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.