By Frank Wessling
Much of the attention to marriage for some time now has focused on the “gay marriage” issue. With the exception of people preparing for their own wedding, the most widespread discussion and commenting has revolved around giving homosexual couples the legal status of marriage.
That topic deserves serious attention, not least because it might be having an impact on attitudes toward marriage itself among the majority of Americans, including Catholics.
Consider this: The youngest group of adult Catholics, the 18-to-25-year-olds called “millennials” by poll-takers, are more likely than those Generation Xers just ahead of them to value the sacramental understanding of marriage. They are also in the age group most sensitive to the wish for marriage among homosexuals.
These young adults probably can’t define the Catholic sacramental principle but they have absorbed and accepted a view of marriage that includes whatever they carry of “God” and “sacred” and “holy” and “the church.” They understand that marriage is bigger than their personal world; a mystery to be lived into rather than a puzzle that simply requires matching compatibilities.
They also yearn for the fully compatible “soul mate” of fantasy promised by eHarmony and other match-making businesses, but millennials apparently balance this romantic impulse with more realism than many of their older brothers and sisters.
Did they get this way because sympathy for the “gay marriage” issue drove them to think more deeply about marriage itself? Perhaps, although there is no direct evidence for this conclusion. They might also have the benefit of better teaching and preaching about sacraments. But it is intriguing — and a source of hope – that younger Catholics seem more aware of this depth in their faith, however they got that way.
In the 2007 survey that produced the evidence of generational differences among U.S. Catholics, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) asked what is different about marriage in the Catholic Church. These are some responses:
“Binding together by God is a sacrament, not just a piece of paper.”
“Catholic marriage is a sacrament — I think that this raises marriage to a higher plane than others.”
“It’s a sacrament and holy event and you swear to fulfill your marital obligations.”
“Marriage in the church is a sacrament — therefore you will uphold traditions and promote the faith.”
“Marriage is a sacrament between you, your spouse and God.”
“Sacrament brings with it additional blessings and supports based on our faith.”
“… A valid and sacramental marriage is eternal.”
“As a sacrament, it presents a distinct and special value to the life of two who become ‘one.’”
A large percentage of these young adult Catholics have gone through the searing experience of divorce in their families. This certainly colors their attitudes and is reflected in a strong belief that, whatever their notion of sacrament, marriage is a commitment for life. This seems to make them more receptive to the full range of church teaching on marriage as a vocation based in humility, readiness to sacrifice and, in general, the model of self-gift seen in Jesus.
Bless them for a firm step on the path of maturity.