“Marriage is a duel to the death which no man of honour should decline.” — G.K. Chesterton, Manalive.
There is always a steady murmuring in the public sphere about marriage, and dating, and sex. This is no surprise: the whole business has been at the root of every human concern since time immemorial. Scheming, second-guessing, or scorning, there is always something to be untangled about the apparatus and edifice of procreation.
Sometimes this murmuring swells, as it recently has in the Catholic sphere with the impending Synod of Bishops on the Family. The anticipation surrounding this event has been well-documented (and probably wildly overblown) by the popular press and the Catholic commentariat. Cardinal Baldisseri, the secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, attempted to quash some of the wilder rumors and speculations back in May, but seemingly to little avail. More recently, Cardinal Burke pointed out that “the media has created a situation in which people expect that there are going to be these major changes which would, in fact, constitute a change in Church teaching, which is impossible.”
Despite these cautions, there are many who still feel hopeful that some doctrinal loophole or relaxed understanding of pastoral practice will be uncovered which will allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion. It seems more likely that — if anything — the biggest change that this synod will bring will be a more solid, user-friendly procedure for obtaining annulments. As for the rest, don’t hold your breath.
But focusing so much on questions of divorce and annulment runs the risk of ignoring another equally important facet of the perpetual marriage debate. Young people are no longer getting married as often, and when they finally do they are hardly what you would consider young.
Why is this? The most obvious answer is that the institution of marriage has been taking a hammering. Not only do great swathes of the population now believe that it is becoming obsolete, (39%, as of this 2010 Pew Research Center Poll) their understanding of what marriage is has also shifted dramatically over the last decade.
Take, also, these amazing statistics which tell us that in Sweden the average age at first marriage is nearly thirty-three! Americans get to it slightly younger, with an average age of twenty-eight. The same statistics reveal that on average women are younger than their husbands.
Contemporary secular wisdom would have this as a result of societal pressure — women are told they should get married with increasing urgency, whilst men don’t have the same load placed on them. Pragmatists might also posit that the reason for the age gap is that women look for maturity, financial stability, and so on, and it takes men a couple of extra years to achieve the robustness required by a potential spouse. A longer life expectancy removes some of the urgency to get settled as soon as possible. This line of reasoning is compelling.
But what of those millions of young men and women who still staunchly believe in a traditional view of marriage and would love to get married? They, too, are partially responsible for these statistics, but without the same eagerness or complicity. What’s happening to stop them tying the knot?
Climb Ev’ry Mountain
It’s hard enough finding somone to snuggle with in the secular world: there are just so many different apps and sites to choose from. In the Christian sphere this difficulty is compounded by heaps of latent tradition. In the summer I read a piece called Why Courtship is Fundamentally Flawed, which gives a flavor of the kind of challenge faced by young Christians keen to get married within the bounds of their tradition. I don’t really agree with his definition of courtship (getting the father’s permission before pursuing the daughter? This isn’t even possible in most Christian circles!) but a lot of people do. The semantics are not important. The dwindling number of people adhering to these traditions increases the difficulty rating for those wishing to adhere to them. The general lack of common ground on which to meet and conduct your affaires de coeur means that many don’t have the slightest idea how to even begin to court or woo the opposite sex — nor how to behave when they’ve started.
In fact, the loosey-goosey contemporary view of marriage has lead to an understandable opposite reaction amongst Christians who uphold a more conservative ideal of matrimony. I think that what a lot of young people perceive as an attack on the definition of marriage has made them treat their own romantic escapades with kid gloves and great caution. It is important, and so young people today imbue their choice of partner with a solemnity and hesitancy that their parents and grandparents likely did not. Settling on someone with which to spend the rest of your (much longer than previously generations could have expected) life is a dilemma which causes a paralysis of indecision even in otherwise-steady and down-to-earth people. Not everyone is doing marriage how it should be done, so you better do it right.
Christians, too, are not immune to the “soul mate” nonsense that Hollywood has been feeding us all ad nauseum since forever. A true Christian view of marriage understands that no one is perfect, and God will bless and sustain people even in ill-chosen unions. But it’s difficult to see this past the prevailing cultural mythology we move through. Marriage ain’t easy, and if you don’t happen to believe in divorce then you want to make sure that you don’t accidentally marry someone who isn’t cosmically preordained to be your perfect match. It takes a curious contortion of faith to believe that God has created a soul mate for you, but not to believe that he’ll make sure you marry them!
The economic reality hits particularly hard upon many Christians who would like to do as much as they can to ensure that there is one spouse who is free to build a home and raise children. I can tell you this from hard-won experience: it is hard to raise a family on a single income. So young men and women are waiting until one of them (usually the man) has an income that can support a family. This is good common sense, but it too often errs on the side of distrust that God will provide for you. Getting married and raising children whilst only one partner works is a sacrifice — one that many young Christians are increasingly hesitant to make.
All of this merely scratches the surface of an intensely complex and personal issue. I sincerely hope that the upcoming Synod will address this particular area of pastoral challenge for the family head on. One of the most underserved and confused demographics within the Church is precisely those who are grappling with this problem — young professional Catholics. And if they don’t get the guidance and aid that they need, there will soon be a lot less family to worry about. Which will drastically minimize the divorce/communion challenge, but not quite in the way that we might prefer.