From 1988 until 1998, CBS aired the highly successful sitcom Murphy Brown. This cutting-edge comedy featured Candice Bergen as a tough-talking investigative journalist and news anchor. In 1992, the show’s main character decided to have a child out of wedlock. Then Vice President Dan Quayle remarked that “It doesn’t help matters when prime time TV has Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman, mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.” Quale’s comments ignited a national controversy about the changing status of the American family.
Two decades later, statistics reveal the unravelling of family life in America. The overemphasis on individual freedom and the right of every individual to make his or her own life choices has produced a situation in which the family itself has lost its role as the seedbed for mentally healthy, well-balanced and productive citizens. The cultural leaders who write our newspapers, edit our magazines, make our movies and teach in our educational institutions have played a major role in blurring the distinction between what is wholesome for society and what is not.
Today, all of us know individuals who are divorced, cohabiting, in same-sex partnerships or choosing to bear children outside of marriage. In many instances, because we want to be compassionate and charitable to others, especially to members of our own families, we avoid engaging in conversation on these issues. It is just too awkward. Some will go so far as to say that these choices are matters of individual morality without any social impact. But, recent statistics show otherwise.
According to a report of The Census Bureau (9/18/2014), our nation is facing the lowest marriage rate since 1920. Even including same sex unions that the state calls marriages does little to alter the general decline in marriage. Forty-two million adult Americans have never been married. In fact, for the first time since 1976, there are more unmarried American adults than married. That amounts to a demographic shift in our society.
Divorce, cohabitation and a generally permissive attitude towards sexual activity outside of marriage have had a major impact on the American family. In the 1950s, more than 80 percent of children were part of a family where both biological parents were married to each other and living together. Yet, in less than 30 years, only half our children were growing up in an intact family. Today, one out of every four American children no longer has his or her biological father as part of the home. In the 1960s, 4 percent of our children were born out of wedlock. Today, the number is 10 times as great.
On the one hand, statistics indicate the sad fact that the children whose parents divorce or never marry tend to face greater struggles in life than children of families with a mother and father married to each other. And, children born out of wedlock are 82 percent more likely to end up in poverty. On the other hand, much research leads to the conclusion that marriage benefits not simply the spouses, but the children as well and, thus, is a blessing for society.
Marriage is about commitment, fidelity, trust, communication and sacrifice for the good of another. It provides the atmosphere for children to develop a sense of personal worth and acceptance. Marriage as an institution cannot be equated with cohabitation. Cohabitating partners may love each other, but not enough to commit themselves to a permanent bond. Their relationship is more fragile than that of married couples.
The Catholic Church, drawing from the Word of God, teaches that marriage is a permanent and exclusive union of a man and a woman who, in loving each other, are open to life. Her teaching has been the same since her very birth as a church. Marriage is a truth, a reality, a gift given by God to his people. It is not a human institution created by man. The Church’s consistent teaching over the centuries is one thing. The lived reality may be quite another, even among Catholics.
Rapidly changing cultural attitudes, coupled with the lack of knowledge among some Catholics about the Church’s teaching, has contributed to Catholics finding themselves in situations not in line with Church teaching. In his desire to address this situation, Pope Francis convoked the present Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, meeting in Rome from Oct. 5 to 19. The synod’s Instrumentum Laboris (agenda) said that the synod would “thoroughly examine and analyze the information, testimonies and recommendations received from the particular Churches in order to respond to the new challenges of the family.”
As the bishops are meeting to discuss how to help the faithful live an authentic family life, there has been the growing expectation that the Church will change her teaching and her practice in relation to marriage. In the first instance, the Church is the guardian of the truths given her by Christ and understood with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. No bishop, no pope, can depart from Divine Revelation as handed down to us in Scripture and interpreted by the magisterium. The Church’s teaching that a sacramental marriage is a permanent, unbreakable union between a man and a woman cannot be changed because it comes from God.
In the second instance, the Church’s pastoral practices are meant to form individuals as true disciples of Jesus. They flow from the truths of the faith. They are not founded on cultural attitudes or shifting demographics. The Church must continue to show compassion towards those in irregular situations. But, mercy cannot be separated from truth. Other - wise, it becomes mere sentimentality.
Diminishing or obscuring Jesus’ teaching on the beauty of marriage and simply adjusting the Church’s pastoral practices to current trends will not help the common good. At a time when culture no longer supports or encourages family life, as church, we need to strengthen and promote good family life. We need to support Catholics who struggle and, with great personal sacrifice, succeed in living as Jesus teaches. Ultimately, a healthy society depends on stable, loving and generous families.