Opinion & Features

Why priests can be marriage experts

There is real value in a view from outside looking in (AP)

People tell me that they rarely hear a homily on the subject of marriage. I understand their concern for we know marriage to be for many the major school of love. Yet I sympathise with the clergy. They may well reserve the subject for special groups rather than general congregations. They may want to avoid the awkward questions – although I do not have these in mind here. They may feel that they do not know enough about marriage or they may think their listeners will feel they are outsiders.

In fact the clergy have a good handle on marriage. They are born into families and meet many married people in their work. I realise that there will be a proportion of these which are pathological – which was why a priest got to know them – but there are plenty of others. There is real value in a view from outside looking in instead of being inside looking out. I have known priests whose understanding of marriage was very deep, and all the better from listening to many married couples rather than allowing personal experience to skew their views (as we married people so often do).

Why is this so important? The answer is simple. The number of Catholic marriages per Catholic population has dropped by three-quarters since the late 1960s. We may hum and haw about the influence of our secular culture on marriage, but we have our hands full enough with the crisis in Catholicism. I know many families in which the grandparents are devout, the children are occasional, and the grandchildren don’t even get baptised. Recently I watched a young relative being married in a smart hotel to a well-meant parody of religious solemnity – but specifically without any mention of God or religion. (Don’t worry, he doesn’t read the Catholic Herald.)

Where might a priest start? I think he needs facts. That enables him to show that Catholic marriage is based soundly on the principles of human nature. Quite simply we have it right. Let’s tell that to the Catholic young, and hope that they tell it to their friends.

The rate of divorce in this country is around 42 per cent. To me, this is a frighteningly high figure. But it is a small improvement in recent years which some have attributed to cohabitation, giving couples a longer period to get to know each other. That may be true but we must note that cohabiting couples who marry tend to be older, and maturity is a positive factor in marriage choice.

The peak time for divorce is three to six years after marriage – earlier than the famous “seven year itch”. The rate of divorce continues to fall with each succeeding year of marriage, and the divorce rate for 10 years plus has not changed since the 1960s. Some statistics from the US suggest that Catholic divorce is about 25 per cent lower than the population rate. Are we happy with that margin?

Cohabitation has its own problems. Cohabiting parents make up 19 per cent of couples with dependent children, but they account for half of all family breakdowns. And parents who have a child before they are married are less likely to stay together.

The happy idea that their commitment is expressed in their love from day to day and that, should they lose that love, they can separate without hassle is straightforward folly. First, although it may never be said out loud, the partners by no means always share that view. Secondly, there is no legal protection for both the partners. Thirdly, the lack of formal commitment makes the relationship continuously vulnerable. Fourthly, the children of the relationship do not recognise the difference: to them, breakdown is a destruction of their world – with the likelihood of long-term psychological damage and often impoverishment.

Not that even marriage is always the answer. On current trends any child born in the UK today has only a 50 per cent chance of being with both parents by the age of 15. Apparently children are more likely to have a smartphone than a father at home. It would seem that even the promises of marriage – which last “till death do us part” – are seen as no more than a traditional chant. I can only tell you that in six decades of marriage we have experienced enough of those possibilities to know that it was the bulwark of our marriage vows which got us happily through the inevitable ups and downs.

If you want to know more about the facts I have given here, visit the Marriage Foundation – a splendid, secular site which is devoted to examining outcomes in marriage and cohabitation (www.marriage foundation.org.uk/research). I consult it frequently, and indeed pinched much information for this column from it. Anyone preaching, or talking about, the Catholic view on marriage will benefit from a visit.