explanations for declining marriage rates. Mary Rose Verret, who with her husband Ryan founded the marriage renewal and preparation initiative Witness to Love, says young Catholics “don’t see holy, healthy, happy marriages being lived out,” and so they don’t have significant examples of successful unions.

The Verret couple told CNA that the Catholic Church should be much more active in encouraging marriages.

“As a church, we can do a better job of talking about marriage from the pulpit,” Mary Rose said. “We need to talk to young people about marriage when they’re younger. We need to sing about the benefits of marriage. We need to get married couples going to schools and preaching the benefits of marriage.”

Ryan told CNA that such testimony is a key part of strengthening marriages, especially for those who lack such examples in their own lives. “How do you know there’s another way to do things if you can’t even see it?” he said.

“Chance to convert”

Last year, the Holy Father appointed the Verrets as consultants to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, a move that Mary Rose said will allow them “to serve the sacrament of marriage more effectively.”

The Witness to Love couples program offers a “comprehensive” approach to promoting strong marriages to combat the decline of marriage in the U.S. The ministry helps couples “explore the depth of their relationship” by “cultivating the qualities that form the foundation for lasting love and commitment.”

However, Ryan told CNA this week that “more and more couples these days don’t know anyone who is married.”

JP De Gance, founder and president of the marriage and partnership ministry called Communio, noted that dioceses often invest much more in priestly vocations than in married vocations.

“Each diocese has a vocation director, and that director typically focuses on vocations to the priesthood,” he told CNA. “When we focus on that area, we try to get men to commit to a celibate life dedicated to our Lord and to the priestly ministry.”

“It’s a harder task, usually, than marriage,” he emphasized. “… If we compare marriage vocations to priestly vocations, the number of ordinations has dropped by 38 percent since 1970, but the number of Catholic marriages has dropped by more than 70 percent.”

According to him, this indicator means that “for every Catholic wedding, twice as many priestly ordinations are performed.”

He stressed that historically marriage was seen as the “foundation” of success, whereas in modern times it is increasingly seen as the “crown” of success.

“Today, many parents, even faithful parents, say, ‘Don’t think about marriage or even a serious relationship until you finish college. Wait until you’re settled,’” DeGance noted. “Every time parents say that, you’re sending a message that’s causing our kids to put off marriage.”

De Gance said parishes can play a significant role in reversing this trend.

“At the parish level, we need to teach the skills to distinguish between a good Christian relationship and a good Christian spouse,” he said.

While not everyone is called to marriage, De Gance said, pastors should emphasize that it is “the most popular path to growth in holiness.”

“Priests are often afraid to preach this way,” he said. “They’re afraid they’ll hurt people by talking about it.”

But “if we do not preach and teach about it, we will not have a chance to counter the zeitgeist that says the exact opposite,” he said.

Mary Rose Verret told CNA that she has noticed an intense interest in marriage among young people. When she led marriage events for the Family Life Office in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, “we reached the maximum capacity of the building,” she said.

“It’s not that young people value marriage less,” she said. Rather, they “idealize it, delay it” and, what’s more, “don’t surround themselves with people who are good for marriage.”

Ryan Verret said parishes should help build relationships so young adults can help each other in their marriage endeavors, including introducing single friends who are seeking marriage.

“We help parishes say, ‘If you want engaged couples to get married in the Church, there has to be an opportunity to enrich marriages,’” he said. To get to that point, he noted, young men and women “have to have a frame of reference for what marriage looks like in society.”

Meanwhile, De Gance said parishes can help cover the high costs often associated with weddings. The average cost of a wedding in the U.S. can be more than $30,000, often prohibitive for young people who want to tie the knot.

Parishes often charge for wedding services, including receptions, and De Gance said they should strive to keep those fees as low as possible.

“Parishes should see marriages and weddings as an opportunity for conversion, not as a way to cover parish costs,” he said. “The cost of a wedding is a barrier for many young people. There should be affordable ways to use the facility so that a low-cost wedding can be held.”

Part of the danger, De Gance noted, is that many church leaders have become so used to the new paradigm of low marriage rates and young people not wanting to get married. “There’s a general cultural zeitgeist that Catholics and other Christians have absorbed, and we don’t even realize it.”

However, the crisis, he said, should not be underestimated. “This is a civilizational challenge facing the Church,” he said.