The Synod and the Real Crisis of Marriage

Expectations and anxieties regarding next month’s assembly in Rome of the world Synod of Bishops are running exceptionally high. The subject matter alone—the  crisis of marriage and family—would be reason enough for that. But there’s a lot else going on here.

Pope Francis helped create this situation by hinting at the possibility of some sort of change in the Church’s practice of denying communion to divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriages haven’t been annulled. Some people would welcome that—in some cases, because they consider it an opening to other changes they want—while others see it as a threat to the indissolubility of marriage.

Recently the general secretary of the Italian bishops’ conference, Bishop Nunzio Galantino, kept the pot boiling by calling “exclusion from the sacraments” too high a price for Catholics in “irregular unions” to pay. Yet people in this position have access to at least one sacrament—the sacrament of penance, under the usual conditions—if they care to use it.

Now it’s the turn of the October 5-19 synod assembly, bringing together 253 presidents of bishops’ conferences and other church leaders. But already the advance attention devoted to a relatively small number of people has been a distraction from the larger crisis of marriage that exists in many places. The divorced and remarried do deserve attention of course, but so does much else.

The crisis of marriage can be seen in statistics from the United States where the percentage of married adults fell from 68% in 1950 to little more than half in 2012 and births to unmarried women now are more than 40% of the total. By no means is the U.S. alone though. Over the past decade marriage rates in most European countries, including traditionally Catholic ones, have fallen sharply. Last year Italy recorded the fewest marriages in a century.

The disturbing trends also are present among American Catholics. In 2003, with U.S. Catholic population at 66 million, there were more than 242,000 Catholic marriages and over a million infant baptisms; last year, with 3 million more Catholics, marriages numbered 164,000 and baptisms totaled 763,000. That’s a drop of 78,000 marriages and 240,000 baptisms.

Economic and cultural factors have combined to produce these results. So what can the synod do about it

The assembly’s working document, summarizing input from bishops and others worldwide, repeatedly stresses the need for more teaching and better explanation of Catholic doctrine on matters like the sanctity and indissolubility of marriage and sexual morality, and the serious obligations they give rise to. The teaching and explaining are necessary not only in marriage preparation courses but also in Catholic schools and religious education, as well as from the pulpit and in church-related media.

This is easily said—and no doubt will be said often at next month’s synod—but not so easy to do, especially in the face of a secular culture and secular media busily disseminating very different messages about all these matters. One obvious consequence is that the Church needs to instruct Catholic homes in becoming domestic counter-cultures—family enclaves consciously committed to the transmission and living out of gospel values.

This year’s synod assembly is a step in a process. There will be a second assembly in October 2015 charged with formulating specific recommendations. That will be followed, probably in early 2016, by a post-synod document from the Pope. Here’s hoping concern for the problems of people in “irregular unions” doesn’t get in the way of seeing the larger picture.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • pnyikos

    Much has changed since the 1950’s besides there now being “the need for more teaching and better explanation of Catholic doctrine
    on matters like the sanctity and indissolubility of marriage and sexual
    morality, and the serious obligations they give rise to.” Catholics are having fewer children than before, especially in places like Italy, with the result that FAR fewer are going into the priesthood and the religious life. [Large families have traditionally been the main source of religious vocations.]

    Catholic schools are the most natural way of bringing practicing Catholics among young people together, and these have declined in number. Moreover, almost all of them are now admitting non-Catholics as pupils, so that more mixed marriages (which are not frowned upon as much they used to be in the 1950’s) are a natural outgrowth. In my city, one of the main Catholic schools catered to these students by bringing in guests who would lecture to the whole student body about their denominations, which do not emphasize the sanctity of marriage.

    Perhaps most significantly, there has been an enormous decline in the number of young single Catholics of adult age attending Mass regularly,. The institutional Church never had a very good way of bringing these young adults together; very few of them go to parish clubs for single adults, and those are becoming more and more scarce. Those which do exist have spotty guidance from married couples on courting. Unless the synod addresses this problem, the percentage of married Catholics can be expected to continue declining.

  • Dorothy

    The larger picture deals with education, yes, AND dealing with issues of the here and now. We need to overhaul our annulment process too. That is itself a travesty bringing heartache in it’s own right when the goal was supposed to heal the pain of divorce. My annulment has gone on so long, it is worse than the divorce. I’m over my former marriage, but the annulment process is by far one of the worst things I’ve had to deal with.

  • Slainte

    Other than the length of the process, why has your experience petitioning for marital nullity been so onerous?