Of more concern (because it involves a far greater number of people) is what has happened to marriage among heterosexual men and women, including Catholics. A recent study by researchers at the University of Minnesota concludes divorce rates among people 35 and older have doubled in the past two decades. By 2010, 44 percent of Baby Boomers who had ever married had also been divorced — a staggering number considering the demographic enormity of the post World War II generation.
The study also shows that divorce is increasingly rare among young adults because they simply don’t get married. According to Pew Research, among adults 18 to 24, only 9% are married as compared to 45% in 1960. Among those aged 25-34, only 44% are or have been married. In 1960 that figure was 82%. The study notes that a majority of adults beyond 35 are married, but just barely. In 2010, only 51% of American adults were married, an all-time low.
Among Catholics the numbers are hardly better. According to a 2011 article by Mark Gray in Our Sunday Visitor, between 1972 and 2010, the Catholic population of the United States grew by 17 million, yet marriages in the Church fell by 60%, from 415,487 to 168,400. In 1972, 76% of adult Catholics were married. In 2010 that number had tumbled to 53%, just above the national average. Among Catholics aged 18 to 40, only 38% were married in 2010, as compared with 69% in 1972. These numbers are matched by declines in the birth and baptism rates among Catholics, which threaten to empty our pews in another 25 years.
Clearly, marriage — real marriage — is in crisis across the Western world, and that crisis in turn threatens both the health of the Church as well as her ability to evangelize the culture. We aren’t likely to turn the tide on same-sex “marriage,” which is quickly becoming a well-entrenched feature of modern life. We may not even hold off polygamous and adult incestuous marriage. But there remains an opportunity to turn the tide within the Church. And if the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family can find the key to doing that, their conference will have been extraordinary indeed.
Mark Gordonis a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 30 years and they have two adult children.