A Pew Research Center survey reported here shows that 39 percent of Americans believe that marriage is becoming obsolete. Not unimportant—obsolete:

"Marriage is still very important in this country, but it doesn't dominate family life like it used to," said Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University. "Now there are several ways to have a successful family life, and more people accept them."

Here's where I think the Church's pastoral strategy on matters including same-sex marriage and cohabitation is sub-optimal. We have a doctrine of marriage that posits a two-fold end: marriage is ordered to the union of the couple and to procreation. Of course, only the first is really necessary—post-menopausal women and infertile people may marry. (Non-consummation is grounds for annulment, but not infertility.) So really we prioritize union of the couple, with children a great good but not necessary to the sacramentality of the bond.Pope Pius XI noted that marriage in its wider sense is chiefly about the union of the couple, and only in its narrower sense as about the procreation and education of children, a teaching that has basically been ignored by subsequent tradition. So where people see same-sex couples loving each other deeply, raising children lovingly, and the USCCB describing even civil recognition of those unions as a "multifaceted threat to the very fabric of society," what are people to think we believe about marriage? If it were really important, then people striving to live that life should be supported and encouraged, at least civilly. Instead, church leadership offers gross and untrue insults. As to cohabitation, where no moral distinction between cohabitation with intent to marry and simple shacking up is made, then we say that practices that correlate with higher later divorce rates (shacking up) and that do not (prenuptial cohabitation,) are equally evil. (But not uncommon—57% of 30-49 year olds have lived with a partner, most intending marriage.) Prenuptial cohabitation CAN (though does not always,) indicate a MORE serious attitude toward the indissolubility of marriage, saying, in essence, "Don't promise a lifetime together until it's more clear that you can tolerate this person in sharing life together." But if taking indissolubility seriously is just as evil as not considering marriage at all, what are people to think we believe about marriage? We need a new, pastorally-sensitive theology of marriage, one that recognizes the importance and the beauty of the institution, that takes sexual orientation seriously, and that strives to support fallible and striving human beings in our attempts to become more loving.

This article is part of a Commonweal reading list on Catholic marriage today.

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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