The Atlantic: What happened to all those Catholic rites?

Long-time GetReligion readers, do you remember that typology that a wise, older priest — a veteran of life inside the DC Beltway — gave me a few years ago that proposed that there are essentially four kinds of American Catholic voters?

It went something like this (amended a bit):

* Ex-Catholics. Solid for the Democrats. GOP has no chance (unless these ex-Catholics have converted, as many have, to conservative Protestant flocks)

* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be an undecided voter — check out that classic Atlantic Monthly tribes of American religion piece — depending on what is happening with the economy, foreign policy, etc. Leans to Democrats.

* Sunday-morning American Catholics. This voter is a regular in the pew and may even play some leadership role in the parish. This is the Catholic voter that is really up for grabs, the true swing voter that the candidates are after.

* The “sweats the details” Catholic who goes to confession. Is active in the full sacramental life of the parish and almost always backs the Vatican on matters of faith and practice. This is where the GOP has made its big gains in recent decades, but this is a very small slice of the American Catholic pie.

Now, I know that this will be hard, but try to strip the political content out of that typology (note, if you will, that I did not click the “politics” box in the categories list). Focus on the issues of religious discipline and practice of the ancient sacraments of an ancient church.

Think about the sacrament of marriage.

If journalists — on the Godbeat or otherwise — needed more evidence that there are multiple “American” Catholic churches at the moment, all they need to do is dig into the following piece from The Atlantic Monthly that focuses on a crucial piece of demographics and, thus, doctrine.

The headline is bland, from the point of view of most journalists:

The Spiritual Significance of a Traditional Church Wedding

But the opening of the piece gets down to business really quick:

It’s an iconic image: the white dress, the church bells, the priest, the traditional vows repeated by an earnest, fresh-faced couple. Many elements of the archetypical American wedding echo the formality and traditions of the country’s largest single religious tradition, Roman Catholicism. But Catholic weddings themselves are becoming rarer and rarer.

In 1970, there were roughly 426,000 Catholic weddings, accounting for 20 percent of all marriages in the United States that year. Beginning in 1970, however, Catholic marriages went into decades of steady decline, until the turn of the new century—when that decline started to become precipitous: Between 2000 and 2012, Church weddings dropped by 40 percent, according to new data from the Official Catholic Directory. Given other demographic trends in the denomination, this pattern is question-raising: As of 2012, there were an estimated 76.7 million Catholics in the United States, a number that has been growing for at least four decades.

So Catholic numbers up, sort of. But crucial Catholic numbers down, in terms of vocations to religious life (and priesthood), child-birth rates and marriages.

This article asks a logical question:

If there are so many American Catholics, why aren’t they getting married?

Read on.

… (E)ven though marriage has been a major reason why adults have joined the Church in the past, it’s becoming less so. Between 2000 and 2012, adult baptisms declined by nearly 50 percent, which, Gray said, probably has something to do with the declining rates of marriage.

So why are couples choosing to get married outside of the Church? For one thing, there might be a lack of awareness about the specific doctrinal importance the Church places on marriage. “More people are choosing to get married in country clubs and at the beach,” said Gray. “A lot of people are unaware of the importance of marriage and the place it has in Church sacramental life … Younger Catholics are probably not going to have a deep awareness about the sacrament of marriage, even if they self-identify as Catholic and [have] religious beliefs.”

So we are talking primarily about Catholics in camps one and two, right? We might even be talking about children of families in camp three. Why?

There is one big word missing from this piece. Right, I mean other than that nasty old word “sin.”

It is true that today’s average marrying age in America happens to coincide with a time of life when people have historically been less religiously active: the transition period between moving out of your parents’ house and starting a household of your own. Since that transition period between moving out and getting married is getting longer, it makes sense that young people are spending more time away from church. And in the past, a lot of people who stopped attending church during this time eventually went back. …

(I)t’s entirely possible that today’s young non-church-goers might return to the pews in a few years, just as their hippy parents did before them. But it’s also possible that beach weddings are an early sign of a generational shift among religious Americans, with more and more people finding meaning beyond the walls and words of a church.

And the missing word is? Click here.

What defines a person who is living in Catholic camp four? Even most of those in camp three?

Doctrines are destiny and often shape demographics.

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Same as it ever was: It’s time for a new, old GetReligion
About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Kevin Spencer

    Excellent article. Give the writer a GR job if she is free.

    The only omission I could nitpick involves another cause of weddings outside of the Church. Often this involves a previous marriage which must be reviewed before a new marriage could be valid. Impatient Catholics will skip this step.

    Following that impatience is that people see the material interests of couplehood more, as the article implies but doesn’t nail. A try-before-you-buy approach to marriage is something for another article. I’d be happy to see this reporter tackle it.

    • Julia B

      Bingo on material interests.
      1) I’m a practicing Catholic – My two eldest sons married practicing Catholic women. As soon as they were officially engaged they moved in together to save money for the wedding. I grew up in the 50′s and early 60s, so it sounds bizarre to me. BUT one son was in his 30s and the other was 40 when they married – their wives were both over 30 as well. It did make financial sense. The grandparents chose to look the other way.
      2) An even more interesting development I’ve noticed as the member of a funeral choir. There are more Catholics skipping the Requiem Mass of burial in the church and instead having a non-Mass service with a priest at the funeral home. I’m wondering if that saves money, too? Or are non-religious children deciding not to go for the Requiem Mass b/c of their own beliefs?
      Or do they want to have all the speeches about the deceased, which really are not supposed to be allowed at Requiem Mass. In the old days, that kind of thing took place at the wake at the funeral home. A Requiem Mass was not the place for that kind of Protestant eulogizing – it was for praying for the soul of the deceased, not praising him/her b/c we didn’t know for sure if they were in heaven.
      3) I think in both cases, many of the young are not sufficiently catechized to understand what Catholic marriage and Catholic funeral services are all about. They are absorbing the culture around them.

      • Roki

        There’s cohabiting and cohabiting. I had some friends who met on-line, dated long-distance, and she moved about 1000 miles to marry him. So during their engagement, she set up a sort of apartment in his basement for a couple months while she looked for a job and got settled in her new city. She didn’t move upstairs till after their wedding.

        I had some other friends who moved in together for economic reasons, then decided it just wasn’t reasonable for them fight temptation while living together and started sleeping together at that point. (They told me this explicitly.) They didn’t marry till several years later.

        Both marriages, by the way, are still intact and raising some great kids. But they were very different kinds of cohabiting – though my guess is the second sort is far more common than the first. It’s something pollsters and reporters might investigate.

        • AugustineThomas

          The lusting couple may well have already sowed the seeds of their divorce and the devastation of their poor children.

      • Athelstane

        “I’m wondering if that saves money, too? Or are non-religious children deciding not to go for the Requiem Mass b/c of their own beliefs?”

        More the latter, I suspect. The children are probably Gen Xers who are already at one generational remove from a real Catholic upbringing. They usually don’t even understand the distinction between a Requiem Mass and a funeral service. And the latter provides a convenient “one stop shopping” arrangement.

        I doubt that the eulogy issue even comes up most of the time, because a) the children don’t usually know enough to even inquire about a Requiem Mass in the first place, and if they do, most parish priests still don’t enforce the injunction against eulogies at Requiems (this is starting to change, but only gradually).

        Look: if children are not brought up in a household with a real family spiritual life, and they are not catechized properly, this is what you are going to get: at best, a bunch of mostly moralistic therapeutic Deists. A few may find their way back into the Church on their own, but not many. And that’s essentially what has happened to most Catholic Gen X and Yers.

        • Julia B

          I’ve seen a move toward allowing a brief eulogy before the final farewell. It used to be that people were allowed to do one right after the Gospel and before the homily – in the middle of the Mass. YIKES. I think it stems from not even understanding that the Mass is not an inter-changeable religious service, like the churches of their friends. Give the eulogy at the wake or at the luncheon afterwards and do a toast – that’s more the Catholic way. Don’t invite friends to the funeral Mass. Tell them to come to the wake or the lunch afterwards.

        • Julia B

          ” moralistic therapeutic Deists” Very good term

      • fredx2

        It’s easy to have the eulogy. Just have the mass, and immediately after the mass concludes, they invite someone up to the lecturn to give the eulogy.

        • Julia B

          that’s where my diocese now allows a short eulogy. Before the “final farewell”, as it is now called.

        • Julia B

          that’s where my diocese now allows a short eulogy. Before the “final farewell”, as it is now called.

  • James

    “It’s an iconic image: the white dress, the church bells, the priest, the
    traditional vows repeated by an earnest, fresh-faced couple. Many
    elements of the archetypical American wedding echo the formality and
    traditions of the country’s largest single religious tradition, Roman
    Catholicism. ”

    The Catholic Church requires that couples marry in the church building itself. While this may be an incentive to marry in the Church in some areas it can also be a disincentive, especially in this part of the country (the South) where the outdoors is big and beautiful and most Catholic Churches are small and ugly (modernist). The bells are electronic and were bargain-basement even back in 1973.

    Other couples may want more of a “free form” ceremony than the Catholic wedding permits. The Marriage Rite is a small part of the mass, and if you aren’t having a mass, in the case of the marriage of a Catholic to a non-Catholic, the entire ceremony is short.

    Finally, parents aren’t insisting on the Church wedding. Perhaps they are worn out for years of cohabitation that they’ll take what they can get. Furthermore, as the average age of first marriage increases, parental input bears less weight than it did in the past.

    • Julia B

      There is a vastly increased interest in making a wedding ceremony gorgeous that did not exist in earlier times. The focus has shifted from the public commitment and religious blessing on the union to the spectacle and the photo ops. If nobody expects the bride to be a virgin and they have already been living together for years, the focus re-locates to the party.
      In the Catholic Church, you are supposed to marry in your home parish church. This helps to insure that all the records are in order and the priest in charge of the wedding at least knows the bride well. It was not allowed to shop around for the prettiest church. The focus has totally moved from the significance of the marriage vows to the settings in which they take place and the party afterwards. No wonder there are so many divorces.

      • Belinda Long Stevens

        This is soooo true, Julia B. And watching our civilization decline is extremely sad to me. . .

      • fredx2

        It’s really true, and curiously unsettling. The marriage is not the big deal, the party is. And the bride will be judged on the quaintness and beauty of the setting, the party, its uniqueness, and its artistic flair.

        Something about that says something really bad about us.

        Oh, for the good old days of the VFW hall and the oompah band.

        • Julia B

          I had the loud Polish wedding reception at a K of C where I had to take off my shoes, dance with a broom, and people pinned money on me if they wanted to dance with me. Lots of fun, LOTS of people, very loud, lots of beer. But the marriage ceremony was very serious and not that many photos.

          • Julia B

            As I think about it – there are almost NO photos of the reception!! Can you imagine that? It was the wedding ritual and members of the wedding party that had almost all of the photography.

      • wlinden

        Fr. Capon complains about pre-nuptial counseling: “I try to talk MARRIAGE and they think WEDDING.”

        • Julia B

          So true. Weddings are fun; marriage can be work. I am so impressed with my eldest who married at 41 to a woman 38 – both had had lots of frivolous experiences. I’ve seen them deal straightforwardly with problems and admire each other for loyalty and seriousness about their bond. They attended one of those pre-Cana programs that really affected them. They have a child now and both give up stuff to be good parents. Hooray and good for them.

        • AuthenticBioethics

          Yes very important distinction. I worked in some marriage prep, and where I live they made a point to say, repeatedly, “A wedding is a day. A marriage is a lifetime.” I hope they still do, it’s been a while since I’ve been involved.

      • AugustineThomas

        It’s the same as the fact that most Catholics put far more energy into their birthday and secular holiday celebrations than into feast days.
        The Church has been decimated since it has abandoned Catholic culture and taken on American secularist culture.

    • Julia B

      I know of 2 possibly Catholic weddings in the past year that typify the do-it-yourself wedding. A good friend who is Catholic and whose daughter I know from her singing in our choir got married at a “destination” in the Smokies. It probably was not a Catholic wedding.
      Then there is the Catholic niece who married a Catholic guy from a very Catholic family at a “destination” in the Rocky Mountains. It took place in a chapel at the resort. Invitations were limited, so I wasn’t there. I’m wondering if that diocese allows priests to preside at weddings in that chapel? I don’t have the nerve to ask.
      That brings up the issue of limiting guests in order to afford top-notch stuff at the reception for those who are invited. Lots of people who are normally invited to witness the commitment ceremony are not there so that the others can be royally entertained. I think it’s a sad commentary on the changing idea of what a wedding is for and should be. I had to un-invite my organist friend and choir friends who sang free for the wedding at a church 30 miles from our home church – I had told them they would be welcome at the reception without checking first. I had just assumed they would be welcome.

      • James

        The last two Catholic weddings I remember:

        One was an outdoor wedding in a park. The wedding was relatively low budget and the reception was the rented backroom of a bar with an open tab and plenty of bar food. The bride had converted in college, but I don’t think she stuck with it.

        The other was outdoors at a bed and breakfast. Both bride and groom were raised Catholic. The groom occasionally attended mass and thought of himself as Catholic, while the bride had long since left the Church and had no interest in returning. I don’t think he would have been opposed to getting married in the Church, but he also said that he didn’t see marriage as being that big of a deal. The bride, however, had absolutely no interest in a Catholic wedding.

        Both couples were long-cohabitating couples in their 30s at the time of the wedding.

        • Julia B

          Neither of them were Catholic weddings. They were self-defined Catholics getting married. UNLESS there was a priest or a deacon officiating at either of them. Were there?

          • James

            No. They were weddings of Catholics, not Catholic weddings.

            Catholic weddings are rare. Probably because are very few practicing Catholics of marriage age and a church wedding isn’t enough of an incentive to bring them back.

          • Julia B

            I don’t think they are rare. I go to a lot of them. There are fewer of them, but they aren’t rare.

          • AquinasMan

            Two annulments, comin’ right up.

      • AugustineThomas

        Perhaps you should get the nerve. Better for your friends to hate you here on earth and love you in heaven than spend an eternity in Hell, endlessly reenacting their pagan wedding ceremonies.
        (Though I fully understand that there are a lot of things I should get the nerve to do but I don’t. I am proud of myself for challenging the office of the archbishop in Los Angeles for not making Confirmation in the proper Mass available, although I don’t think I’ll get very far.)

  • tmatt

    Sorry, you can’t deal with anything linked to the past decade or so on this topic without some discussion of the impact of cohabitation — especially in a sacramental church.

    Catholics, is confession required before marriage?

    • Theodore Seeber

      It bloody well should be. My Archdiocese, even 15 years ago, required six months of pre-marital prep including an Engaged Encounter retreat weekend, with confession.

      #1 purpose at my EE weekend for cohabitation was money and a pledge to live as “brother and sister” in separate bedrooms until the wedding.

    • Roki

      Technically, confession is only ever *required* if someone is in a state of mortal sin. But it’s assumed that most of us most of the time have some venial sin on our souls, and the idea is to be as fully prepared as one can be to receive the grace God offers in the sacraments. So confession is strongly encouraged before receiving the sacraments of Eucharist (though necessarily every time, since receiving Eucharist has become almost automatic even for daily mass-goers), Confirmation, Holy Orders, and of course Matrimony. Confession is incorporated into the Anointing of the Sick when possible.

      • Julia B

        “receiving Eucharist has become almost automatic even for daily mass-goers” When there was a fast from midnight, it was not automatic and people who didn’t receive were not considered by others as necessarily being in a state of mortal sin. SO – I think people go ahead and go to communion so people don’t stare and over time people have started thinking they don’t need to go to confession. I’m for the restoration of fasting.

    • Almario Javier

      No, but it is considered best practices to do so.

    • AquinasMan

      No, but then, no one goes to hell anymore, so no biggie.

  • Theodore Seeber

    Sorry to bring politics back into it but: The Republicans are in big danger of losing camp #4. Those voters will not return to the Democrats either, but I’m beginning to hear rumblings of rebellion in that arena. I doubt it will ever turn violent, but repeated anti-Catholicism of the Left that isn’t being adequately defended against from the Right has left many Catholics in Camp #4 asking the question: Can you still be Catholic AND American?

    For many young people the answer is no- and they’re choosing American over Catholic, thus the demographics you suggest are no surprise at all.

    • Julia B

      There is also the variation on #4 Sweats the Details Catholic that TMatt does not mention. I know quite a few very active Catholics who vehemently disagree with the official line of the church. They are the Spirit of Vatican II folks who are very active in church life – they have not left. You cannot count on them following Canon Law or doctrine. They are waiting for the church to evolve and (rightly or wrongly) see Francis as their great hope for the future. They are definitely not Republicans. They still think of the Berrigan brothers as heroes. These are the kind of Catholics who influenced Obama in Chicago.

      • Athelstane

        “They are the Spirit of Vatican II folks who are very active in church life – they have not left.”

        No, but they tend to be on the older end of the age spectrum and therefore, of course, less likely to be marrying. Though I’m sure they vote in high percentages.

      • Theodore Seeber

        That’s #3 in TMatt’s list. They’re at every Mass, usually. They won’t vote reliably Republican or Democrat, but trend towards “Social Justice” issues, which makes them angry when the world won’t change to be more “fair”.

        In my rather liberal parish, they’re the ones who *used* to be in all the leadership roles, until we got a priest who decided to make us Catholic. Now they are the “St. Clare’s in Exile” types who have left the parish, go elsewhere on Sunday, but still come back and meet in the same groups they always did, using up parish resources without giving to the general fund.

      • Steve

        This type is so, so far behind the times.

        • Julia B

          I have a problem with not including them in “sweats the details” because they really, really sweat the details. Not all the “sweats the details” people toe the Vatican OR diocesan line. My diocese has lots of them and they are very vocal. They openly hate the bishop – many are priests, ex-priests, sisters, ex-sisters and employees of the diocese in one way or another. They write angry letters to the editor, support the Polish ex-priest in St Louis and some attend the “ordinations of WomenPriests” in St Louis. Most have at least college degrees; many (including the lay people) have theology degrees; they like getting involved in child, adult and convert classes – so they have a lot of influence; and they think Francis is just biding his time before changing the church to their way of thinking. Because of their education and forcefulness they tend to run any committee they are on. This group is not just old people who will soon leave the scene.

    • Athenagoras

      I am a part of this group. I am part of group #4 and I REFUSE to vote Republican. I won’t vote Democrat either (their support of abortion is grotesque) but the GOP has lost me. I will not stand by and vote for a party with so many politicians denying the science of evolution, claiming that global warming is some great big liberal conspiracy, assaulting the idea of letting in CHILDREN REFUGEES, or snidely dismissing the poor as bums and a drain on public resources. These are NOT things that Catholics vote for. Our faith is one which is both rational and dedicated to the dignity of the human person. I will now proudly be voting independent, as will my family, friends, and many other people whom I know to have left the GOP.

      BTW – I am not some leftist dissenter of Church doctrine. When possible, I attend the TLM and embrace all Catholic doctrines. Wake up people: things are changing in the Church and increasing numbers of people like me are kicking the GOP to the side.

      • Theodore Seeber

        thank you for choosing Catholic over American

        • AugustineThomas

          I’ve also made that choice, but it’s a lonely road to tread! (But then again, I suppose we’ve been told about the narrow path.)

          • Theodore Seeber

            Yes, yes we have. And it is indeed a lonely road to be Catholic in a culture where anti-Catholicism and heresy is built into the primary assumptions.

  • billlang

    We have so many bishops and priests that don’t care what Catholics do. They don’t hold Catholic politicians feet to the fire, or they’d loose money and prestige. If they don’t care, why should the wishy washy Catholics? Fundalmentalists gain so many former Catholics because these people believe what they preach, unlike so many of our leaders.
    Why jump through the “hoops” as they see it, to get married in the Church? For the Traditions and Sacraments our leaders don’t seem to believe in?

  • AquinasMan

    Yeah, right now we’re past the point of frowning on cohabitation before marriage. I work with FOCCUS couples, and the word from the top is, “if they’re getting married in a church in this day and age, that’s something to celebrate.” Really disappointing how the Church has almost completely given away the teaching authority on marriage, and the right to hold couples accountable for approaching the altar with little intention of showing up again at Mass, ever.

  • profling

    Maybe they’re tired of being Roman Protestants in the first place.

  • profling

    The “spirit” of Vatican 2 is tohu and bohu (see Genesis 1 if you don’t know).

  • Linda O

    Another word missing from both articles is “disciple” – the Church has lost so many because for all intents and purposes it stopped forming disciples. A great analysis of this is provided by Sherry Weddell in her book “Forming Intentional Disciples”. We have been “sacramentalized but not evangelized”. Our children in many cases no longer see the point in simply going through the motions of receiving sacraments when they don’t know what it is (and WHO it is) they are truly receiving because they don’t even know it’s possible to have a personal, life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ.
    “This book is rocking the Catholic world”, By Father Thomas Berg

  • AugustineThomas

    They’re not getting married because they’ve been brainwashed with secularism. How did Catholics get so stupid and cowardly?