Many defenders of traditional marriage fear that giving formal legal recognition to homosexual couples would only further weaken an institution already debilitated by several decades of anti-family tendencies.
The annual report on the state of marriage in the United States, released last year by the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, provided a mix of good and bad news. The central theme examined in the report was the state of marriage as a child-rearing institution.
The report had some positive news on the state of families. The percentage of children in households with married parents showed a marginal increase, from 68 to 69 percent. Importantly, this was the first reversal in such figures for decades. For black children, the percentage living with married parents increased from 34 to 39 percent in the period 1996-2002.
The report, authored by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe, commented on the importance of this change: "A robust body of social science evidence indicates that children do best when they grow up with both married biological parents who are in a low-conflict relationship."
On the negative side, the report observed a weakening of the connection between marriage as a relationship between couples, and marriage as a parental union. These two elements were traditionally united. Yet now, "the couple relationship is increasingly independent of the procreative and parental partnership."
One consequence of seeing personal happiness as the principal function of marriage is, ironically, an increase in divorce. In the past, couples would often stay together for the sake of the children. Today, notes the report, only 15 percent of the population agree that "when there are children in the family, parents should stay together even if they don't get along."
The data back up these observations:
* About a third of all children and more than two-thirds of black children are born out of wedlock.
* An estimated 40 percent of all children today are expected to spend some time in a cohabiting couple household during their growing-up years.
* Roughly a million American children each year experience parental divorce and its aftermath.
Turning this situation around will not be easy, notes the report. The authors cite evidence demonstrating that for many single young adults the connection between marriage and parenthood is fading. In fact, while marriage used to come before parenthood in the sequence of events, today, in many cases, the sequence is reversed.
Another cause for concern is that men are "increasingly disengaged from daily tasks of nurturing and providing for their children." In general, men are staying single for longer before marrying, having more children out of wedlock, cohabiting rather than marrying, and divorcing in large numbers. No fewer than 18 percent of men aged 35 to 44 today have never married, compared with 7 percent in 1970.
In the midst of these changes, children have suffered disproportionately, concludes the report. When no-fault divorce was introduced, little thought was given to the consequences on children. Moreover, social welfare measures are no substitute for a stable two-parent family, affirms the report.
Among the many studies cited by the authors to show how children have suffered is a review of social indicators between 1975 and 1998. This study found that the indices for social relationships and emotional/spiritual well-being "show long-term declines across the three decades studied." The study concludes that improvements in other areas of children's lives have been offset by declining levels of emotional well-being.
In Canada, the number of couples who got married declined by 6.8 percent in 2001 while the average age at marriage continued to rise. On average, brides were 31.9 years old in 2001, up 2.6 years from 1991 and 5.7 years from 1981. The average age of grooms was 34.4 in 2001, an increase of 2.6 years from 1991 and 5.6 years from 1981.
Just over three-quarters of the marriages performed in 2001 were presided over by clergy. This number rose to 81 percent when it was a first marriage for both the bride and groom.
Statistics for England and Wales indicated a long-term decline in marriage, with numbers falling steadily since the 1972 peak. Marriage has increasingly been supplanted by cohabitation with the proportion of women under 60 cohabiting more than doubled, from 13 percent in 1986 to 28 percent in 2001.
Spain, where marriage is better off than in the United States or the United Kingdom, is also facing a deteriorating situation with cohabitation now considered by young people to be a normal stepping-stone to marriage. The number of couples cohabitating has more than doubled since 1995. This is reflected in the numbers of children born outside marriage - 19.5 percent of children born in 2001, versus 9.6 percent in 1990 - according to government statistics.
In Australia, data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that the trend toward couples living together was continuing, with 73 percent cohabiting before marrying, compared with 30 percent in 1982.
Of the population aged 15 years and over, 8.4 million were married, 4.9 million never married, 940,000 widowed and 1.1 million divorced. The largest proportional increase over the past 20 years was in the divorced population, increasing by 172 percent between 1981 and 2001. There were also about 760,000 single parents in 2002, up from around 670,000 in 1996.
Marriage is worthy of support, commented John Paul II in his address to the Roman Rota earlier this year, because "of the objective good that every conjugal union and every family represents." Right now it needs all the help it can get.
With acknowledgement to Zenit