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Experts Discuss Devastating Breakdown of Marriage, but Believe Church Can Turn It Around

Andy Morrell

Susan E. Wills - published on 10/06/14

Three marriage experts voice concerns and defend their proposed solutions

Last week 50 experts on marriage and family published their “Open Letter to Pope Francis and Members of the Synod,” outlining what they believe to be the most pressing concerns regarding marriage and family and offering pastoral suggestions that they believe could go a long way toward strengthening marriages and families.

At least one commentator thought that the signatories wrote to the wrong people, because most of the solutions they suggested would not be put into practice by the Holy Father or Synod members. They would take place in parishes and rely on lay volunteers to act as marriage mentors. It was also argued that reliance on couples in parishes to mentor the newly married and those who are struggling in their marriages is wholly impractical.

I recently interviewed three of the experts who signed the Open Letter, to delve more deeply into what they see as the most urgent issues facing the Synod and to invite them to respond to the critique that their parish-based proposals were unrealistic. They are 

Richard Fitzgibbons, MD, a psychiatrist, director of the Institute for Marital Healing (near Philadelphia) and co-author of “Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope,” “Forgiveness Therapy: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger” (2014) and the forthcoming book, “For a Better Marriage” (in press, 2015). Dr. Fitzgibbons has counseled several thousand couples in 38 years of medical practice.

Mary Rice Hasson is a graduate of the Notre Dame School of Law, co-author of the book “Catholic Education: Homeward Bound,” and more recently of the groundbreaking report, “What Catholic Women Think About Faith, Conscience, and Contraception” (2012). A Fellow of the Ethics & Public Policy Center in Washington, DC and mother of seven children, she has long been active in speaking and writing on marriage/family subjects, as well as being involved in pastoral ministry.

The Rev. Donald Paul Sullins, PhD is Associate Professor of Sociology at The Catholic University of America. Formerly an Anglican priest, Fr. Sullins was ordained to the Catholic priesthood in 2002 under the “Pastoral Provision.” Married in 1985, he and his wife have three children and two grandchildren. Fr. Sullins has published two books and scores of articles in peer-reviewed journals.

Ms. Hasson described the genesis of the Open Letter as having been spearheaded by Tom Farr, a religious liberty expert at Georgetown University, "and Hilary Towers, a psychologist in Manassas, Virginia, who has been working in a parish-based setting to develop programs to support marriages – not marriage in the abstract, but the marriages of real people who need encouragement and support to persevere." Ms. Hasson added that “all of us who signed, like most Catholics, have witnessed the devastation that has followed in the wake of marriage’s decline. And we know the Church can help change that.” 

The experts identified “the greatest fallout from the decline in marriage” in terms of their expertise and experience. For example, Dr. Fitzgibbons stated:

Clearly we are witnessing a marked increased in psychiatric illnesses, particularly depression and anxiety, in youth and in adults. God’s first words about the human condition to Adam were “It is not good for man to be alone.”  

Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Fides et Ratio  
that everyone is on a journey to find someone to whom they can entrust themselves. This journey is hampered by the culture of selfishness, divorce, cohabitation and lack of faith. Greater trust in God and faith could help turn this around, as well as more teaching in the Church on these “enemies” of marriage.

Ms. Hasson sees the greatest fallout primarily in terms of the harmful impact on children and, secondarily, on the ex-spouses:

Children suffer. In the early days of the divorce revolution, adults told themselves that ‘Children are resilient. They’ll be ok. And besides, they want me to be happy.’ Decades of divorce, and studies on its effects, have proven that the opposite is true. Children need stability and the dependable love of two parents, committed to their future, and not primarily to the pursuit of adult happiness. When that stability is shattered (or never occurs, as in the case of cohabiting relationships) children are more likely to suffer 
– for years – from emotional difficulties, declines in school performance and, later as adults, from troubles in their own romantic relationships. In general, the social landscape is littered with the fallout from cohabiting relationships that crumble without commitment and broken marriages that didn’t have to fail.

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