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Real disregards ideal

NCR Staff

A Vatican document condemning legal recognition of same-sex partnerships and other “de facto” unions was dated on the feast of Ss. Joachim and Ann, the couple honored on the church’s calendar as Mary’s parents. While the Vatican’s intention in its July 26 document was clear -- to highlight a model nuclear family over and against new family forms -- the existence of Joachim and Ann is, ironically, in doubt. The couple was first named in the Protevangelium of James, a second-century apocryphal text -- so, though Mary obviously had parents, most biblical scholars question whether Joachim and Ann are real or fictitious names.

Looking at the Vatican’s insistence on upholding traditional family values in light of social trends in the Western world, some observers suggest the Vatican’s image of the family is also increasingly at odds with reality.

Above all in Europe, cradle of Roman Catholic civilization, the family today takes a variety of new forms, many in stark contrast to the blueprint Catholic leaders offer. The cumulative impact of the transitions was summed up by a Swedish professor of comparative literature and mother of four who told the Los Angeles Times in March: “Traditional family values are not important to us anymore. They are something we do research on, like a fossil.”

Yet church teaching, which took center stage once again during the mid-October “Jubilee of the Family” in Rome, continues to emphasize four points: that marriage occurs between a man and a woman; that it must be open to children; that sexual intimacy is licit only in marriage; and that marriage is a lifetime commitment.

During Jubilee Year 2000, which brought tens of thousands of Catholic families from all over the world to St. Peter’s Square, the pope referred to these characteristics as comprising “God’s precise plan.”

While it is still possible in Europe to find families that fit this profile, they are increasingly rare. Trends suggest a profound redefinition of family is afoot:

  • In some countries, it is now more common for children to be born out of wedlock than to a married couple. Some 54 percent of children are born to unmarried women in Sweden, 46 percent in Denmark, 40 percent in France, and a whopping 65 percent in Iceland, compared to roughly 30 percent in the United States.
  • Birth rates in Europe are the lowest in the world, with every country except Albania and Turkey below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. The number is especially low in predominantly Catholic nations such as Italy, at 1.19, where 91 percent of women report using birth control.
  • Divorce rates continue to climb, though they lag behind the United States.
  • Ten European nations have adopted laws providing for civil registration of homosexual partnerships, with others on the brink of doing so. Two nations, Holland and Iceland, offer gay couples the right to adopt children.

Libertine influences

Fueling alarm of church officials is the conviction that, on matters of sex and the family, where Western Europe leads, the rest of the world will follow. Thus conservative U.S. social critic Gertrude Himmelfarb groused in her 1999 book One Nation, Two Cultures about the “Europeanization” of American sexual values, complaining that traditional U.S. prudishness has given way to libertine influences from the continent.

Not every transformation is happening everywhere with the same intensity. The prestigious National Institute for Demographic Study in Paris arranges European models of the family into three groups: Anglo-Scandinavian, with high divorce rates and high numbers of births outside marriage; Mediterranean (plus Ireland), with low divorce rates and exceedingly low birth rates; and Western European, with moderate rates on all indicators.

Yet, regional differences aside, most demographers believe European nations are moving in the same direction: toward a society marked by staggering divesity in living arrangements and social policy. What’s driving the change, and what it means for the Catholic church -- which believes, as John Paul put it in 1981, that “the future of humanity passes by way of the family” -- is a matter of debate.

Marriage, traditionally the point of departure for forming a family, is in today’s Europe more like an optional destination that many couples choose never to reach.

“My sense is that many Europeans get married only when pragmatic considerations such as tax rates or inheritance laws come into play,” said Louise Ackers, a sociologist at England’s Lancaster University who specializes in the European family.

Ackers told NCR that as governments revise statutes to make things easier for unwed couples, she expects even more to avoid marriage.

Further, the traditional notion that marriage means children is clearly on the wane. Birth rates are in a free fall. Spain, where 93.5 percent of the population is Catholic, now has the lowest rate ever recorded, 1.07 children per woman. In France, the birth rate is at 1.26 children per woman; in Germany 1.3. The fertility rate in the United States, by way of comparison, is 2.4.

Birth control is widely practiced in Europe, and surveys show that the highest rates of use are precisely in heavily Catholic countries such as Italy, Spain and Portugal. Italy recently legalized purchase of the “morning after” pill, which impedes a fertilized egg from implanting and hence prevents pregnancy if taken within 72 hours after intercourse. Despite thunderous criticism from the Vatican of the pill as a form of “chemical abortion,” polls showed that more than 70 percent of Italians approved of legalization.

Warning of ‘demographic winter’

If low birth rates persist in Italy, experts say the population could fall by nearly a third in 50 years, from 57 million to 41 million. In light of such numbers, Vatican experts have warned of a “demographic winter,” John Paul was surprisingly blunt in a February appeal: “Italians,” he implored, “make more babies!”

The divorce rate in Europe is lower than the United States (one in three European marriages ends in divorce, compared to one in two in the United States), but in part that’s because dramatically fewer Europeans are electing to marry. In the 1970s, there were eight marriages per 1,000 inhabitants in Europe, whereas today this figure is 4.1. The number in the United States is 8.9.

To the extent that couples are marrying at all, many are doing so only after several years of shared life, and often after producing children. One observer said Northern European wedding pictures today routinely feature a bride, groom and three or four offspring.

Ironically, the trend toward cohabitation before marriage may be even more pronounced among Northern Europe’s small Catholic population, according to Fr. Christian Noval, youth minister for Denmark’s lone Catholic diocese.

“My sense is that because the Catholics take the idea of marriage a little bit more seriously, they’re even more likely to wait a while before doing it,” Noval told NCR. In practice, that means living together. “It’s very, very rare for me to meet someone who hasn’t had sexual relations before marriage,” Noval said, usually in the context of “trial run” relationships.

European governments are moving toward a legal redefinition of marriage that includes homosexual couples. Denmark was the first country in the world to legally recognize same-sex partnerships on Oct. 1, 1989, followed by Norway in 1993, Sweden in 1994, Greenland, Iceland and Hungary in 1996, France and Belgium in 1999, and most recently Germany on Nov. 10.

Several Spanish regions have approved same-sex union laws, and Portugal may be poised to do so.

The Dutch government authorized registration of same-sex relationships in 1998, and in September amended that law to make it far more sweeping, giving gay couples the same legal status as married heterosexuals, including the right to adopt children. Polls showed 67 percent of Dutch residents supported the move.

Typically, Catholic leaders in Europe have been among the most bitterly opposed. After the contentious Nov. 10 vote in the German parliament, Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne wrote in the country’s largest-circulation newspaper Bild, “The German government is consciously participating in the destruction of our society’s already-weakened fundamental values.”

Obligations to society

A mid-November document from the Pontifical Council for the Family titled “Family, Marriage and ‘de facto’ Unions” argued that living arrangements outside heterosexual marriage are not entitled to legal protection because they are “private,” whereas marriage is a “public act” entailing obligations to society. The document repeated Vatican claims that Catholic lawmakers cannot support such measures, which it said reflect “pragmatism and hedonism” and “a conception of love detached from any responsibility.”

Taken together, many Catholic leaders see an “assault” on traditional forms of the family. The Council for the Family stated in a recent report on European demographics: “ The individualistic model of the person can frequently be linked to the anti-life mentality and anti-life propaganda.” The report placed blame above all on “radical feminists” and a growing philosophy of “consumerism.”

Ackers, however, thinks such jeremiads misdiagnose the sociological reality. “If by an ‘assault on the family,’ people mean women turning their backs on having kids because of the impact of feminism, that’s not true,” she told NCR.

“All the research shows that European women do want to have children,” Ackers said. “What they say is that it is difficult for them to combine a family with the professional success and personal fulfillment they also now value.”

As in many places in the United States, Catholics engaged in pastoral ministry in today’s Europe turn to compromise to bridge the gap between the family image projected by church authorities and the sociological reality.

“I suppose in most places ministers try to follow a middle course between honoring what the church says but also not judging too harshly the concrete experiences they encounter,” said Paul Zulehner, head of the Institute for Pastoral Theology at the University of Vienna.

Zulehner said parishes and dioceses usually determine locally how to handle divorced and civilly remarried Catholics or what to do with couples who have lived together for years, perhaps even had children together, before seeking to be married.

“Everyone knows what the official positions are,” Zulehner said, “but how people feel they are best implemented in a given set of circumstances is another matter.”

Zulehner’s fellow countryman Helmut Schattovits, with the Austrian Institute for Family Research in Vienna, told NCR that if there is to be a revival in the European family, at least as measured by the birth rate, it will come less through moral exhortation than through public policy.

“Measures such as paternity leave, support for child care, financial assistance for young families are all essential,” Schattovits said. “By themselves they will not create the desire to have children, but the absence of such measures can certainly help extinguish that desire.”

Schattovits noted it is precisely these social supports that are often threatened under the impact of globalization and a drive for economic competitiveness.

“We pay less for people involved in social work to support struggling families than we do for the production of weapons,” he said. “That tells us that something is out of order in our priorities.”

“Research shows that children bring something special into a society in terms of concern for the future,” Schattovits said. “If you get too far below a critical figure in terms of the presence of children, it affects a society dramatically.”

Of course, Schattovits acknowledged, children can be brought into the world in all sorts of family situations beyond the conventional two-parent heterosexual model touted by Vatican authorities.

Ackers pointed to the relatively higher birth rates in Northern Europe, where socially progressive governments assign substantial periods of paternity leave and benefits for child-care. “When women have the social support they need, they will choose to have children,” she said.

John Paul II has repeatedly called on governments to be more generous in providing financial support to families, especially aid that would allow women with children to stay home.

High divorce rates have prompted some Catholic leaders to call for reevaluation of church policy. Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium wonders, for instance, how many marriages celebrated in the church are truly “valid” by the traditional standard: an intention to make a lifelong commitment. New thinking on how the church handles requests for annulment or the pastoral care of remarried divorced persons may be called for, Danneels has suggested.

Banned from the sacraments

The Vatican has not welcomed such proposals. In July, church officials reasserted a long-standing ban on admitting to the sacraments remarried persons who have not received an annulment.

Some Catholic leaders worry that the church’s criticism of social trends has served to obstruct useful pastoral responses.

“We have been very, very late to recognize the changes that are taking place,” Denmark’s Noval said.

Noval argued that above all the church in Europe must be more aggressive in reaching out to young people. “The old model, where you could just sit around the table drinking coffee and wait for mom and dad to bring the kids by, does not work today,” he said.

“We have to find young people where they are,” Noval said, pointing to pop culture arenas such as music and video games. “We have to recognize these children are having profound life experiences much earlier, whether it be coping with a divorce or whatever. This calls for a more sophisticated approach.”

Above all, it may call for a simple recognition of reality. “The era when a church could dictate a normative model of family is over,” Ackers said. “This does not necessarily signal a decline in family values, but a realignment of those values and a recognition that they take many forms.”

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, January 5, 2001