This Sunday we mark the 40th anniversary of World Marriage Day, which celebrates the marriage between a man and a woman as the foundation of the family and of society, and honors the beauty of marital commitment, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and joy. It’s always held on the second Sunday of February, the Sunday closest to St. Valentine’s Day.
Presently only 50 percent of adults are married. 25 percent of millennials — those now between 26 to 41 years of age — say the will never get married. In the midst of such statistics, World Marriage Day is an important occasion for the Church to emphasize the gift of marriage, to pray for married and engaged couples, and to foster a culture that helps young people to whom God has given the vocation to marriage to adopt the mentality virtues that will be conducive to recognizing and living that vocation well.
The strength of the Church depends on the vitality of marriage. This is true, of course, theologically. Since the Church exists in a mystical spousal bond to Christ (Eph 5:32), if people do not understand marriage, they won’t understand the Church. But it is also very practical. From the earliest days of Christianity, the family has been understood as a “domestic Church.” Just as if parishes were failing, a diocese would be in trouble, so if domestic churches are collapsing, then the Church as a whole will likewise be struggling.
This practical reality has been shown with alarming clarity in recent research done by Communio, a non-profit led by JP De Gance that is seeking to help churches in the U.S. respond to the crisis of faith and family.
De Gance recently co-authored with John Van Epp the 2021 book “Endgame: The Church’s Strategic Move to Save Faith and Family in America” to discuss in depth the connection between family and faith, to show that family decline is driving faith decline, and to propose strategies to Churches to strengthen families if they wish to strengthen the Church.
De Gance, Van Epp and Communio argue that the collapse of the family is the primary statistical factor behind the exodus of people from faith practice and the rise of the “nones,” those who say they have no religion. The nones are growing at a very fast clip: a 2018 survey show that 22 percent of Baby Boomers (those born between 1946-1964) self-identify as “nones,” compared to 30 percent of Gen X (1965-1980) and 40 percent of millennials (1981-1996).
But if the members of those cohorts came from intact families, with married parents throughout their upbringing, their faith practice has remained stable throughout the generations: 35 percent of Baby Boomers who came from intact families practice the faith each Sunday, as do 35 percent of Gen X and 32 percent of millennials. The chief predictor and factor, De Gance and colleagues argue, for continued practice of the faith among the young is family structure. 73 percent of people in the pews 18-60 years of age come from intact families and millennials from married homes are 78 percent more likely to practice the faith each Sunday than their peers from unmarried homes.
In a situation in which 40 percent of children in the U.S. are born out of marriage and 54 percent of children in the U.S. reach their 17th birthday without a married mom and dad, the consequences for the transmission of faith, they say, are obvious and the need to strengthen marriage urgent. “Faith is falling,” De Gance says, “because the family is in freefall.”
That’s why Communio, in collaboration with the Barna Group, has studied what is happening in Churches to strengthen marriages and families and to stem the rate of failure. Even though the strength of families is essential for the strength of parishes, very few parishes, their study shows, have dedicated adequate resources to care for families.
61 percent of Catholic parishes say they have no ministry to married couples at all. Far fewer offer concrete programs to mentor young married couples, to conduct marriage retreats, to hold marriage seminars, to foster date nights and to encourage small group sessions. Only 15 percent of Catholic parishes have a staff member devoted to marriage and family ministry and only 18 percent include marriage enrichment programs in the parish budget.
While 74 percent of Catholic parishes have some form of marriage preparation for engaged couples, only 30 percent have ongoing ministry to newlyweds, despite the fact that divorce rates are highest in the first five years of marriage. Only eight percent have programs to promote healthy dating habits and guidance for finding the right spouse. In contrast, 54 percent of Catholic parishes have a part- or full-time paid youth minister and 94 percent have some programs for youth.
De Gance and his colleagues at Communio argue that, because of the connection between family health and long-term parish health, parishes would be wise to allocate resources to the care for marriage ministry, involving vocational care for singles to encourage marriage, marriage preparation, marriage enrichment and those in marital crises.
Communio is working with Catholic and Protestant parishes in various parts of the country to try to facilitate such “full circle” marriage care, predicting that marriage renewal would be one of the most effective ways to drive parochial renewal. If family decline is indeed a driver of faith decline, then strengthening families should indeed lead to strengthened parish families.
As the Church in the U.S., moreover, continues its Eucharistic Revival, care for marriage and families needs to be among the key components. Not only are healthy families essential for Mass attendance, but likewise for priestly vocations and so many other essential aspects of Church life.
As we the Church marks World Marriage Day on Sunday, it is an opportunity to begin or advance a conversation about the priority that care for marriages and families will assume in ordinary parish life. St. John Paul II used to repeat, “The future of humanity passes by way of the family.” The future of parishes of the Church does as well.