Marriage in the News December 2009
by David Gibson
- SPECIAL REPORT: Ohio priests’ statewide marriage convocation
a) Urgency of the Pastoral Initiative for Marriage
b) How marriage sacramentality shapes a couple’s life
c) Commitment encompasses choice of “us” and our “future” together
- Same-sex marriage law repealed, domestic partnerships upheld Nov. 3
- Has technology transformed courtship and dating?
- Looking way ahead to St. Valentine’s Day
- Hunger intensifies in American households
SPECIAL REPORT: Ohio Priests’ Convocation on Marriage
a) Urgency of the Pastoral Initiative for Marriage
“We need to preach marriage, we need to preach it with conviction, we need to preach it attractively and we need to inspire people to be witnesses,” Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., told participants in a Nov. 5-6 convocation of Ohio’s priests devoted to the U.S. Catholic bishops’ National Pastoral Initiative for Marriage. The statewide convocation was held in Columbus.
Archbishop Kurtz, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee on Marriage and Family Life, encouraged convocation participants to ask what it means “to create or to foster a church that is marriage-building.” The archbishop also chairs the USCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee for the Defense of Marriage.
The convocation took place less than two weeks before the U.S. bishops, during their fall meeting in Baltimore, Md., approved a national pastoral letter on marriage. Titled “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan,” the pastoral letter is one of several components — including the Web site you currently are visiting — of the marriage initiative undertaken by the bishops in 2004. Archbishop Kurtz’s subcommittee oversaw the pastoral letter’s development.
“A pastoral letter like this is a fairly rare event, and the state’s bishops felt it was important enough that it merited this kind of gathering in which all our priests could hear the same information at the same time and be better able to spread it to their parishes,” said Bishop R. Daniel Conlon of Steubenville, Ohio, chairman of the convocation in Columbus and a member of the Bishops’ Subcommittee on Marriage and Family.
Convocation speakers discussed the theology of marriage and its definition, marital “commitment,” contemporary social developments related to marriage and family life, and actions by church communities to support marriage, including marriage-preparation and marriage-enrichment efforts.
Marriage is a “gift and a blessing,” and it is a “received truth,” Archbishop Kurtz said in a major convocation address. While church and state regulate marriage, they do not create it, he stressed.
The archbishop encouraged priests to recognize the opportunities at their “doorstep” for serving married couples and families. There is a “need for you and me to have a resolve that we can do something, and then to be equipped to be able to do something, especially as parish priests,” he said.
Archbishop Kurtz told the convocation that it is important to “begin with the conviction that what we do matters.” Calling attention to research showing the importance of parents and parent substitutes in the lives of young people today, he said:
“The research is showing us that spiritual fathers, like all of you who are gathered here tonight, can have a tremendous impact on the lives of families within your parish, and most especially on young people as they prepare for marriage.”
The urgency of the church’s concern for marriage reflects the large decrease over the last three decades in the number of couples turning to the church for sacramental marriage, Archbishop Kurtz noted. He said this urgency also reflects the rising number of couples who cohabit without marrying, the great increase in the number of children who do not live in intact families with a mother and father, and the distrust of marriage among many young people.
Archbishop Kurtz was not alone during the convocation in pointing to the fear young people harbor today that they will be hurt by marriage. Pastoral ministers need to address this fear and distrust of marriage among the young, convocation speakers said.
Scott Stanley, whose research at the University of Denver on contemporary issues related to marriage is widely recognized, told the convocation that young people still believe in “the ideal” of marriage, “they just don’t trust it.” The anxiety young people experience about marriage today “is very, very strong, and a very real issue,” Stanley said. He recommended that this anxiety be addressed directly.
“Young people are unsure they can count on marriage,” according to Stanley. He said some people “put more trust in their vocational careers than in the vocation of marriage.”
A “train wreck” results from the collision of two contemporary developments, Stanley told the convocation. First, greater numbers of people are now “very insecure about love and need love to be as secure as possible to risk it for a lifetime.” Second, however, the structures that once helped couples “figure out and determine their love, and determine a commitment, have weakened” over recent decades; they have weakened at the very time people need them so greatly.
There is a need “to start a lot earlier” to talk with young people about marriage, said Stanley. “Start marriage education in the teens,” he recommended. He pointed also to the value of premarital education, observing that it pays genuine dividends.
Archbishop Kurtz encouraged his audience to be leaders in getting newly married couples involved in church activities. And he recalled that in focus groups conducted as part of the bishops’ national marriage initiative, “we often heard from couples who said that ‘when we got married, we felt the church considered us to be a completed project.’”
But “not following up with” couples “means you’re missing a tremendous opportunity at your doorstep,” the archbishop advised. He challenged priests to reflect upon the possibilities for providing marriage enrichment. “We need smarter ways to help couples be enriched,” he said.
b) How the Sacramentality of Marriage Shapes a Couple’s Life
Joann Heaney-Hunter told the Nov. 5-6 statewide convocation of Ohio’s priests on marriage that anything they do that “gives rise to thinking about the goodness and the dignity of marriage and family life, the goodness and dignity of building faith and family,” is a good thing. She is an associate professor in theology and religious studies at St. John’s University in New York, and serves as a parish pastoral associate in East Meadow, N.Y.
“People want to be in situations where their marriage and family life are supported,” Heaney-Hunter observed during a panel discussion. She added, “Whatever we can do to create structures that allow families, through the life cycle, to flourish — that will be appreciated.”
Heaney-Hunter, who has been married 30 years, discussed the sacramentality of marriage in a convocation speech. She asked, “How do couples embody the life of God?” How do they “embody and reveal the life of the Trinity?”
Relating a married couple’s unity to the unity of the three persons of the Trinity, she said that a married couple has a “oneness,” but “not a strangling oneness.” She said, “In a healthy marriage couples are joined together by bonds, but they’re bonds that are flexible, not rigid.” These bonds “allow each party to be an individual, to be interdependent, to share each other’s lives while coming together as one.”
Marriage does indeed mean dying “to isolated individuality,” Heaney-Hunter added. Couples participate in the paschal mystery of Christ by dying “to selfishness in order to rise to new life,” a life of interdependence, in their marital relationship, she explained.
The theologian said that a husband and wife are “asked to consider the good of the other first so that the relationship can grow.”
Describing the Trinity as “an outpouring of love for all the world,” Heaney-Hunter said married couples resemble the Trinity by reaching out to each other. However, as is true of the Trinity, “their love overflows” — to children, to others in their community, to their workplaces.
Thus, the marriage vocation incorporates a call to service, Heaney-Hunter said. Couples have the opportunity to embody the life of the Trinity “in their entire corner of the world.”
Heaney-Hunter devoted part of her speech to her endeavors as a parish pastoral associate. She is a realist in marriage preparation, she explained, but one who attempts to plant “the seed for days to come.” She commented, “If I can help a few couples understand the significance of the sacramentality of marriage and how their lives are called to be sacraments every day, then I feel like I’ve done my job.”
She also stressed the need to try to hang onto couples after they marry – to keep them involved and keep them coming to church, even inviting them to be part of a marriage-preparation team, for example.
Too often pastoral ministers see a couple at marriage and then do not see them again until baptism, then again not until First Communion. “It’s tough,” Heaney-Hunter said, adding that her “latest campaign is to try to keep people.”
c) Marital Commitment Encompasses Choice of “Us” and Our “Future”
How committed are men and women when they marry? Research conducted by Scott Stanley and his colleagues at the University of Denver indicates that social patterns like cohabitation outside marriage often move couples into marriage before they reflect sufficiently on the meaning of marital commitment or make a real decision to commit their lives to each other.
Stanley, a Presbyterian, thinks marriage-preparation programs can provide real support to couples by helping them explore the meaning of “commitment.” He spoke in Columbus Nov. 6 to the statewide convocation of Ohio’s Catholic priests on the many dimensions of the U.S. bishops’ Pastoral Initiative for Marriage.
In a discussion of his speech with this Web site, Stanley said that “because of the important transitions that happen to more couples earlier on than in the past, it is more crucial than ever to provide this check for couples to help them determine if they really have what it takes in terms of commitment and compatibility.”
Marriage preparation “provides an opportunity to slow people and get them to think about both the step they are taking and their fit as a couple to really make marriage work,” Stanley said.
Stanley and his research colleagues have found that cohabitation outside marriage often prompts couples “to slide” into marriage, meaning, for example, that they coast along toward marriage because they already are living together. He thinks many couples marry today who would not do so were they not living together and that cohabitation can increase the likelihood of a poorer quality marriage relationship.
In our conversation, Stanley said that “romantic relationships today go through many transitions such as sex and cohabitation where the people just slide through rather than make decisions about what they are doing.” Thus, “relationships can get a lot further today than in the past,” even though a man and woman have not clarified with each other what they each “want, intend or are willing to commit to.”
The researcher said, “This pattern of sliding versus deciding, I believe, undermines the development of commitment in marriage.” Stanley’s online blog, incidentally, is titled “Sliding vs Deciding.”
In our conversation, Stanley said, “Since partners increasingly slide into things like cohabitation, it also may mean that more couples get married than in the past where part of the reason they stay together is that it got harder to break up, because that would involve moving out and making other changes that are harder when cohabiting than when dating without sharing a home.”
Stanley added that he and his colleagues “think that this also means more people than in the past can get far into married life and, when things get hard, have trouble thinking back to a clear time where both partners have a sense of ‘I chose this and I’m planning to do my best to build our marriage and family.’”
In his convocation speech, Stanley suggested that one question a pastoral minister might ask a cohabiting man and woman who are planning to marry is, “Would you be marrying this person if you weren’t living with” him or her? Again, a pastoral minister might ask, “Have you thought about the fact that it’s harder to break up when you’re living together — that you’re giving up your options?”
Those are questions that Stanley thinks many cohabiting couples do not ask themselves.
Marriage means “choosing ‘us’ for the future,” said Stanley. He pointed out that this phrase conveys both a sense in “future” and of “choice.” Couples moving toward marriage need to clarify whether “they want a future together,” he said.
Marital commitment “secures a couple’s attachment,” Stanley told the convocation. However, he said, sliding into marriage “impairs the formation of commitment.” It impairs a couple’s sense of dedication to the future, the sense that “I chose you.”
Commitment involves choices; it means choosing one option over others, according to Stanley. But he expressed concern that too often, “underneath the words ‘I do’ is a question, ‘Do you?’”
Same-Sex Marriage Law Repealed, Domestic-Partnership Law Upheld
In balloting Nov. 3, voters in Maine overturned a state law passed last May to legalize same-sex marriage. The law had not taken effect due to the successful effort to place the issue on the state’s November ballot.
Voters now have rejected same-sex marriage in the 31 states where it has appeared on a ballot. Same-sex marriages currently can be performed in five states: Iowa, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.
At the same time, voters in Washington state upheld a state law approved last spring granting same-sex domestic partners, along with certain other domestic partners, virtually the same rights, responsibilities and obligations as those shared by married spouses. The Washington State Catholic Conference said it regretted the voters’ decision on a law that it said is “commonly known as the ‘everything but marriage’ law.”
Washington’s bishops opposed the law and the referendum to uphold it. The state Catholic conference said the law’s legislative sponsors had referred to it as part of a strategy to legalize same-sex marriage.
The state conference explained that “while upholding the dignity of each individual person and opposing unjust discrimination, the Catholic Church is steadfast in its teaching that marriage is a union of one man and one woman.”
In Maine, Bishop Richard Malone of Portland thanked the state’s voters “for protecting and reaffirming their support for marriage as it has been understood for millennia by civilizations and religions around the world.” The bishop said he was “thankful for those who engaged in sincere and civil discourse on this matter, of such serious consequence to our society.”
The months leading up to November’s vote “served as a teaching opportunity to explain to parishioners and the wider community about how and why the church views and values marriage as the union of one man and one woman,” said Bishop Malone.
These months also were “an opportunity for listening,” the bishop said. He trusted that those who voted in favor of “such a radical change” as same-sex marriage “did so out of concern for our gay brothers and sisters,” Bishop Malone said. He added that “respect and acceptance of all people regardless of sexual orientation is not a point of controversy — indeed, it is a teaching of the church.”
Yet, said Bishop Malone, “while the Catholic Church will continue its commitment to work for the basic human rights to which all people are entitled, it remains devoted to preserving and strengthening the precious gift of marriage.”
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for the Defense of Marriage, welcomed the decision by Maine’s voters to repeal their state’s same-sex marriage law.
“Especially in our society where we see so many marriages fail, we should work to strengthen marriage rather than redefine it,” Archbishop Kurtz said. He urged that marriage be “protected and promoted today for what it is and what it is meant to be: the lifelong, exclusive union between husband and wife.”
Archbishop Kurtz stated that “the nature of marriage is written in the truth of who we are as human persons, as man and woman. One can say it is written not merely on our hearts, but in our very bodies.” He commented that “there are many ways to uphold the basic human rights of all people, but sacrificing marriage can never be one of them.”
To protect “marriage between a man and a woman has nothing to do with denying basic rights to anyone, though it is often framed in such terms,” the archbishop said. In fact, he continued, “protecting marriage is safeguarding the rights of our most dependent and vulnerable among us — our children, who deserve to be welcomed as a gift of spousal love and not to be intentionally deprived of a mother and a father.”
The Catholic Church “stands for the basic rights of all people, including homosexual persons,” said Archbishop Kurtz. The church, he stated, “decries any unjust discrimination against persons who experience same-sex attraction.”
To protect marriage is to affirm “the unique and indispensable roles of mothers and fathers,” and to recognize “the particular responsibilities that husbands and wives bear in society,” said Archbishop Kurtz. “Protecting marriage affirms the permanent and exclusive love between a husband and a wife as a wonderful and incomparable good in itself, which also is of great social and practical consequence,” he said.
It is sad that “attempts to redefine marriage today ignore or reject the unique identity and gifts of man and woman,” the archbishop said. This, he added, “only fosters confusion about what it means to be human.”
Has the Cell Phone Transformed Courtship and Dating?
“Cell phones have influenced courtship,” New York Times columnist David Brooks suggested in a column Nov. 4. But is this a positive influence? Brooks, who is also a well-known news commentator, appeared to have doubts about that.
His column probed the ways some people employ the cell phone, and particularly the related feature known as “texting,” to plan dates and schedule time together. He analyzed what amounts to a cultural shift in how two people transition today from first getting to know each other “to long-term commitment.”
His column did not indicate whether Brooks knew that Pope Benedict XVI, just six days earlier, discussed the power exerted by new technologies in the formation of contemporary culture. Speaking in Rome to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications Oct. 29, the pope said that “modern culture arises from the very existence of new modes of communication that utilize new forms of language.” New technology, he added, creates “new psychological attitudes.”
It was not the first time this year that Pope Benedict had discussed the impact of the new technologies on culture and human relationships. “The new digital technologies are, indeed, bringing about fundamental shifts in patterns of communication and human relationships,” he said in his message for the 2009 World Day of Communications.
The concern at the heart of Brooks’ column was the use of the new technologies in the development of relationships that once took shape through very different courtship patterns.
Brooks pointed, for example, to evidence illustrating the ways that some people employ texting today to plan an evening or schedule time together. He observed that some people text more than one potential partner at a time and keep someone on the back-burner while awaiting “a potentially better offer.” Brooks spoke of “marketing strategies” in which individuals take care not to appear “too enthusiastic” in the eyes of a potential partner or strive in their texting to appear “bulletproof” as they “move confidently through the transactions.”
In this atmosphere, “the mentality of a comparison shopper” arises somewhat naturally, Brooks said. It is a far cry from the world of courtship as it once was known.
Courtship was surrounded in the past “by a set of guard rails,” Brooks wrote. Potential partners met within the context of larger social institutions like families and neighborhoods, schools and workplaces. Young people were aided by “certain accepted social scripts” as they walked a path leading to long-term commitment.
The etiquette of all this involved “obstacles and restraint,” said Brooks. But a shift away from such scripts has occurred over recent decades, and technology is a factor underlying this shift; the technology of cell phones and texting “dissolves obstacles.”
Aided by these new technologies, “suitors now contact each other in an instantaneous, frictionless sphere,” Brooks said. Centuries-old views of love and courtship spanning the time from medieval chivalry to the “love anthems” of Bruce Springsteen are giving way to a “utilitarian mind-set” that is “naturally corrosive toward poetry and imagination,” said the columnist.
Does this mean young people today are “worse or shallower” than those of the past? No, according to Brooks, but it means they receive less assistance and are deprived of the “accumulated wisdom of the community” that once helped to guide couples.
Pope Benedict pointed in his recent World Day of Communications message both to the “extraordinary potential” and the serious risks attached to the new technologies. He wrote:
“Young people, in particular, have grasped the enormous capacity of the new media to foster connectedness, communication and understanding between individuals and communities, and they are turning to them as means of communicating with existing friends, of meeting new friends, of forming communities and networks, of seeking information and news, and of sharing their ideas and opinions.”
New technologies “respond to a fundamental desire of people to communicate and to relate to each other,” Pope Benedict said. This desire for human relationships and connectedness, he added, “is rooted in our very nature as human beings.”
However, the pope stressed that the relationships he had in mind were not “fleeting, shallow relationships.” And he cautioned that “if the desire for virtual connectedness becomes obsessive, it may in fact function to isolate individuals from real social interaction.”
Looking Way Ahead to Valentine’s Day
Valentine’s Day challenges couples to “make a choice to spend more time together,” the Australian Catholic bishops’ Commission for Pastoral Life said in a resource published Nov. 19 for parishes and schools titled “Celebrating St. Valentine.”
“Loving, stable marriages don’t attract a lot of attention from church and community organizations until they become unstable,” Bishop Eugene Hurley of Darwin, chairman of the pastoral life commission, said in a letter introducing the new resource. For that reason, he said, it is “vitally important that we make frequent use of opportunities to affirm marriage and highlight the value of a loving marriage to the community.”
The commission referred to St. Valentine’s Day each Feb. 14 as “a feast that rejoices in romantic love and lifelong marriage.” It said that St. Valentine, beheaded in the year 269, is “patron saint of engaged couples, happy marriages, love and lovers.”
Marriage “is full of both blessings and woes,” said the commission. On the one hand, “the joys of family, of being loved without condition, of belonging to another certainly bring great blessings to couples.” Yet, it said, “marriage can also be the source of deep pain and unwelcome challenges” that put it “under stress.”
God, however, “draws close to us in our troubles” and “gives us the gift of his presence, a presence that encourages us and helps us find deeper reserves of love,” the commission added.
A “marriage-friendly community” cultivates “an affirming and empowering mentality toward married couples,” said the commission. It listed 12 possible steps a parish might take to serve as a marriage-friendly community. It might, for example:
- “Establish a marriage/family ministry made up of couples to plan and execute marriage initiatives in the community.”
- “Invite a couple to speak about the vocation of marriage to the youth group, senior school classes or the RCIA group.”
- “Ask a couple (or several) to give a short testimonial on how God has blessed them through their marriage. They could share it at an appropriate time during the Sunday liturgy or it could be published in the community newsletter.”
- “Invite couples (rather than individual spouses) to take up ministry or be members of the parish pastoral council or school parent council.”
Modern relationships are plagued by busyness, the commission said. “Even newlyweds complain of a ‘time drought’ in their relationships.” However, “tragically, when their relationships are time-starved, couples often end up arguing during the little time they do spend together.” The commission said, “Arguments flare more easily when relationships are time-deprived.”
Thus, the commission encouraged couples to spend more time together. This, it said, is not simply a matter of “quality time,” but of “quantity time” too. The commission said that “quality time is only effective with a foundation of quantity time — low-intensity companionship that builds trust and openness.”
Insufficient time together is among “the biggest contributors to relationship breakdown,” the commission observed. However, it said it is fortunate that couples “don’t need to have enormous, uninterrupted slabs of time together in order to experience the benefits.”
In fact, “regular, brief get-togethers make a backbone of trust and connection, and accumulate to build a solid foundation of quantity time,” the commission said. It added that even “small changes in our schedule or routine can make a huge difference.”
The commission urged parishes to “use the innate joyfulness” of the next Valentine’s Day “to promote and affirm marriage and life-long romantic love.”
Hunger Rises in America’s Households
Hunger increased in households of all types during 2008, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Nov. 16 in its annual report on “Household Food Security in the U.S.”
Though households with children headed by a married couple fared significantly better than others, 14.3 percent of them nonetheless experienced food insecurity sometimes, the Agriculture Department said. Households headed by a single parent, especially a single mother, were particularly hard hit when it came to putting food on the table last year, according to the report.
The report captured widespread attention because it showed that hunger increased more rapidly during 2008 than in any other year since these reports began in 1995. “In 2008, 85 percent of U.S. households were food secure throughout the entire year, but 14.6 percent of households were food insecure at least some time during that year, up from 11.1 percent in 2007,” the report said.
Among its noteworthy findings, the Agriculture Department said that “children as well as adults” were included among those who experienced not just “low food security” but “very low food security” in 2008. This startled some observers because it commonly is believed that when food runs short in a home, the adults tend to eat less in order to allow more food for the children.
The department explained, “Even when resources are inadequate to provide food for the entire family, children are usually shielded from the disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake that characterize very low food security.” The number of children who were quite hungry in America at some points rose from 700,000 to almost 1.1 million in 2008, according to the report.
Commentators credited this rise in the rate of hunger to poverty and the recession. Unemployment and low wages may mean that household grocery budgets run very low at certain times of the month or year.
And just what does food cost the typical American family? That is a question couples and parents often discuss among themselves.
The Agriculture Department report said that “in 2008, the typical U.S. household spent $43.75 per person each week for food.” It indicated that households with children that are headed by a married couple spend somewhat more on food per person than households headed by a single mother.
Candy Hill, a Catholic Charities USA senior vice president, discussed the Agriculture Department’s report in testimony Nov. 19 on Capitol Hill. America’s hungry people lack “dependable access to adequate food for active, healthy living,” she said. She pointed to unemployment as a key factor in the nation’s rising rate of hunger.
The Agriculture Department’s report showed “that 49.1 million people are hungry in America. Of these, 32.4 million are adults (nearly 15 percent of all adults) and 16.7 million are children (over 22 percent of all children),” Hill explained.
Who are these people? They are not abstractions and “are not just numbers,” said Hill. Among them are “the working poor, the newly unemployed.” They include “former donors” to Catholic Charities, even “in some cases former local agency board members.”
Counted among these hungry people, Hill said, could be some who are “our neighbors, members of our faith community, those who shop at our grocery store, whose children attend our schools, who ride the bus or Metro with us every day.”
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.