National Pastoral Initiative on Marriage
Committee on Marriage and Family Life
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
On November 17, 2004 the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) unanimously approved a proposal from the Committee on Marriage and Family Life that the USCCB undertake a multi-year National Pastoral Initiative on Marriage, beginning in 2005.
The proposal originated from a request, first given to the USCCB Administrative Committee in March 2004, that the Conference develop a pastoral letter on marriage. The Committee on Marriage and Family Life judged that a pastoral letter would be opportune and valuable, but that a broader effort was needed to assist couples and pastoral ministers and to strengthen the institution of marriage in church and society.
The current debate about same-sex unions has produced a heightened level of public interest in and debate about the nature, purposes, and value of marriage. Other factors have also contributed, including the persistent high rate of divorce, the rapid rise of non-marital cohabitation, the declining rate of marriages, as well as the emergence of new societal consensus that we must devote multi-disciplinary effort to promoting and sustaining marriage as a loving, life-giving union essential to the wellbeing of children, families, and society.
In introducing the proposal and emphasizing its timeliness, Bishop J. Kevin Boland said to his brother bishops: As leaders of the Catholic Church in the United States, we can help to create a positive climate that places healthy marriages at the heart of strong families, a strong nation, and a strong and holy church. This is a pastoral moment we should seize upon.
My brother bishops:
Our proposal originated with Bishop Daniel Conlons suggestion to the Administrative Committee that the Conference write a pastoral letter on marriage. Bishop Gregory asked the Committee on Marriage and Family Life to recommend a way of proceeding. Our proposal is outlined in the action item before you. We recommend that a pastoral letter become the centerpiece of a more extensive pastoral initiative on behalf of marriage.
Rather than dwell on the details of our plan, let me tell you why my committee thinks this project is necessary, timely, and valuable and what we think will be needed in order to accomplish it.
Last year, at this very meeting, we approved a Conference statement about marriage and same-sex unions. Although this debate continues in courts and legislatures, in the media and other forums, it is not the main cause or focus of the proposed initiative. We can and we must do more for marriage than defend it against certain forces that seek to erode it.
The debate about same-sex marriage has demonstrated that most Americans understand and support marriage as the lifelong union of a man and a woman. However, many struggle to connect this ideal with what they encounter in life. What can we offer to them? It is a fact that people still turn to their churches and faith communities to help them prepare for, grow, be sustained and healed in a marital relationship.
The Catholic Church can respond to the problems as well as the possibilities presented by the current state of marriage. We do this from our doctrinal, spiritual, historical tradition, our pastoral practice, and especially from the witness and experience of married persons themselves.
As we look at the present situation, we should ask:
- Why has the U.S. marriage rate declined by more than 40% in the past 30 years -- with the rate of Catholics who marry in the Church declining just as rapidly?
- What are the consequences of young adults delaying marriage until an older age or even indefinitely?
- Why have cohabiting relationships come to be seen either as a preparation for marriage or as an alternative to it?
- What have decades of high divorce rates done to children, families, and society, and to a persons ability to make a lifetime commitment to marriage or to any vocation?
- How do we preach and teach commitment when, among the present adult population, 35% of those who were ever married have been divorced at least once?
- What beliefs and behaviors contribute to a strong, happy marriage and which ones increase the risk of divorce?
In the past ten years a broad social movement has been organizing itself in our country to deliver the message that a decline in marriage is neither inevitable nor irreversible. Already small but noticeable changes are starting to take place. Divorce rates have declined slightly. The proportion of children living in married-couple homes appears to be increasing. More attention is being given to marriage education and particularly to the preparation of engaged couples. Local churches and civic communities are developing coalitions to support marriage.
As leaders of the Catholic Church in the United States, we can help to create a positive climate that places healthy marriages at the heart of strong families, a strong nation, and a strong and holy church. This is a pastoral moment we should seize upon.
For this reason, the Committee on Marriage and Family Life is proposing a multi-year, multi-faceted approach that combines the teaching tool of a pastoral letter with other pastoral activities to strengthen marriage. The effort is addressed primarily to the Catholic community but also offered as a service to society.
The process of developing a pastoral letter can bring bishops and a variety of people, who have both experience and expertise, into a fruitful conversation about marriage as both a saving mystery and a human institution. We hope that the process will stimulate the energy and engage the resources of other groups within the church and society to play a part in what is surely a long-term, complex effort.
We also see the various research and consultative activities that are associated with the pastoral letter as a way of providing important resources for local pastoral ministers and other groups in their work with young people, engaged couples, married couples, divorced persons, and others.
What will it take to implement the proposal we have set before you? First, it will take collaboration: among Conference committees and offices and between the Conference itself and other institutions. In fact, our committee considers this aspect so essential that it would not want to move forward without some assurance of collaboration. This must truly be a Conference priority, not simply the agenda of a single committee.
Second, this proposal requires involving and listening to those who are the ministers of the sacrament of marriage, namely, the couples themselves. We must find the ways and take the time to do this in sincerity and truth.
Finally, we must be committed to follow-up once the pastoral letter itself is completed. From the beginning, I have emphasized that this undertaking should energize parish-level ministries on behalf of marriage. It must produce practical, tangible outcomes that touch people where they live and where pastoral care takes place. Pastoral documents are necessary but not sufficient.
This is why we are proposing an extensive pastoral initiative to renew, strengthen, and support marriage -- and why I now move the approval of the action item.
USCCB General Meeting