By Carl Anderson
NEW HAVEN, Connecticut, OCT. 12, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Whatever problems the recession has created, it has also created a great opportunity for each of us individually, as well as for parishes and Catholic organizations, to help save marriages.
As in the Great Depression of the 1930s, when divorce rates plummeted, preliminary evidence seems to show that the same trend is occurring in our current economic crisis.
Within the last month, Agence France-Press reported that divorce rates in Spain have fallen by 12.5%, with the number of separations down by nearly 25%.
In the United States, reports suggest a similar decrease in the making.
News stories from Washington, D.C., to Phoenix, Arizona, to Reno, Nevada, suggest a nationwide trend of people at least delaying divorce as they find themselves unable to “go it alone.”
Steve King, a divorce lawyer in Reno, Nevada, told his local paper the Gazette Journal that: “Some people see themselves in a lose-lose situation with nothing to be gained in getting a divorce except being single again. […] They often can’t afford two separate homes or paying rent, and that’s for people who both still have jobs.”
With that sort of bleak, but practical outlook gaining prominence, we must take the opportunity to help those “delaying” a divorce, avoid it altogether.
There is a unique window of opportunity for Catholics to reiterate the importance of marriage — to many people who might not have been previously receptive to that message.
And with people suddenly considering the possibility of working their marriages out, the Church’s teaching on marriage offers hope.
As Benedict XVI stated last month, “The firm conviction of the Church is that the true solution to the problems which married couples currently face and which weaken their union is a return to the solidity of the Christian family, a place of mutual trust, of reciprocal giving, of respect for freedom and of education to social life.”
Making it stick
The Church’s teaching has a strong message theologically — and practically — for those who stay together.
Consider this: A 2002 study by the Institute for American Values revealed that “that two-thirds of unhappily married spouses who stayed married reported that their marriages were happy five years later. In addition, the most unhappy marriages reported the most dramatic turnarounds.”
Economically too, divorce has terrible consequences, whenever it occurs. Studies of the financial consequences of divorce on women and children found that the former wife and their children experienced a between a 30%-73% decline in their living standard after divorce.
And religion has played a crucial role in divorce trends.
According to divorce scholar Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, divorce rates have been spurred by a tendency among many religions to view marriage as the purview of psychology, rather than theology. “Mainline religious denominations led the procession to psychotherapy,” she said. “Therapists became the teachers and norm-setters in marriage, and then, later, in the dissolution of marriage.”
The result was staggering. The clergy and other traditional providers of marriage counseling ceded their role to therapists, Whitehead notes. “In contrast to the earlier practitioners of marriage counseling, who offered their services as part of their vocation, therapists sold their services in the marketplace.
“Moreover, […] its practitioners were highly sensitive to the incentives of the market, including the expanding and lucrative market of Americans whose marriages were on the rocks. Fears about the commercial exploitation of divorce disappeared as its commercial potential grew.”
But if money is too tight for a divorce, it may well be that people seek their counseling in less costly venues, venues that for most of the 20th century, Whitehead notes, included family, friends and clergy.
Our role as Catholics couldn’t be more important.
Speaking last month to the Brazilian bishops gathered in Rome for their “ad limina” visit, Benedict XVI called on priests “to accompany families so as to ensure they are not seduced by the relativist lifestyles promoted by cinema, television and other communications media.”
The task at hand
He also discussed the importance of the witness of Catholic families, saying: “I trust in the witness of families who draw the strength to overcome trials from the sacrament of marriage. […] It is on the foundation of families such as these that the social fabric must be recreated.”
At a time when economic trouble is giving us a greater opportunity to help save marriages, we each have much to do.
For priests, this means taking the time to learn about and counsel married couples on the dangers of divorce, and the hope that comes with overcoming troubles in a marriage.
For married couples facing problems this means working as a couple, supported by the Church, to overcome their problems together.
For married couples whose marriages are happy, this means leading by example, and showing the love that is possible and can be realized in a marriage, and sharing the means by which they themselves have overcome any past difficulties.
Finally, for each of us, this means listening to those friends of ours whose marriages may be difficult, and directing them to resources to help save their marriage, mindful of the fact that both theologically, and practically, divorce and separation always have tragic consequences.
By our example, our advice, and our outreach to those considering divorce — especially now — we must not lose the opportunity to help build the civilization of love one family, one marriage at a time.
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Carl Anderson is the supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus and a New York Times bestselling author.