A Renewed Pastoral Effort to Sustain Marriages for a Lifetime
Vision and Rationale:
The USCCB Committee on Marriage and Family Life intends to challenge the U.S. Catholic community to become more consciously and actively pro-marriage in its life and ministries, especially in the way the church offers practical guidance and support to couples trying to sustain and build their marriage as a lifetime sacramental vocation. The Committee also wants to play an active, public role in building a cultural consensus which views faithful, lifetime marriage as the norm and as the best community for raising children.
The Committee will begin by undertaking a multi-faceted effort to help marriages grow in strength and holiness over a lifetime. Our initiative has these inter-related goals:
- raise awareness about the value of marriage, its current possibilities and problems, including the realities experienced by married couples themselves;
- communicate and apply Catholic beliefs about marriage in an effort to evangelize couples, their communities, and the culture;
- influence spouses, families, church communities, and social structures to value marriage, to act in ways that will promote, support, build, and defend it, and to care for couples and families living in many different stages, situations, and difficulties;
- improve existing church ministries that affect marriage and encourage new ones in response to changed circumstances.
Twenty-five years ago the U.S. Catholic Bishops adopted a national pastoral plan for family ministry (A Vision and Strategy, 1978). The plan rested on four goals very similar to the ones articulated above. At the time, the bishops’ action was welcomed and recognized as an important contribution to a growing consensus within church and society that family life was in crisis. A few years before the plan’s publication there was a White House Conference on Families. Two years after its publication, John Paul II convened an international synod of bishops on the topic of family life. These events, among many, were the proverbial wake-up call alerting us to the fact that family wellbeing could no longer be taken for granted or, even worse, neglected. Church and society needed to be summoned again to pay deliberate attention to its most basic unit, the family.
Today we face a similar situation and possibly a more urgent call to action on behalf of marriage. Whether it is viewed as a human relationship, a social institution, a holy state, a sacramental reality, or all of these together, marriage faces considerable challenges – some of which were not present even twenty-five years ago. Today the vulnerability and the viability of marriage have become basic issues at the heart of family life. Today we are discovering we can no longer take marriage for granted nor can we neglect its future. Church and society need to be summoned to give deliberate attention to the primary community within family life, namely, the community of marriage. In 1994 the United Nations declared an International Year of the Family. It was observed in various ways, including a major pastoral statement (Follow the Way of Love) by the U.S. Bishops. Perhaps the best way to mark the tenth anniversary of this worldwide effort is now to focus more sharply on marriage at the heart of family life.
At a general level of goals and values, marriage remains strong. People consistently say they prize marriage and want to make it work for them. High percentages of married couples express satisfaction with their relationship. Even after a divorce, most persons will marry again.
At the same time, recent decades have seen many changes and problematic trends in marital behavior and attitudes, particularly among younger generations. Data about such realities as unmarried cohabitation, increasing divorce rates, decreasing marriage rates, unwed childbearing, single-parenting, and the absence of fathers have led people to conclude there has been a significant erosion in the “state of our unions.” At the same time, there has been a resurgence of scientific research demonstrating the positive social impacts of marriage, particularly on the health and welfare of children.
Notwithstanding people’s aspirations about marriage, there is good reason to believe that, at a practical level, it has become more fragile than before and that its fragility has a direct bearing not only on the couples themselves, but also on children, families, communities, churches, and the welfare of a whole society. In Catholic doctrine marriage is a sacrament and, to that extent, its wellbeing correlates with the degree to which God’s love is enfleshed and made manifest for the world. Conjugal love is a window opening onto divine love.
Both the U.S. Bishops in their Plan of Pastoral Action for Family Ministry (1978) and Pope John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio (1981) proposed comprehensive frameworks for understanding and offering pastoral care to couples and families. Both paradigms emphasized the ongoing accompaniment of persons on their journey through life toward holiness.
The framework for a marriage ministry presented in Familiaris Consortio and later expanded in a 1996 document of the Pontifical Council for the Family entitled Preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage envisions marriage “preparation” as a continuing process of formation beginning in the early years of family life and education and then continuing through a specific period of catechesis for the sacrament and then extending through the whole lifecycle of a marriage. In a sense, then, a person and a couple are always “preparing” for marriage because the marital relationship itself grows and changes over a lifetime. Some experts are fond of saying that, over a lifetime, it is necessary to marry the same person several times.
The Committee would like to devote much of its attention to the support given to married couples after their wedding and honeymoon are over. There is considerable evidence, though much of it anecdotal, that this period of marital formation (potentially the longest of all) is the most neglected in the whole spectrum of pastoral care. Although it can be difficult enough for two people to make the initial commitment to get married, it is even more challenging for them to continue renewing that commitment throughout their life together. However, given current life expectancies, people married in their later twenties could expect a fifty-year marriage to the same person. The possible lifetime of a marriage is not only lengthy, it is also complex and, at different periods, quite vulnerable to divorce and other problems. For example, divorce is not uncommon among “empty-nest” couples who, despite many years of married life, cannot adjust to new demands of intimacy and generativity. Sustaining a marriage over a lifetime means cultivating and blending gifts of nature and grace. The effort, considered both from the viewpoint of a couple and from the viewpoint of those who minister to them, involves four inter-related areas in which growth must continually occur:
- MATURITY: personal and social growth patterns
- VISION: of marriage itself and for our marriage specifically
- SKILLS: learned behaviors
- COMMUNITY: supportive social and religious context
In summary, the Committee judges that marriage, both as human reality and saving mystery, should be the subject of its attention now. There are many challenges facing marriage today – some of them pose dangers and others provide opportunities. Whether it is viewed in terms of a specific relationship or as a more abstract social institution, marriage needs help to survive, but also to thrive. While not ignoring the importance of preparing for marriage, the Committee wishes to call couples, pastoral ministers, and people of good will to respond in various ways to the task of sustaining marriage over a lifetime. This means, among other things, devoting attention to the meaning and dynamics of commitment, conversion, vocation, and sacramental life as they each weave through the experience of living in a partnership of the whole of life “for richer or poorer, in sickness or in health, until death.”
The Committee on Marriage and Family has committed itself to several projects that will accomplish, at least partially, the four goals identified in the previous section of this paper. These are not the only possible implementation activities nor might they even be the best ones in the long run. With this in mind, the Committee is very interested in the participation of national church organizations and movements. What might they undertake on their own initiative or collaboratively? Given the broad agreement on a vision we all can share, what might follow in practical terms?
The following activities are on the present Committee’s agenda. Each of them is moving at a different pace of implementation.
- Gather and disseminate material on “best practices” (emphasis on parish ministries) that strengthen marriages at distinct life stages, e.g., first child, teen years, empty nest; include short profiles of couples’ needs and issues at different stages; give attention to realities within cultural groups
- Conduct an in-depth study of the manual “Faithful to Each Other Forever” with a view toward revising and re-issuing it in the light of new information, needs, and pastoral practices
- Raise awareness of the need for better remote preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage among young people; provide encouragement and practical guidance for those who minister to them in educational and pastoral programs
- Continue to monitor and promote the participation of dioceses and faith-based groups in the “Healthy Marriage Initiative” being developed by the Federal Administration for Children and Families
- Participate in national pro-marriage activities and represent the Catholic perspective in public discussion about marriage and its value in society
- Collaborate with the Center for Marriage and Family at Creighton University in new research about Catholic trends in attitudes and behaviors regarding marriage, divorce, and cohabitation; produce research-based information to help shape pastoral responses and programs for married couples at different life stages
- Carry on dialogue with national leadership of marriage and family groups to elicit their thinking about how to reach people, listen to their experience, respond to their needs, communicate church teaching, stimulate parish-based ministry, bring about better collaboration between parishes and ecclesial movements, create a pro-marriage culture in church and society
|“An enduring marriage is more than simply endurance. It is a process of growth into an intimate friendship and a deepening peace. We urge all couples: renew your commitment regularly, seek enrichment often, and ask for pastoral and professional help when needed.”
U.S. Catholic Bishops, Follow the Way of Love
Approved for Publication by Bishop J. Kevin Boland, Chairman of the Committee on Marriage and Family Life (June 2003)