By Father John Flynn, L.C.
ROME, DEC. 12, 2010 (Zenit.org).- A report just published found that the middle class is experiencing increased levels of divorce and unmarried mothers, and that marriage problems are not limited to people with lower levels of education and income.
The 2010 edition of The State of Our Unions, “When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America,” was released on Monday. It is a joint effort by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values.
The report found that only among the highly educated and affluent is marriage stable and, in fact, it appears to be getting even stronger.
They defined Middle Americans as those with a high-school but not a college degree. This group makes up 58% of the adult population. College educated adults constitute 30% of the adult population. The remaining 12% are those who did not complete their high school education.
Among the changes highlighted in the report were the following.
– In the early 1980s, only 2% of babies born to highly educated mothers were born outside of marriage, compared to 13% of babies born to moderately educated mothers and 33% of babies born to mothers who were the least educated. By the late 2000s, 6% of babies born to highly educated mothers were born outside of marriage. The other two groups saw a sharp increase, to 44% in the moderately educated group and 54% for the least-educated mothers.
– The percentage of moderately educated working-age adults who were in first marriages fell from 73% in the 1970s to 45% in the 2000s. This compares to a 17-point drop among highly educated adults and a 28-point drop among the least-educated adults over this same time period. What is particularly striking, the report noted, is that moderately and highly educated Americans were both just as likely to be married in the 1970s; now, when it comes to their odds of being in an intact marriage, Middle Americans are more likely to resemble the least educated.
– Moderately educated Americans are increasingly likely to choose living together instead of marriage. From 1988 to the late 2000s, the percentage of women aged 25-44 who had ever cohabited rose 29 points for moderately educated Americans — slightly higher than the 24-point increase for the least educated. Over the same period, cohabitation grew 15 percentage points among the highly educated. When it comes to cohabitation, then, Middle America again looks more like downscale than upscale America.
– Increases in divorce and nonmarital childbearing in poor and middle-class communities across America mean that more and more children in these communities are not living in homes with their own two biological or adoptive parents, especially in comparison to children from more affluent and educated homes.
According to the report three cultural developments have played a key role in weakening marriage in Middle America. The first is a change from being socially conservative on marriage related issues to being more permissive.
The second is that these Americans are more likely to be engaged in behaviors that endanger their future marriage prospects. This includes practices such as a greater number of sexual partners and a higher degree of marital infidelity.
The third cultural development is that moderately educated Americans are markedly less likely than are highly educated Americans to embrace the traditional values of delayed gratification, a focus on education, and temperance.
The report goes on to examine some other cultural changes, such as a decline in religious practice and the increased desire for a “soul mate” that sets the bar higher for marriage than before. Summing up the effect of these transformations they conclude: “A related problem with this newer model is that it disconnects the normative links among sex, parenthood, and marriage.”
Why should we be concerned about these changes in marriage, the report asked. “Marriage is not merely a private arrangement between two persons,” they replied. “It is a core social institution, one that helps to ensure the economic, social, and emotional welfare of countless children, women, and men in this nation,” according to the authors.
The retreat from marriage in the moderately educated Middle America means that the lives of mothers become harder and it separates fathers from their families. The report added that is also will result in problems for children, with a greater number dropping out of high school and losing their way in society.
If marriage becomes something that only to be aspired to by those already at the top of the socio-economic scale then there will be a growing social and cultural divide, the report adverted. “Marriage is in danger of becoming a luxury good attainable only to those with the material and cultural means to grab hold of it,” they stated.
“It threatens the American experiment in democracy and should be of concern to every civic and social leader in our nation,” they admonished.
Protecting the common good
Religious leaders are also very concerned over what is happening to marriage. On Monday an open letter was released, entitled “The Protection of Marriage: A Shared Commitment.” A press release from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) explained that leaders from Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Evangelical, Jewish, Lutheran, Mormon, Orthodox, Pentecostal and Sikh communities in the United States affirmed the importance of preserving marriage’s unique meaning.
“The broad consensus reflected in this letter-across great religious divides-is clear: The law of marriage is not about imposing the religion of anyone, but about protecting the common good of everyone,” said Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York.
“Marriage is an institution fundamental to the well-being of all of society, not just religious communities,” the letter affirms.
The letter is just the latest installment in a series of moves by the USCCB to defend marriage. Strengthening marriage is the top of five goals set by the bishops as pastoral priorities for the coming year.
One of the ways they are doing this is through the Web site Marriage: Unique for a Reason. (http://www.usccb.org/marriageuniqueforareason/) The site provides resources for the education of Catholics on why marriage is unique and why it should be promoted and protected as the union of one man and one woman. At the moment the first of five planned videos is available, with a second due to be online by the end of 2010. The videos are complemented by viewer’s guides and resource booklets.
Pope Benedict XVI has also repeatedly expressed his distress over the breakdown of family and married life. “[T]the Church sees with concern the growing endeavor to eliminate the Christian concept of marriage and family from society’s conscience,” he said on Sept 13, when he received the new German ambassador to the Holy See.
In the following weeks the pope repeated his insistence that family and marriage should be defended in addresses to new ambassadors from Costa Rica, Eucador, Colombia and El Salvador.
Then, on Dec. 2, came his strongest statement, in his speech receiving the new ambassador from Hungary.
“Europe will no longer be Europe if this basic cell of the social construction disappears or is substantially transformed,” he declared referring to marriage.
Marriage is under erosion due to greater possibilities of divorce, cohabitation prior to marriage and the introduction of new types of union that have “no foundation in the history of the culture and of the law in Europe,” he told the ambassador. Words that apply not only to Europe, but to many other parts of the world.