The New York Times reports today that there are now two civil unions contracted for every 3 marriages. Civil unions are available to heterosexuals, and "the overwhelming majority" of those unions are straight couples. There are a number of ways to think about this, some under the rubric of "glass half empty" and others "glass half full" (and some completely "full" or empty", perhaps,) for those of us who value marriage. Among them:1. Marriage is seen as a serious commitment, not one leapt into without thought. At the same time, mere cohabitation is too insecure legally to make sense long-term, especially if there are children involved. For some, civil union is a first step toward a final commitment, much as betrothal was in eras past. 2. Marriage is seen as laden with institutional, legal and religious "baggage" that no longer makes sense for couples. Neither state nor Church has made a convincing case for marriage. But people still value some social/legal recognition of their unions. So since civil unions are available...3. What started as a "concession" to gay people--to recognize same-sex unions in some second-class way--seems to have undercut straight marriage, not because gay unions were recognized, but because gay people weren't welcomed into the same social/legal status as straights. Instead of maintaining a "back of the bus" status for gay people, straight people went to join them there. (Indeed, I know of straight people who refuse to marry until the institution is open to gay and lesbian couples as well as straights.) 4. Fear of all the legal mess of divorce motivates some. People still commit to each other, but in a way that may be dissolved without a legal gauntlet to run. I assume the emotional trauma is similar--so it's not that people are avoiding emotionally-resonant unions, but that they don't want to be dragged into court for failing at them.NB: This is about civil marriage, not Church marriage, so doesn't directly address issues of declining Church marriage.

Lisa Fullam is professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic (Edwin Mellen Press).

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