Monday, February 25, 2008

On Marriage and Modernity, WSJ

Catholic young adults place great importance on marriage but have turned away from church-based ideas of how to make it work, according to a study released last week by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

For Catholic members of the "millennial generation," men and women born between 1982 and 1989, marriage is not to be undertaken lightly. Some 82% of these teens and 20-somethings report that they believe marriage is a lifelong commitment, compared with only 56% of Catholics age 47 to 64 -- approximately their parents' generation. Moreover, 84% of these young Catholic adults report concern that "couples don't take marriage seriously enough when divorce is easily available." By comparison, only 67% of their parents' generation agree with this statement.

At the same time, only a quarter of these young adults report that their views about marriage have been formed in significant part by their faith. Indeed, a minority think of marriage as a "vocation" or a "calling from God," and nearly half of singles say it's not important that their future spouse be Catholic. Rather, the vast majority of 18- to 25-year-olds report that their spouse must be their "soul mate," and that falling out of love is an acceptable reason for divorce.

On questions about the importance of lifelong commitment in marriage, millennials are more in step with their pre-Vatican II-generation grandparents, but on questions about the influence of Catholic teachings on their views about marriage, young adults agree with their boomer parents.

The study, based on an online survey of more than 1,000 adult Catholics, "paints a mixed picture," said Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, chairman of the Subcommittee on Marriage and Family Life of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which commissioned the report. Catholic youth may have a more conservative outlook on life than their parents' generation but also an individualized idea of who should set the rules, said Christian Smith, professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame. "Most younger Catholics have defined their inner self as the authority, and many freely distance themselves from church practices they don't believe in."

Even the concept of "Catholic guilt" seems to have disappeared for younger generations: Catholic youth report no feelings of guilt overall, or about premarital sex or pornography, according to Mr. Smith's forthcoming article in the Review of Religious Research.

The Georgetown study shows that some 69% of Catholics age 18 to 25 believe "marriage is whatever two people want it to be," while just over half of their parents' and grandparents' generation agreed with that statement. This comes as no surprise to researchers following American family trends. With looser social norms dictating appropriate behaviors for husbands and wives, each couple -- regardless of religious affiliation -- must settle on their own rules of conduct, argues Stephanie Coontz, author of "Marriage, a History." But when more issues must be negotiated, she notes, there are more points where negotiations can break down.

While research on other Christian denominations shows similar individualized attitudes about the role of faith in everyday life, the generational differences are more pronounced among Catholics. "Catholic teenagers are the most distanced from the church authorities," reports Mr. Smith, a fact he attributes to "largely ineffective" modern Catholic religious education.

To be sure, some caution is advisable when interpreting generational differences measured at different stages of life: The millennials are just at the beginning of adulthood, so their optimistic and individual-focused opinions may change with their circumstances. "Some of this is useful idealism and some of it is just inexperience," said Mark Regnerus, associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Still, the cultural shift can't be ignored, Mr. Regnerus said. "We've been swamped by messages of romantic individualism. Those ideas can lead people to marry, but can lead you out of the marriage just as fast when things get tough."

Although young people often embrace traditional religious ideas to combat the influence of excessive individualism in the culture, they want to construct marriages that are more flexible than in the past, according to Ms. Coontz. But it's a slippery slope, she says. "Once you start tinkering with the kind of set-in-stone beliefs that used to keep people in the same marriages and at the same jobs for most of their lives, where do you draw the line?"

Sounds like building a house on sand, to use personal conviction rather than religious (or civil) tradition to stabilize a marriage. I'd like to hear from Dan or Rachel on this one if they don't mind.


Dan Amiri said...

This article certainly is interesting and I do think it is an accurate portrayal of the current state of affairs. I am well aware of many people, Catholic or not, who really want to make a relationship work and who truly do believe that a relationship is for life but lack the proper formation and motivation to actually carry it out. Thinking is one thing, but doing requires understanding, determination, and humility to accept the teachings of others.

A marriage can only work if both parties love each other. Duh. But by love I mean the willingness to offer yourself up for the one you love and contribute at all times to the well-being of the other. This can be based on personal conviction. But indeed! this relationship can really be solidified only when it is grounded in the love of God and the Sacraments.

We all fail. We all lose focus. And certainly, when times get tough, we would want nothing else than to get out. But the message of Christ and the grace he gives married couples is for the blessed perpetuation of marriage until death. Provided a man and woman, at heart, still love each other and open themselves up to help, human and divine, they can work through the difficulties in marriage.

As Pope John Paul II has said, the youth of today are crying out for Christ, yet, as we see, they oftentimes actively ignore Him. Remarkably aware of their own needs and what is important to them, they have no basis upon which to be fulfilled. They're thirsting but avoid the well. It is the pessimistic circle of the culture of death and hopelessness.

We all want lifelong marriages. This is written in our very being. But we cannot be absolutely assured of this without being grounded in the faith and love of Christ.

Rachel said...

I see that my fiance beat me to the punch ;). Since he provided the perspective of a would-be survey respondent, I'll just give you what I think of the study.

The way I read the survey results confirms what I already knew--our generation of Catholics wants 'it' both ways. They want the lifelong commitment to another that they see marriage as offering, but they still want to be able to define what that marriage IS themselves.

I'm not even sure that the commitment to the idea that "marriage is for life" is because of any sort of recognition on our generation's part that marriage is a lifelong, sacramental commitment, or even that its stability as a social institution is generally good for them and for others.

Instead, I think the common thought is, "Who DOESN'T want to live happily ever after?" That's how all good love stories go; that's what Cinderella and Belle and Jasmine and Ariel all got in the Disney films that define our generation. (I see it as no coincidence that a 'Disney Princesses' line of bridal gowns just was released in the last couple of years, or that you can now plan your fantasy Disney wedding, complete with a wedding cake that looks like the Disney castle...)

The thing is, our generation is neither old nor wise enough to recognize that "happily ever after" doesn't just happen once you've found your "soul mate". Committing a life to another person requires something besides making it up as you go, holding on to a fleeting, passionate feeling that you call 'love'. It requires ground rules, and really, none of us is wise enough to come up with them ourselves--especially not when we're averse to rules in general. And oh yes, it requires grace.

Just as important as the idea that "marriage is for life" is that "to marry is to enter into a sacramental bond with another person". Until young people start thinking in sacramental terms, they really aren't going to have much more hope for successful marriages than their parents' generation did.