Last Saturday I attended my daughter’s silver wedding. It was a wonderful party, filled with the friends of a lifetime. Only one thing was lacking: her eldest daughter could not get leave from her voluntary posting in Zimbabwe. Instead she sent a written address, read out by her cousin. As she explained, with concrete examples, how her parents had supported her and her siblings, the tears flowed down her mother’s cheeks and, before long, I saw that the whole room was peppered with handkerchiefs. I won’t tell you whether I cried. One passage gave everyone a message:
“Our family, extended and immediate, grew out of my parents love for one another. There has never been a doubt in my mind that my parents are completely in love with each other and always will be. The love in our house emanates from their tangible and visible love for one another.”
I have heard a few sermons on marriage but never one which taught me so much about the reality and power of marital love. I don’t mean that the marriage has been sticky and sentimental – there have been the ordinary course of spats and silences – but it was plain to their daughter that the profound love that bound her parents was the foundation of the family. My granddaughter continued “I am so proud to be your daughter. If I can be half the mother and daughter you are I will be more than happy.” But she seems to be on the right course: two new Zimbabwean babies have already been given her Christian name.
But I was brought down to earth on Monday morning. My newspaper reported that shortly more than half the births in a year will be out of wedlock. In the 1970s only one child in 20 was so born, by the 1970s it had become one in 10, and it has now reached 44 per cent. And it could have been worse since non-British citizens have been much more likely to be married before having children. It strongly suggests that marriage as a background for producing a family has become a lifestyle option in our culture.
Does it matter? Clearly there are some cohabiting couples who love each other dearly, provide a secure home for the children, and provide an example of long term love. And around 45 per cent of current marriages will break down and divorce. So the problems are are not confined to cohabiters. But there is an important difference: in 2010, when cohabiting couples were 19% of parents, they accounted for 48 per cent of family breakdown cases. And couples who were not married at the time of childbirth were twice as likely to split up before the child was 15 – even if they married at a later stage.
I was brought up in a secure family so I can only apply my imagination to the tragedy of family breakdown for a child. The rows, the loss of security, the divided loyalties, the loss of parenting, the reduction of material needs – suggest to me a terrible uncertainly and pessimism which I would have carried into later life. And indeed the studies show the higher incidence of educational difficulties, mental health problems and substance abuse in the children of broken relationships. The children are less likely to make good and lasting marriages of their own.
So it would seem that our society’s slide into open relationships in which commitment is only provisional is not just a personal matter – we are all affected. An unstable, and in many instances, an unhappy society is a future which threatens all of us. If you have watched television programmes on poverty and welfare benefits you may well have noticed how often the victims of the system are unmarried singletons who cannot both earn money and provide childcare. And behind those are many who have escaped that dilemma by getting rid of the baby before birth.
So what is our society doing to improve the situation? I have not heard the politicians championing committed marriage, nor have I seen them providing tax advantages to make marriage more attractive. On the contrary their reaction has been indifference, they have gone happily with the flow. But we all know that flows tend to end in the sewer.
Can you identify the factors which have led to this situation – remembering that Catholics (perhaps some in our own families) are not so different from the general population. What actions should be taken to alleviate the situation – by others, by ourselves?
(If you think that stable marriage should be the norm I suggest that you brief yourself through http://www.marriagefoundation.org.uk. It is not a religious site but it is run by people who support marriage, and do so through recording the facts and the trends. You may like to read their ‘Manifesto’ for marriage)