I am late to this, but Hilary Towers and Michael McManus wrote an innovative and genuinely counter-revolutionary op-ed last month. Their article was not about abortion, the HHS mandate, or President Obama. It did not denounce or critique gay marriage, although it did broach the topic. In other words, Towers and McManus did not ride one of cultural conservatives’ favorite hobbyhorses or comfort conservatives’ sensibilities. Instead, the two authors issued a challenge to Catholics specifically and cultural conservatives in general: If you want to save and strengthen the institution of traditional marriage, consider starting a program for engaged and married couples in your own parish. As they wrote,
The Catholic leadership has organized a promising public campaign to confront the gay marriage movement. And the U.S. Bishops recently produced a beautiful Pastoral Letter on Marriage, Love and Life in the Divine Plan, which addresses clearly the need to “promote, preserve and protect marriage.” But the Church has yet to “stand firm and fight” on behalf of Divorce Reform in a sustained, unified fashion. The Pastoral Letter’s call to “make use of the many resources, including programs and ministries offered by the Church that can help to save marriages, even those in serious difficulty” has yet to reach the majority of Catholic parishes.
Their critique might sound overheated or exaggerated. After all, which institution does more to help and promote marriage than the Catholic Church? It requires engaged couples to attend marital training courses through their parish or diocese; Marriage Encounter Weekend and Retrouvaille, both of which have Catholic roots, are two-well known programs to help married couples enrich and save their marriage; and Catholic dioceses employ professional marital counselors.
Yet these programs are not enough. Catholic divorce rates are not significantly lower than the national average, and Catholic marriage rates are not much higher. The future does not look brighter. As Towers and McManus note,
One consequence of the disconnect between the Church’s teachings and what Catholics actually hear seems to be that many Catholics – young adult Catholics, in particular – mimic society at large in their views about marriage and divorce. And while at least one survey indicates the Catholic divorce rate is lower than that of Protestants, data from the General Social Survey (GSS) reveal the number of marriages within the Church has fallen by almost 60% since 1972. Findings from the GSS, combined with those of a 2007 survey of Catholics by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), show several factors may underlie this trend, including a greater percentage of Catholics who are deciding to forgo marriage altogether or to marry outside the Catholic Church.
The gist of the problem is most Catholic parishes do not have ongoing programs for married couples; at the liberal, moderate, and conservative parishes I have belonged to, the church will host pancake breakfast for families, fundraising drives to help poor children, the unborn, pregnant mothers, and Catholic missions overseas, but they do not have a contact or program for couples whose marriage is on the rocks. That’s the way it is.
Now, serving married couples contemplating separation or divorce requires more pastoral sensitivity and care than raising a couple thousand bucks for a toy drive. This does not mean that churches should get out of the business of helping married couples, though. It means that the clergy and laity need to get out of their cultural comfort zone and be trained to help couples on the brink of divorce, as well as unmarried couples unsure of their next step. This is not only possible; it has been shown to work. As Towers and McManus note,
First, Marriage Savers has worked with clergy to establish Community Marriage Policies® (CMPs) in 229 cities and towns throughout the United States, in which pastors and priests join together to strengthen marriages with the conscious goal of pushing down a community’s divorce and cohabitation rates.
An independent study by the Institute for Research and Evaluation (IRE) found the organization reduced divorce rates by an average of 17.5% over seven years in a city/county, with nearly a tenth cutting divorce rates 48% to 70% (e.g., Austin, TX, Kansas City, Mo., Modesto, Calif. and El Paso, Texas). Based on the initial findings of the IRE study, it is estimated that approximately 100,000 divorces have been averted since 2001. The CMPs also reduced cohabitation rates by one-third compared to control cities, and raised marriage rates in some cities, such as Evansville, Ind. and Modesto, Calif.
Second, Marriage Savers trains couples in healthy marriages to be Mentor Couples who help other couples at five stages of marriage:
Towers and McManus’ article glossed over the difficulties of instituting and establishing a Marriage Savers program in local parishes. Giving parish priests more responsibility over the marriages of their flock will engender hostility and resentment among some. And sustaining a community marriage policy in a town or city is easier said than done. But Towers and McManus’ article points the way forward for restoring and renewing traditional marriage in America. For anyone who wants to help couples honor their sacramental vows or who thinks that children should not ask “where’s mommy, where’s mommy?” or “where’s daddy, where’s daddy?” night after night, strengthening the institutional church is part of the solution.