Time to accommodate the divorce revolution?

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Article Highlights

  • Francis should build on his Church's modest successes in the face of a tidal wave of family change rather than open the floodgates

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  • From America to Africa, the divorce revolution has exacted a devastating price on those who can least afford it: children and the poor

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  • Americans who regularly attend church are about 35 percent less likely to divorce

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In the wake of the divorce revolution that swept Europe and the Americas over the last half-century, Pope Francis-who celebrates his one-year anniversary this week-is convening a major synod of the world's bishops this fall in Rome to retool the Catholic Church's message and ministry to families. One of the top items on their agenda is to reconsider the Church's approach to the divorced and remarried. Many voices-including a majority of the Catholic laity who have been polled on these issues around the world-are calling on Francis and the Church to accommodate this revolution by, among other things, dispensing with any rules that sanction divorce and remarriage in the Church.

The accommodationist position got a seeming boost from a recent University of Texas study, which found that divorce was higher among Evangelicals and counties with lots of Evangelicals in the United States. For many in the media, the takeaway was not only that any religious efforts to resist the divorce revolution are doomed to failure, but can actually be counterproductive today insofar as they encourage strategies to family life that are ill-suited to the times. Indeed, a headline in the Nation asked "Is Conservative Christianity Bad for Marriage?", with the article answering in the affirmative.

But what press coverage of the study generally overlooked is that this research also found that secular Americans, and counties with lots of unaffiliated Americans, had the highest divorce rates. The study reported, for instance, that the "unaffiliated effect [was] almost three times larger" than the Evangelical effect on county divorce rates. So, in general, evangelical divorce rates fall in the middle, while mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Mormon divorce rates were the lowest in America. Indeed, it's no accident that Mormon-dominated Utah has the lowest rate of single parenthood in the nation.

Even more importantly, by focusing on men and women's religious affiliation, the study overlooked the more important role that religious attendance now plays when it comes to divorce. Americans who regularly attend church are about 35 percent less likely to divorce, compared to their fellow citizens who are unaffiliated and unchurched. This may be in part because they are exposed to family friendly messages-such as the importance of forgiveness, fidelity, and marital permanence-that are likely to strengthen, not weaken, their marriages. One takeaway, then, from this research is that Francis and his fellow bishops should build on his Church's modest successes in the face of a tidal wave of family change rather than open the floodgates.

There is another reason the Pope and his Church should not simply accommodate this wave: It has taken a devastating toll on the "least of these"-especially children and the poor. In the United States, for instance, a recent study of economic mobility for poor children in communities across the nation by Harvard economist Raj Chetty found that "the strongest and most robust predictor [of mobility] is the fraction of children with single parents." In other words, poor children in the U.S. are much more likely to be trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty if they grow up in communities without strong two-parent families.

Halfway across the globe, in sub-Saharan Africa, the stakes are even higher. A new study finds that child mortality is significantly higher for children of divorce in many countries in Africa. In Kenya, for instance, children are 75 percent more likely to die if they grow up in a divorced home, compared to a married home, even after controlling for sociodemographic factors.

The social scientific bottom line is this: From America to Africa, the divorce revolution has exacted a devastating price on those who can least afford it, namely, children and the poor. So, especially for a pope who has redoubled the Catholic Church's commitment to social justice in the first year of his papacy, standing up for the integrity of the intact, married family is paramount.

This is not to say that the Catholic Church, or other religious traditions, should not seek new opportunities and approaches to minister to the millions of men, women, and children affected by the fallout of the divorce revolution around the globe. But it is to say that the Catholic Church, as well as other religious traditions that value marital permanence, such as Mormonism, should not simply jettison the teachings and practices that have given their religiously observant members a measure of marital stability in a world where family life has become increasingly fragile.

"We are called to acknowledge how beautiful, true and good it is to start a family, to be a family today; and how indispensable the family is for the life of the world and for the future of humanity," said Pope Francis last month, in a meeting called to plan for the family synod this fall. "We are called to make known God's magnificent plan for the family and to help spouses joyfully experience this plan in their lives, as we accompany them amidst so many difficulties."

Given this calling, Pope Francis and his Church would do well not to simply accommodate the divorce revolution that has "put asunder" millions of families across the globe but rather to search for new ways to make this plan visible, achievable, and attractive to the more than 1 billion Catholics in his global flock.

W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, directs the Home Economics Project at the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies. Follow: @WilcoxNMP.

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