The Spiritual Significance of a Traditional Church Wedding

According to new data, Catholic marriages in the U.S. are on a steep decline. Why are fewer couples relying on religious institutions as they take their vows?
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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.

According to Catholic doctrine, marriage is a sacrament, or holy rite of passage, that can only be received if both husband and wife are baptized in the Church. In many cases, bishops can grant a special dispensation for interfaith couples, which allows them to be married in a church by a priest. But for faithful Catholics who want their marriage to be fully recognized by the Church, the options are either marrying a good Catholic girl or boy, or convincing their partner to convert.

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

In fact, this is a major reason why people have historically converted to the Church as adults. According to a 2009 Pew study on religious conversion, 72 percent of adult Catholic converts said that marriage was an important factor in their decision to change their faith. For those who convert to other Christian denominations, the reasons tend to be more connected to doctrine and belief: People who convert to Christian denominations other than Catholicism are more likely to say, for example, that they "drifted away from [their former] religion" or they "stopped believing [their former religion's] teachings." According to Mark Gray, the director of polling at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, however, Catholic converts tend to cite expectations placed on Catholics when they get married.

"The rule is, if you're marrying someone who isn't Catholic, the Catholic spouse has to be open to having children and commit to raising their children Catholic," Gray said. "The non-Catholic spouse very often is Protestant, and they often choose to be a member of the same faith as everyone else in their family."

But even 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."

Meanwhile, fewer Americans are getting married generally. From 2000 to 2011, the number of marriages in the United States fell from 2.3 million to 2.1 million, or roughly 0.82 percent of the population getting married each year to roughly 0.68 percent.

But while that's a factor in declining Catholic marriage rates, the deeper cause is the changing relationship between people and traditional institutions, Gray says. "It's not just churches, but all kinds of institutions have experienced detachments from the 'brick and mortar,'" he said. By “brick and mortar,” Gray means in-person religious communities: people physically coming together in churches to worship together. In general, Americans are becoming less affiliated with traditional religious institutions, not just the Catholic Church: From 2007 to 2012, the percentage of the religiously unaffiliated grew from 15 percent to 20 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.

"Millennials are seeing their social networks across the Internet rather than across geography.""

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. "Even my parents—they eloped to a place called the 'Hitching Post' in Las Vegas, but they eventually came back," Gray said. "There's definitely hope among the Church that what we've seen in previous generation will happen again."

Still, Gray said, "I do think what we're seeing is different among Millennials. They are seeing their social networks across the Internet rather than across geography. So much of parish life takes place in brick and mortar, and for Millennials, so much of their social life is not in brick and mortar.” Among Millennials, defined here as 18- to 33-year-olds, religious disaffiliation is higher than it has been for any generation in at least the past 25 years—as long as Pew has been polling on religious belief.

So while it's simplistic to say that American Millennials are totally abandoning their churches, at least in Catholicism, the trend away church weddings might be an indication of how young people tend to see their religious institutions. As Gray said, it’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.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also oversees the National Channel and writes about religion and culture.

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