At last, some good news about marriage and divorce.
Social researcher Shaunti Feldhahn has discovered that couples have a much better chance of making their marriage last “til death do us part” than previously thought.
Popular “wisdom” has held that half of all marriages end in divorce. I know I have heard and reported that dismal statistic for years. When Feldhahn did the research on that issue, she found that “the vast majority of marriages last a lifetime” and that “the current divorce rate has never been close to 50 percent.”
Using 2009 Census Bureau statistics, she discovered that 72 per cent of people are still married to their first spouse.
This is good and encouraging news. As Feldhahn notes, couples getting married need to know that they have a better than 50/50 chance of a lasting marriage, and in that knowledge find the hope and determination to work through their problems and remain committed for life.
Still better news is her discovery that “most married people today enjoy being married to their spouse and, given the chance, would do it all over again.” Reviewing several polls and surveys, Feldhahn concluded that “although most couples have to work at marriage, and some will go through very hard times, most come out the other side and enjoy each other for a lifetime.”
And, for me, another encouraging discovery is the influence of religion on supporting marriages. Active church-goers are less likely to divorce. Or “simply stated, couples who go to church or other religious services together on a regular basis have the lowest divorce rate of any group studied.”
All these insights and more can be found in The Good News About Marriage, subtitled “Debunking Discouraging Myths About Marriage And Divorce,” by Shaunti Feldhahn (Multnomah Books, 2014).
Looking ahead to the Synod on the Family which is to meet in October in the Vatican, Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp, Belgium, has published his reflections on the issues the Synod faces, among which, of course, are the divorced and remarried members of the Church.
The instrumentum laboris (the working document that is to jump start the Bishops’ discussions during the Synod on the Family) acknowledges the problem of divorced people who have remarried and are consequently, according to present Church norms, excluded from receiving Holy Communion.
Bishop Bonny sees the relationship between the sacrament of marriage and the sacrament of the Eucharist. Since Eucharist is a sign of unity, can those who have divorced and remarried outside the Church have access to that sign of unity? The traditional answer has been “No.”
Perhaps, however, participation in the Eucharist should be seen not only as “a sign of unity,” but also as “a means of grace.” Bishop Bonny writes, “According to present teaching and discipline, people who are divorced and remarried are not permitted to receive communion because their new relation following a broken marriage is no longer ‘a sign’ of the unbroken bond between Christ and the Church. This line of argument clearly has significance.
“At the same time, however, one should ask the question whether it says all there is to say about the said individuals’ spiritual life and about the Eucharist. People who are divorced and remarried also need the Eucharist to grow in union with Christ and the Church community, and to assume their responsibility as Christians in the new situation.”
Bishop Bonny suggests that part of the reason that many Catholics do not pay much attention to “the dogmatic texts and moral statements coming from Rome” (e.g., the matter of birth control) is that these matters tend to be decided by the Bishop of Rome without input from bishops around the world. Pope Paul VI took birth control and collegiality off the table at the Second Vatican Council. Since then there has been tension between primacy and collegiality in the Catholic Church, between papal condemnation of birth control and the practice of birth control by many Catholics.
It seems that Pope Francis has put these issues “back on the table” –though a synod if not a council, through discussion of marriage issues in a more pastoral context.
It is good to know that divorce, as common as it is, is not the norm and end for most marriages. It is good to know that the Catholic Church’s hierarchy are taking marriage issues (divorce, birth control, exclusion from communion) more seriously and pastorally.
No one can predict with precision what the Synod will recommend. It seems likely that a more pastoral approach to the problems which families must face will become the rule for the immediate future. It seems likely that if we disseminate the information that most marriages in fact last a lifetime we will have countered the demoralizing effect of the old and false information about the frequency of divorce.
Both of these considerations serve, in my mind, as good news for marriage and the family.