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Is the family still the basic unit of society?

Address to the National Family Gathering
St Joseph's College, Hunters Hill

By + Cardinal George Pell
Archbishop of Sydney

16 April 2004

The traditional family of man, woman and children has been badly knocked around over the last thirty years, and every Australian is aware of the hurt and suffering this has caused. It is certainly not my intention to be passing judgement on anyone's family circumstances, but it is important, especially for the young people here tonight, to have a clear understanding of the challenges that marriage and family face, and the huge benefits that come for both individuals and society when traditional marriage and family flourish.

The situation for marriage and family in Australia today is this:

  • Married couples with children are the most common type of family, making up 31 per cent of all households and 43 per cent of all families, but these proportions are declining. [1]

  • The marriage rate is falling steadily. Approximately one-third of men and one-quarter of women will never marry. [2]The proportion of the population that is married has fallen 11 per cent since 1976. [3]

  • The age at first marriage has increased by six years since 1970 from 23 and 21 for men and women respectively to 29 and 27 in 2001. [4] On average, men and women will spend approximately half their lives unmarried. [5]

  • The number of people cohabiting rose 62 per cent in the ten years to 2001 to 951,000, while the number of people marrying rose less than 6 per cent. The numerical difference for the increase in both categories over this period was a mere 22,000 in favour of marriage. [6]

  • Over two thirds of people who cohabitate have never been married. [7] Three-quarters of marriages are preceded by cohabitation, [8] but the proportion of cohabiting couples who go on to marry has fallen significantly over the last 30 years. [9]

  • The likelihood of cohabiting couples separating within five years has risen markedly since the early 1970s. [10] Cohabitation is 4-5 times more unstable than marriage, and possibly as much as 10 times unstable where very young children are involved. [11]

  • 1 in 3 marriages will end in divorce. [12]

  • The majority of divorces involve families with children under 18 years of age, [13] and in two-thirds of them the youngest child is under 10 years old. [14]

  • The number of children affected by divorce each year is rising, [15] and after divorce 30 per cent of children will have no contact at all with the non-custodial parent. [16]

  • There has been a marked increase in the number of men and especially women choosing not to remarry after divorce. [17] Divorcees account for approximately one-quarter of those cohabitating. [18]

  • The number of lone-parent families has risen by 53 per cent since 1986 to 763,000, [19] and is expected to rise by another 35 per cent to 2016. [20] Almost one-quarter of lone-parents have never been married. [21]

  • Approximately one-third of children are growing up in families headed either by lone-parents or cohabiting couples. [22]

  • 3 out of every 10 births are ex-nuptial. For indigenous women the rate is 8 out of 10. Between 1982 and 2001 total births increased by only 11,000, but births outside marriage increased by 45,000. To put this another way, while births to unmarried women increased by 45,000 during this time, births to married women fell by 34,000. [23]

  • The total fertility rate for Australian women has been halved in forty years from 3.4 to 1.7. [24] This fall has been correlated with the decline in marriage. [25] Fertility has been below replacement rate for a generation. [26] Births will cease to outnumber deaths by 2036. [27]

  • Within 10 years the number of couple families with children will fall by 13 per cent to less than 2.2 million, and “couple-only families” will become the most common family type. [28]

Economics is sometimes described (following Carlyle) as “the dismal science”. In fact, the real dismal science is sociology. It is very good at identifying trends and projecting them into the future. And when the trends effecting marriage and family in Australia at the moment are projected into the future things look very dismal indeed. They suggest that the traditional family's place as the basic unit of society is steadily slipping. Assuming these trends continue in the same direction, family in its traditional and foundational form — as a social good, based on marriage and fertility, and dedicated to the future — may become in Australia what it has already become in Scandinavia: a minority preference, favoured predominantly (although not exclusively) by religious people. [29]

This is not something that we can allow to happen, and with the prayers and hard-work and great example of families like those here tonight to inspire the next generation, it will not happen. Those who are living marriage and family life in all its abundant richness — both as parents and children — need to take the leading role in a dialogue with the wider society about what marriage and family means, and what is at stake when they begin to weaken.

Marriage is different from any other sort of private relationship, and it brings a range of advantages for both the couples involved and for their children. Supported by the weight of research accumulated internationally over the last thirty-five years, the personal and social benefits of heterosexual marriage compared to other forms of relationship and family are irrefutable. Therefore marriage should be supported and encouraged on a bi-partisan basis with all the resources of the state as a means of ensuring that many of the social problems which now confront us are not more deeply entrenched in social life for subsequent generations. It would also be promoted as the best chance of providing the individual with a wider compass for self-fulfilment, and for the realisation of freedom and happiness.

In reality, of course, this is not the case. The truth about marriage and the family and about the benefits it brings are often received as an adverse judgement on people who sometimes through choice and sometimes circumstances find themselves in different forms of family and domestic arrangement. There should be, at the policy level as well as at the level of the community, greater public acknowledgement of the parents and carers who are turning out happy and confident children, sometimes under the greatest difficulty. Often their efforts are nothing short of heroic. This heroism is driven by love, and one should not suggest that devoted parents who find themselves bringing up children by themselves, or in a de-facto relationship, love their children any less than devoted parents who are married.

Children need many things, and love is undoubtedly most important. Another requirement is stability. Children need to have a strong sense that the world in which they find themselves is dependable, and their key relationships should be characterised by reliability. Successful lone-, cohabiting and traditional parents are successful precisely when they manage to provide stability for their children and themselves. But all things being equal, family based on the marriage of the natural parents provides the greatest likelihood of children receiving both the love and the stability that they need in order to flourish.

This is not to condemn dedicated parents in situations other than marriage. Nor is it to claim that families based on marriage will always and everywhere be happier and more successful than other sorts of families. But the reality is that on average, generally, people do better in families based on traditional marriage. This is particularly so for children. For this reason, if we are interested in maximising the chance children have of being happy, of doing well, and of becoming citizens with the confidence and ability to make a contribution to the common good, we have to maximise the chance of their being brought up in families based on the marriage of their natural parents. This means that while public policy should acknowledge in significant and practical ways the good parenting that is being done in other family types, practical advantages should be given to marriage.

This common-sense perspective is widely rejected and politically incorrect. Some of our politicians think it is “Stalinism” to suggest that there are significant differences between family types and that government should encourage traditional marriage-based family. But research carried out in Western, and especially English-speaking countries, has given democratic societies like Australia the capacity to identify the type of family that works best, on average, for adults (with or without children), for children, and for the community at large. This research overwhelmingly confirms that the best and most consistent outcomes are enjoyed by families based on marriage of a man and woman with their own children.

These benefits and advantages are not a matter of interpretation or opinion or religious belief. They are matters of hard fact. [30] Controlling for “selection effects” and differentials in a range of factors such as income, education, health, age and social and ethnic origin, the research shows that marriage:

  • makes for a higher quality of relationship between a couple, including significantly higher levels of sexual satisfaction and fidelity;

  • doubles the likelihood of children growing up with both their natural parents;

  • increases the likelihood of parents establishing strong relationships with their children;

  • reduces the risk of early sexual activity for adolescents, and teenage pregnancy for girls;

  • increases the chances of children avoiding divorce and cohabitation, and making happy and long-lasting marriages themselves;

  • increases the chances of families avoiding poverty and building greater wealth — married men in particular earn more than single men with similar qualifications and experience;

  • increases the chances of educational success for children, and of their completing schooling;

  • increases the likelihood that children will obtain post-school qualifications, achieve higher-status jobs, and avoid poverty;

  • generally ensures better physical and mental health for husband, wife and children, including in particular significantly lower risks of infant mortality, substance abuse, depression and suicide — some studies suggest there may be link between rising suicide rates for young men and declining marriage rates;

  • provides longer life-expectancy and lower rates of illness, injury and disability for both men and women;

  • reduces the chances of children getting into crime, and the chances of adults being either the victims or perpetrators of crime — marrying and staying married has also been linked to bringing about an exit from crime for men who were chronic juvenile offenders;

  • reduces the risk of domestic violence for women, compared to women who date or cohabit — and also for men;

  • provides a significantly lower danger of child abuse and murder — those most at risk are children in families where the adult male is neither their natural father nor their married step-father.

Unsurprisingly, most of the benefits of marriage correlate with the quality of the union. [31] The deeper the friendship between spouses, the greater and more certain the benefits. The benefits for physical health and well-being in particular can be significantly diminished where the level of intimacy between spouses is low, and can become negative where the marriage is characterised by sustained levels of serious conflict. [32] But even in these situations divorce is no guarantee of greater happiness. While it removes one set of stressors, another set soon replaces it. This is particularly the case for children, who do significantly better with their unhappily married parents staying together than is the case when their parents divorce. The important exception is when there is violence in the marriage. No one would try to stop the non-violent spouse and the children escaping this situation, and they clearly benefit from doing so. But the disadvantages of divorce compared to life in a stable and non-violent married family — including a greater risk of being a victim of violence or physical abuse — remain. [33]

Another advantage that marriage has over forms of cohabitation is an enhanced scope for salvaging a couple's relationship when it has deteriorated. An American study into whether unhappily married adults who divorce are happier than those who remain married found that two-thirds of couples who rated their marriage unhappy but stayed together reported themselves happily married five years later. This was also true for eight out of ten couples who rated their marriage “very unhappy” at the beginning of the study. On average unhappily married couples who divorce are not happier than unhappily married couples who stay together, and divorce does not typically reduce depression, raise self-esteem or increase a sense of mastery. [34] Marriage provides a structure that favours both the efforts of a couple to improve or recover their relationship and the likelihood of their doing so successfully, with all the benefits that follow for themselves and their children in avoiding divorce and the upheaval that comes with it.

These are not just private benefits for individuals, but benefits for society as well. The decline of marriage and the disarray of family life that has followed in its wake have been attended by a significant increase in social problems, especially among the young. Apart from the happiness marriage brings to parents and children, it helps ensure a reduced call on the state for welfare, health and police and prison services. If these sorts of social problems are to be diminished or prevented in the longer-term, marriage will need to be promoted over other sorts of relationships, and education will need to be provided so that people are given the best chance of ensuring that their marriage will be successful. All this makes it very clear that marriage is not just a private emotional relationship but a social good with benefits for society which no other form of relationship can provide. In modern democratic societies it provides the greatest chance for both social mobility and social equality. It is no coincidence that the regularly expressed fear about the demise of the egalitarian spirit and ethic in Australia has arisen against the background of a generation of expanding marriage and family breakdown.

The challenge lies before us — not just for adults who believe in marriage but also for young people who have grown up with all the benefits of traditional family life. Marriage as the foundation of family is good for spouses and parents, good for children, and good for our society. We need more of it, and we need to defend it and work for its revival. We should do this primarily by familiarising ourselves with the hard evidence that supports marriage as the best basis for family life. It is not enough to rely on what we know and believe through faith. We have to make the case for marriage, to argue for it in the public square. We have all the evidence to back up our arguments. It is up to families now, and especially young people, to make the case.

1. Because the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) does not usually distinguish married couples from cohabiting couples, these figures on households and families headed by married couples have been extrapolated from the data in ABS Australian Social Trends 2003 and ABS Marriages and Divorces Australia 2002 .

2. ABS Marriages and Divorces Australia 2000 . Chapter 5. Based on the 1997-99 patterns of marriage, 29 per cent of men and 23 per cent of women will never marry. In 1985-87 the proportions were 21 and 14 per cent respectively.

3. ABS Marriages and Divorces 2002 . Chapter 5. Between 1976 and 2001, the proportion of the population which is married fell from 65.4 per cent to 54.6 per cent.

4. Jennifer Buckingham, Lucy Sullivan and Helen Hughes, State of the Nation 2001 . Centre for Independent Studies, St Leonards: 2001. 20.

5. ABS Marriages and Divorces 2000 . Chapter 5. Based on an average lifespan of 76 years for men and 82 years for women, and using trends for 1997-99, men and women will spend respectively 55 and 49 per cent of their lives unmarried. The number of years spent in the unmarried state includes the years prior to first marriage, as well as those spent as a divorcee and as widowed.

6. These figures are extrapolated from data provided in ABS Marriages and Divorces 2002.

7. Ibid. 68 per cent of persons cohabiting in 2001 were “never married”, compared to 61 per cent in 1991.

8. Ibid. In 2002, 73 per cent of marriages were preceded by cohabitation. It is interesting to note that, despite an increased susceptibility to secular trends, Catholics are still less likely to cohabit than most Australians. In 1999 Catholic priests solemnized the highest number of marriages (17 per cent) among all celebrants. Less than half of these marriages — 48 per cent — were preceded by cohabitation. Among marriages solemnized before religious celebrants, the Uniting Church had the highest rate of cohabitation prior to marriage (70 per cent), and the Orthodox Churches had the lowest rate (25 per cent). Among the major denominations only Catholics and the Orthodox recorded a majority of marriages without prior cohabitation. The cohabitation rate before marriage for Muslim marriages that year was 60 per cent. See ABS Marriages and Divorces Australia 1999. Chapter 4.

9. Department of Family and Community Services, Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey 2001 . 62.5 per cent of cohabiting couples who began living together in the early 1970s were married within five years, while 25 per cent were separated. For those who began living together in the early 1990s, the proportion ending cohabitation through marriage had fallen to 43 per cent, while the proportion separating had risen to a little over 38 per cent. Over the same period the remainder still cohabiting rose from 12.6 per cent to 18.9 per cent.

10. Ibid.

11. Patricia Morgan, Marriage Lite . Institute for the Study of Civil Society, London: 2000. 20-22. Morgan refers to findings cited in the 1998 Report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs inquiry into aspects of family services (“the Andrews Report”), which show that cohabiting couples are almost ten times more likely to break up 18 months after the birth of a child than married couples. At the eighteen month mark, 19 per cent of cohabiting couples have broken up, compared to 2 per cent of married couples.

12. ABS Marriages and Divorces Australia 2001. Chapter 3. Prior to 2000 the ABS calculated the probability of divorce on the basis of past trends, which up to 2000 suggested that 46 per cent of marriages would end in divorce. In 2000 the ABS began calculating the likelihood of divorce on the basis of “current trends” (e.g.: trends for 1997-99, as above). For an explanation of the reasons for this change and the calculations it entails, see the “Technical Note” in ABS Marriages and Divorces 2000 .

13. ABS Social Trends 2003 . 51 per cent of divorces involved children in 2001, down from 54 per cent in 1991.

14. ABS Marriages and Divorces 2001 . Chapter 6. In one quarter of the divorces involving children in 2001, the youngest child was aged under 5 years.

15. ABS Social Trends 2003 . In 1991, 46,700 children were affected by divorce, down from 49,600 in 1981 (when the percentage of divorces involving children was at 61 per cent). In 2001 (when the percentage of divorces involving children had fallen by 10 per cent since 1981), the number of children affected had risen to 53,400. See also ABS Marriages and Divorces 2001 , Chapter 6.

16. ABS Marriages and Divorces 2001 . Chapter 6.

17. The proportion of divorcees remarrying has fallen between 1985-87 and 1997-99 from 71 to 58 per cent for men, and from 61.5 to just under 49 per cent for women. See ABS Marriages and Divorces 2000.

18. ABS Marriages and Divorces 2002 .

19. ABS Social Trends 2003 . There were 762,632 lone-parent families in 2001, compared to 499,300 in 1986, an increase of 52.7 per cent.

20. ABS Year Book Australia 2003. Chapter 5.

21. ABS Marriages and Divorces 2002 . 23 per cent of lone-parents have never been married. The number of never married lone-parents rose from 94,130 in 1991 to 139,853 in 1996 (an increase for this five year period of approximately 48 per cent). Between 1996 and 2001 the number rose to 172,520, an increase of 23 per cent.

22. 11 per cent of all children aged under 15 years in Australia are living in families headed by cohabiting couples (ABS data, cited in Barry Maley, Divorce Law and the Future of Marriage , Centre for Independent Studies, St Leonards: 2003, 18); and 20.5 percent of children are growing up in lone-parent families (ABS Social Trends 2003 ).

23. ABS Births Australia 2002 . Total births rose from 239,903 in 1982 to 250,988 in 2002, while ex-nuptial births rose from 32,958 to 78,438.

24. Ibid. Chapter 6.

25. Maley Divorce Law 43. Maley points out that “the statistical connection between falling fertility rates and falling marriage rates between 1965 and 2001 is very close, with a statistical correlation coefficient [where 1 equals a perfect positive relation between two variables] of .95”. The correlation coefficient is not a measure of cause-and-effect but of the nature and degree of an association between two variables.

26. Australia's fertility rate fell below replacement level in 1976. ABS Births Australia 2002 .

27. ABS Population Projections Australia 2002-2101 .

28. On current trends couple families (that is, married and cohabiting couples) without children will become the most common type of family sometime after 2011, out-numbering couple families with children by approximately 28 per cent in 2016. See ABS Year Book 2003 . Chapter 5. Cohabiting couples will still comprise the smaller part of “couple families with children”, but in an increasing proportion.

29. Stanley Kurtz, “The End of Marriage in Scandinavia”. The Weekly Standard (10:1) 13 September 2004. Between 1990 and 2000 births outside marriage rose from 47 per cent to 55 per cent in Sweden. In Denmark, 60 per cent of first-born children are to unmarried parents. Kurtz quotes Danish sociologists commenting on the situation in that country as follows: “Marriage is no longer a precondition for settling a family — neither legally nor normatively. . . . What defines and makes the foundation of the Danish family can be said to have moved from marriage to parenthood.”

In Australia, the highest number of ex-nuptial births in 2002 was recorded in the Northern Territory, at 62 per cent. This figure reflects that fact that almost all indigenous births in the Northern Territory — 96 per cent — are to unmarried mothers. But this explanation does not apply to the second highest rate, which was recorded in Tasmania with 47 per cent. If current trends continue, the majority of births in Tasmania will be ex-nuptial within a few years. Another point of interest for the future of family based on marriage is that the two provinces with the highest rates of ex-nuptial births in Australia in 2002 also have the highest fertility rates. The fertility rate in the Northern Territory is 2.3. In Tasmania it is just under 2.0. Conversely, the provinces with the two lowest rates of ex-nuptiality (Victoria with 26.2 per cent and the Australian Capital Territory with 26.8 per cent) also have the two lowest rates of fertility (1.68 in Victoria and 1.59 in ACT). See ABS Births 2002 .

30. The outline of findings that follows is drawn primarily from summaries and reviews of the research in: Does Marriage Matter? Institute for the Study of Civil Society, London: [2003?]; Linda J. Waite and Evelyn L. Lehrer, “The Benefits from Marriage and Religion: A Comparative Analysis”, in Population and Development Review 29(2): 255-75 (June 2003), Paul L. Vitz “Family Decline: The Findings of Social Science”, in Vitz & Stephen M. Krason (eds.), Defending the Family: A Sourcebook , Catholic Social Science Press, Steubenville OH: 1998; and Barry Maley, Family and Marriage in Australia , Centre for Independent Studies, St Leonards: 2001.

31. Some studies have also suggested that the benefits of marriage can also be enhanced by religious belief. But in their review of the literature Waite and Lehrer conclude that the findings are mixed — for example, religion can have a destabilizing effect on marriage where the spouses belong to different denominations — and leave much still to be explored. Waite & Lehrer 268-70.

32. Ibid. 266.

33. Vitz 5-13.

34. Linda J. Waite, Don Browning, William J. Doherty, Maggie Gallagher, Ye Luo & Scott M. Stanley, Does Divorce Make People Happy? Findings from a Study of Unhappy Marriages . Institute for American Values, New York NY: 2000.

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