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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

Declining Rates of Catholic Weddings

Noticing the sharply declining numbers of Catholic weddings, Emma Green recently pondered on The Atlantic why today’s young people eschew marrying in the Church.

There were approximately 426,000 Catholic weddings in 1970, which accounted for 20 percent of marriages in the United States during that year. But 1970 marked the beginning of the steady decline of Catholic weddings, which descended even more sharply at the beginning of the new millennium. Between 2000 and 2012, Church weddings dropped by 40 percent. At the same time, the number of Catholics in the United States has increased, currently estimated at 76.7 million people in 2012.

One factor that Green considers is the prevalence of marriages where a Catholic marries a non-Catholic. Although Green regrettably misconstrues Church teaching on this area (the marriage of a baptized man and woman is a sacrament, whether they are Catholic or not; and the marriage of a Catholic and non-Catholic can be fully recognized by the Church if proper dispensations are received, and can take place in a location other than a Catholic church), the fact remains that when a non-Catholic marries a Catholic, the Catholic party must promise to raise their children in the Catholic faith. The non-Catholic party needs to be made aware of this promise.

Historically, says Mark Gray, the director of polling at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), this arrangement often led to the non-Catholic party becoming Catholic. A 2009 Pew study on religious conversion reported that 72 percent of adult Catholic converts say that marriage was an important factor in their decision to become Catholic. In contrast, conversion to Christian denominations tended to be related more to doctrine and belief. Catholic adult baptisms decreased nearly 50 percent from 2000 to 2012, according to Gray, which he believes is linked with declining marriage rates.

Another factor related to declining numbers of Catholic weddings is the lack of knowledge of what the Church teaches about marriage. “More people are choosing to get married in country clubs and at the beach,” said Gray. “A lot of people are unaware of the importance of marriage and the place it has in Church sacramental life …Younger Catholics are probably not going to have a deep awareness about the sacrament of marriage, even if they self-identify as Catholic and [have] religious beliefs.”

Author Green notes that additionally it “is true that today’s average marrying age in America happens to coincide with a time of life when people have historically been less religiously active: the transition period between moving out of your parents’ house and starting a household of your own. Since that transition period between moving out and getting married is getting longer, it makes sense that young people are spending more time away from church.”

While the numbers of Catholic marriages have declined in recent years, so have marriage rates in general. From 2000 to 2011, the number of weddings in the United States dropped from 2.3 million to 2.1 million.

Gray thinks the deeper cause is about the way young people relate to traditional institutions today. “It’s not just churches, but all kinds of institutions have experienced detachments from the ‘brick and mortar,’” he said. He explains that “brick and mortar” institutions are the in-person communities that worship together. Religiously unaffiliated individuals have grown from 15 percent to 20 percent from 2007 to 2012, according to the Pew Research Center.

“I do think what we’re seeing is different among Millennials,” says Gray. “They are seeing their social networks across the Internet rather than across geography. So much of parish life takes place in brick and mortar, and for Millennials, so much of their social life is not in brick and mortar.”

Green admits that it would be simplistic to say that “American Millennials are totally abandoning their churches,” even though the Pew Research Center reports higher religious disaffiliation with this generation than any generation in the last 25 years (which is as long as they have been recording such data). Still, the question remains whether declining Catholic weddings are just a trend, a short-term hiatus from faith or a long-term shift in how this generation views religion and marriage.

Gray noted that historically when young people have left the faith, they have returned when they are older. “Even my parents—they eloped to a place called the ‘Hitching Post’ in Las Vegas, but they eventually came back,” he said. “There’s definitely hope among the Church that what we’ve seen in previous generation will happen again.”

About the author
Emily Macke serves as Theology of the Body Education Coordinator at Ruah Woods in Cincinnati, Ohio. She received her Master’s in Theological Studies at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC, and her undergraduate degree in Theology and Journalism at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Emily shares the good news of the Catholic faith through writing, media appearances and speaking opportunities, which she has done on three continents. She and her husband Brad live in southeast Indiana.