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?

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."

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

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