In the summer of 1967 I was a ring-bearer in my aunt and uncle’s wedding. Dressed up in a grey tuxedo with pin-striped vest, cufflinks, tie pin and shiny black shoes, I walked down the aisle with Suzy, the flower girl, and took a place at the front of the church. It was a Catholic wedding Mass on a hot summer day. Halfway through the ceremony, I fell asleep and tipped over into the groomsman next to me, disrupting the service.
Jack and DeeDee spent less than $1,000 on their wedding, the average cost in those days. Today, a typical wedding costs $28,000. But that’s not the only difference. My aunt and uncle were doing what most young adults did then: graduate from high school, get a job or go to college, get married, have a family.
According to the Pew Center, 72 percent of adults 18 and older were married in 1960. Today, that number is 51 percent.
Of all the changes in American society during the past 50 years, the decline in marriage is the most troubling — and yet hardly anyone is talking about it. There is, instead, a great deal of debate about same-sex marriages.
The reality is that legalizing marriage for homosexual couples will not have much societal impact. What really matters is that heterosexuals, who comprise 97 percent of the population, are increasingly choosing not to get married.
I think the emotional intensity of the same-sex marriage debate reflects deep confusion over the nature and purpose of marriage. The roots of that confusion can be traced back 2,000 years.
Under classical Roman law, marriage was a civil contract. The Catholic Church reconceived marriage as a holy sacrament in which God joins a man and a woman together for the purpose of raising a family. Marriage became a metaphysical union, not just a contract.
In 1644, John Milton published The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, redefining marriage on the basis of companionship. Quoting the passage in Genesis in which God creates Eve as a cure for Adam’s loneliness, Milton writes: “From which words so plain, less cannot be concluded ... then that in God’s intention a meet and happy conversation is the chiefest and the noblest end of marriage.”
Milton’s redefinition of marriage became the standard view in Protestant denominations, which since the Reformation had conceived of marriage not as a sacrament but as a covenant, a kind of hybrid between the classical Roman and Catholic conceptions of marriage.
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In the United States today, in which about 50 percent of the population identifies as Protestant, 25 percent as Catholic and the other 25 percent as other or no religion, there is a lack of consensus as to the nature and purpose of marriage.
Is marriage a civil contract, a holy sacrament or a covenant? And what is its purpose? Is it a commitment to raise children, a state of companionship or an agreement to share resources?
In the same-sex marriage debate, all of these questions come up. But while Americans are fond of taking sides on issues, we are not so fond of patiently discussing fundamental questions.
We need to have a national conversation about marriage, because as it stands now, the institution is slowly dying.
Several national studies point to the fact that married parents are key to raising children to be physically, emotionally and financially secure.
Yet young couples are increasingly choosing cohabitation over marriage. Today
40 percent of children spend at least part of their childhood in a cohabiting household. Those children are 10 times more likely to suffer physical abuse than children in a married household with biological parents.
An even greater concern is that children brought up by married parents are set upon on a path of upward socio-economic mobility, while the children of single and cohabiting parents face a downward future. Studies show this trend is creating two rapidly diverging classes in America — the poor unmarried class and the wealthy married class.
Jack and DeeDee had few financial resources when they got married. But they understood that their wedding wasn’t a performance meant to impress; it was a public ritual of commitment, in which family and friends witnessed and pledged to help them keep their vows. They all knew that marriage is important for families, and that families are the basis of strong communities.