Some interesting Marriage Statistics for Australia by Religion

In the latest edition (Vol 19) of Pointers (the journal of the Chrisian Research Association), there is a table based on the 2006 Australian Census data which gives the “Rates of marriage and de facto relationships occuring within religious groups”. Very interesting.

Rates of marriage are highest (over 90 percent) among Muslims, Brethren, Coptic Orthodox, Assyrian Apostolic, Druse, Hindus, and Sikhs. Next (between 80 and 90 percent) are Pentecostals, Christadelphians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Bahai, Mormons, Jews, Reformed and Eastern Orthodox. Three groups come in at the 70’s: Seventh Day Adventists, Buddhists, and Churches of Christ. Then, at 69.1% are the Baptists AND those of “no religion”. Finally Catholics come in at 63.4%. Religious groups with a marriage rate of under 60% include: Anglican (59.8%), Uniting (56.1%), Lutheran (54.6%), Salvation Army (53.7%), and Presbyterians (40.5%). Finally, Spiritualism and Nature Religions come in at 40% and under.

It would seem from this, that among mainline Christians, Catholics still come in tops – but not by a lot. What does this say about how well we are forming people for the vocation of marriage in Australia today?

But wait! There’s more.

The table also includes the proportion of all relationships which are de facto within each religious group. The lowest? No, it’s not Islam (3.4%); it’s Assyrian Apostolic (0.8%). The highest (excluding No Religion at 27.1%, Spiritualism at 27.3% and Nature Religions at 42.8%) is Anglican at 13.5% and Lutheran at 13.0%. That’s half that of those with no religion, but still pretty high.

Want to guess where the Catholics come in? 12.9% – the sixth highest on the list and higher than Buddhism (at 11.2%).

Again, what are we doing to prepare Catholics properly for the vocation of marriage and family?

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31 Comments

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31 responses to “Some interesting Marriage Statistics for Australia by Religion

  1. Peregrinus

    Interesting, but needs clarification.

    When we talk about “rates of marriage . . . within religious groups”, are we talking about intra-group marriage, e.g. the number of Catholics married to other Catholics, or are we talking about total marriage rates, e.g. the number of Catholics married to anyone at all?

    Secondly, are the figures adjusted for the demographic characteristics of each group? I note, for instance, that among the adherents of nature religions, there is a very high rate of de facto relationships and a very low rate of marriages. This could be accounted for by their theological attitudes to conjugal relationships and/or to rituals, but it could also be accounted for if the adherents of nature religions include relatively few elderly people (who tend to be married rather than in de facto relationships) and children (who tend to be single), and relatively many young adults. If we’re to draw conclusions about the relationship of religious identification on attitudes to marriage, we need to disentangle the demographic issues. That’s perhaps a bigger issue for the nature religionists than anyone else, but it’s also important for religious groups which are disproportionately made up of immigrants, because they too tend to have a different demographic structure from the population at large.

    • There was a breakdown according to age (but not correlated to religion), showing that the greatest percentage of defacto relationships was far and away under 30’s (15-19 = 86% of all relationships – not surprising; 20-24 = 68%, 25-29 = 41%, and then a drop down to 23% for 30-34yrolds). The graph shows a smoothly decreasing exponential curve according to age. Which just suggests that as people get older, they are more likely to marry and settle down. So yes, the age factor would have to be taken into account. But that just makes the task in front of us more urgent: it is precisely our young people (under 30’s) who need to be formed, prepared for and enabled to contract healthy and happy (not to mention valid) marriages, for the sake of growing healthy and happy families. Marriages beginning in the late thirties are less likely to lead to families with the number of children above the national average.

      • And as for the meaning of “rate of marriage within the religious group”, I think we would just have to assume that this is based on Census data, and hence is a co-relation of those who ticked the box “married” and those who ticked the box “Catholic/Anglican/Lutheran etc”. So no, I don’t think it means “within” in the sense of “married to another person also within the same religious community”.

  2. matthias

    Interesting that the Assyrian Apostolic church figures are high for marriage and nearly nil for defacto relationship. However ,whilst these show are admirable ,if there is now only marriages amongst its members,given that this is a small community in Australia,one could ask as to whether there might be genetic issues also appearing. For example amongst orthodox jews in America there is the the deadly disease TAY SACHs which has been attributed to marriages within the group.
    But again the question where is the preparation for marriage and family

    • Peregrinus

      Actually, I’m not sure that it is admirable. A 90% figure vastly exceeds the proportion of Catholics and most other denominations who are living in a conjugal relationship of any kind. After you allow for the fact that almost half of all married people will be widowed for some part of their lives, you can only achieve a 90% marriage rate by, basically, everybody rushing to marry as soon as they can after reaching marriageable age.

      But that treats marriage as a compulsion, not a vocation. If marriage is a vocation then we should be open to the possibility that some people are not called to marriage. And we should encourage everyone to take the time to discern whether they are called to marry (and, if so, whether they are called to marry this person). Preparation for marriage has to, I think, include preparation for courtship. And there’s good evidence that marrying below the age of about 25 dramatically increases your risk of later divorce or separation, so preparation for marriage should I think also inculcate a wariness of hasty marriage.

      In short, I’m not sure that a 90% marriage figure is anything to aim for.

      • I actually posted this thinking of you, Perry. I know you love statistics!

        • Peregrinus

          Yes, I do, even as I warn against placing too much reliance on them.

          I think the figures – inevitably – gloss over some significant differences. A de facto relationship can be either a precursor to marriage, or an alternative to it. We don’t have to approve of a de facto relationship preceding marriage in order to acknowledge the reality that it often does. And the age-related statistics that you cite, David, bear this out.

          For those who see a de facto relationship as a precursor to marriage, from a Catholic perspective there may be issues with their beliefs regarding chastity and sexuality but it doesn’t follow that they need more or better preparation for marriage. Our greater concern, I suggest, is with those who see a de facto relationship as an alternative to marriage, because there are whole dimensions to marriage (explicit commitment, community involvement) which are at least presumptively missing from long term de facto relationships.

          There’s an additional factor with Catholics, which is that a proportion of those living in de facto relationships will be people who were previously married to someone else, whose marriages have broken down and who are unable to marry again within the church. Many, if not most, of these will of course have obtained civil divorces, will have remarried civilly and will have ticked the “married” box on the census return, so they will be showing up in these figures as “married”. But it wouldn’t amaze me to find that some people in this situation, if they cannot regularise their situation with the church, feel no particular urgency about regularising it with the state, and so are legally unmarried and tick the “de facto” box. In this case it’s actually an acknowledgement of the significance of sacramental marriage, and the awareness that it is not attainable for them, which keeps them in the de facto category. Ironic, no?

  3. Actually, you can now download that edition of Pointers and read the article and see the dat for yourselves. CRA has just sent the link through. It is at http://www.cra.org.au/Pointers19-2.pdf

    • Peregrinus

      OK. Thanks for the link.

      It seems that this is primarily about marriage within the group as opposed to marriage outside the group.

      We are told, for instance, that 93.9% of Muslims who are married, are married to others Muslims. But we are not told what percentage of Muslims are married. Thus my comments above about the desirability or otherwise of a 90% marriage rate do not apply.

      We’re given similar figures for de facto relationships. Thus 51`% of Muslims in de facto relationships have a Muslim partner.

      This suggests that Muslims are more open to having a de facto relationship with non-Muslims than they are to marrying them. In fact, that seems to be true to a greater or lesser extent of all the groups surveyed, with one exception. 69.1% of married non-religious people are married to other non-religious people, and 67.9% of non religious people in a de facto relationship have a non-religious partner.

      These figures tell us nothing about the preference of any of the groups mentioned as between marriage and de facto relationships. That information is found in yet another column, which tells us, e.g., that 3.4% of the conjugal relationships of Muslims are de facto relationships. In general, the keener any group is on keeping conjugal relationships within the group, the less likely they are to form de facto relationships, but the more likely it is that, when de facto relationships are formed, they will be with someone outside the group.

      There’s an interesting outlier, though. The non-religious are very open to forming de facto relationships – 27.6% of their conjugal relationships are de facto, the highest for any group except the Spiritualists and those who follow nature religions, both of whom are tiny in numbers – and yet they keep more of their relationships, married and de facto, within the group than do Catholics, Anglicans, Uniting Church members or indeed any other large group except the Eastern Orthodox. 68.8% of partnered non-religious people are partnered to other non-religious people, with (as noted above) insignificant differences in this figure as between marital and de facto relationships.

      There are two possible explanations for this.

      1. Contrary to any reputation for tolerance they may have, they’re a clannish lot. They prefer to get cosy with other non-religious people.

      2. To paraphrase Blackadder:

      Mossop: How dare you, sir! You think, just because we’re non-religious, we sleep with everyone!
      Blackadder: On the contrary. I think, being non-religious, you’re lucky to sleep with anyone.

      In short, religious people may prefer not to marry non-religious people, or to form de facto relationships with them.

      Other interesting points:

      Openness to de facto relationships is negatively correlated with the proportion of under-15s in the religious group. In other words, the stronger the preference for marriage over de facto relationships, the more children in the group. This is not surprising. However the non-religious are again an outlier here.

      Openness to de facto relationships is positively correlated with growth in numbers. The more open a group is to de facto relationships, the more likely it is that that group has grown since 2001. This effect is very weak, though. But it does refute any suggest that groups who prefer to shack up instead of decently marrying are doomed to demographic decline.

      • Which Blackadder did that come from? I just bought all four series the other day, as they are on special at JB HiFi at the moment…

        • Peregrinus

          The third series, set in the Regency period. It’s the episode where Prince George hires two actors to prepare him to deliver a speech and, in the canonical version the line is “you think, just because we’re actors . . .” etc.

  4. As Bp Fisher has noted, the great vocations crisis is not in regard to Holy Orders (given the number of young men who go to Church, the number of vocations to the priesthood is healthy enough; and the majority of priests young and old do keep their vows), but in regard to Holy Wedlock (for about half of all marriages fail: the “lock” half of this old word seems particularly ineffective these days, which is awful since it seems to imply that modern temptations increasingly frustrate the grace of the sacrament).

    In my limited experience, priests tend not to preach about sexual morality (most bowed to the demands of their congregations and stopped speaking against current trends in this area in about, oh, 1968 I should think), with the result that the sexual mores of Catholics are not dissimilar to the general population these days – with little formation against the Zeitgeist in this area, and the powerful influence of popular culture and the media, most do as men and women now do…

    For instance, a young guy I know, whose family know a certain bishop quite well, seemed to me blissfully unaffected by any old-fashioned notions about chastity before marriage: he had had regular night-time companions since his late teens, and spoke of this as the most normal thing in the world, without the slightest intimation that this didn’t quite square with the religion into which he’d been baptised, nor with what he’d learnt in all his years of Catholic schooling. Given the statistics that the vast majority (95%?) of Catholic school-leavers cease to practise their faith according to the traditional measures (yes, Perry, I know what you’ll say, but still), I suspect that their sexual behaviour is more or less the same as their peers (see a previous post of David’s on this).

    Perry, while I know I’m drawing a long bow here, and have not statistics and research results to hand, I have a feeling these simple statements of mine have at least the illusion of plausibility about them!

    • Peregrinus

      For instance, a young guy I know, whose family know a certain bishop quite well, seemed to me blissfully unaffected by any old-fashioned notions about chastity before marriage: he had had regular night-time companions since his late teens, and spoke of this as the most normal thing in the world, without the slightest intimation that this didn’t quite square with the religion into which he’d been baptised, nor with what he’d learnt in all his years of Catholic schooling. Given the statistics that the vast majority (95%?) of Catholic school-leavers cease to practise their faith according to the traditional measures (yes, Perry, I know what you’ll say, but still), I suspect that their sexual behaviour is more or less the same as their peers (see a previous post of David’s on this).

      Perry, while I know I’m drawing a long bow here, and have not statistics and research results to hand, I have a feeling these simple statements of mine have at least the illusion of plausibility about them!

      Subject to my usual quibble about how we measure “practising the faith”, I think your statements here are not just plausible but very probably true.

      But consider the situation of your young friend and his girlfriends. Is it likely that he is simply unaware that the Catholic moral tradition frowns upon pre-marital sex? No, I suggest; it is not remotely likely that he doesn’t know this. He is aware of what the Catholic tradition says about this, and he doesn’t accept it. He finds it unpersuasive. Perhaps his rejection of this particular aspect of Catholic teaching leads him to cease identifying as a Catholic, or perhaps it doesn’t; you don’t say. But there are certainly a great many people who reject teaching on this matter, or on contraception, but comfortably affirm their Catholicism, and indeed practise it by the conventional metric of mass attendance.

      We are now in our second generation of Catholics who, to a substantial extent, find a good part of the church’s teaching on sexual matters unpersuasive. And this is not a situation which is going to be resolved by ever more insistent condemnations of fornication and contraception. I say nothing about how effective such a tactic might have been in the past, but it is certainly useless, if not counterproductive, today. If I find a statement unpersuasive, I do not find that it becomes more persuasive when repeated with greater force and volume, and why should I expect your young friend to react differently?

      I think part of the problem here is that those who are most enthusiastic about affirming traditional Catholic sexual morality are disproportionately prone to affirm it in a distinctly unappealing fashion. And I can’t avoid the suspicion that they are motivated in some cases not so much by faith as by puritanism. There are plenty of areas of modern life in which Catholic moral teaching is routinely disregarded, or implicitly or explicitly denied, by Catholics, but some people only seem to get worked up about this when sex is involved. Could it be that those who focus on the rejection of sexual morality in particular are themselves victims of the zeitgeist? They, too, share the modern obsession with sex, and so treat it as a matter central to Christian life and identity in a way that is, frankly, not supported by the gospel.

      I’m not saying that sex is trivial; far from it. But when I see people getting worked up about Catholic A, who sleeps with his girlfriend, while remaining unbothered about Catholic B, who advocates nuclear deterrence, and Catholic C, who denies that the gospels have anything to say about how we should treat refugees, I’m thinking that those peole are not motivated entirely by a passion for the gospel or for Catholic moral teaching. And, if I were your young friend, I would not be open to being evangelised by those people telling me how to conduct my sex life.

  5. Please, Perry, don’t assume I’m some crabby wowser, like a fifties stereotype of a ranter condemning “filth”…

    I agree with you that that young bloke would have known the bare fact of the Church saying “no sex before marriage”, but, having been through Catholic schooling myself, I can assure readers that there is a deafening silence about preparation for the vocation of marriage, and why intimacy is logically ordered to fulfilment in a lifelong exclusive relationship blessed by God; whereas the society around us insists upon the opposite message.

    The “official line” is treated in reality, even by priests, as an embarrassing point to be left unsaid and undefended – failing to see that it is actually a great good required for human flourishing (if one is not celibate), while the contrary, while superficially appealing, leads to all manner of bad outcomes for self and society.

    In Melbourne, Anna Krohn et al. in Anima, not to mention the JPII Institute mob and others, strive to promote the Good News about sex and marriage, and I know from friends of mine that they gave up sexual relationships to live chastely before marriage, since they realized this was right, having for the first time actually been formed in the Catholic view, rather than just having heard of it – and these had like me been to Catholic schools.

    As David mentioned to begin with, and as he insists upon quite rightly, Catholic catechesis is really in a very bad way: in too many areas, we’ve just given up and given in – if we really did believe it all to be Good News, we would act differently.

    Sexual morality is not the be-all and end-all of religion (beliefs about God are far more important, owing to the infinite dignity of their Subject – hence idolatry and false worship are much much worse sins than fornication), but realistically the vast shift away from traditional mores in this area is recognized by all as a most important and notable change in Western societies, so it would be idle to try and pass over it.

    And Perry, BTW, I can think of perfectly acceptable uses of nukes in warfare 🙂 so don’t set up straw men: next you’ll be condemning conservatives or those on the right, which is a form of discrimination after all…

    • Peregrinus

      Hi Joshua

      I really wish I’d stuck a “present company excepted” somewhere into my screed. My comments were not directed at you, or at any commenter on this blog, but more at the general tone of public discourse on this topic.

      I think part of the problem here is that a mature embrace of sexuality requires, well, a degree of maturity, and we live in a time of obsession with sex in which people are sexualised, psychologically as well as in terms of physical development, at earlier and earlier ages.

      I’m interested in what you say about friends who “gave up sexual activity to live chastely before marriage”; that may be easier to do when you are a bit more mature, and have a bit more life experience which enables you to put sexuality in some kind of context.

      For most of history, up to about a hundred and fifty years ago, young people reached physical sexual maturity at around the age of 16, at which age they were also considered marriageable, or nearly so, and they were largely married by eighteen or twenty. Thus the connection between sexuality and marriage was obvious, the period of sexual abstinence required in order to live chastely was not prolonged and the end of that period was mostly in relatively near sight, and the rewards of keeping your sexuality ordered towards marriage arrived in the relatively short term (though there were still more than a few babies born rather less than nine months after marriage).

      But today we reach physical maturity at around the age of 13, we live in a youth-obsessed culture which sees adolescence as a life-stage quite distinct from either childhood or adulthood and desirable in itself, and we do not expect to marry until we are in our late twenties – which, from the perspective of a teenager, is functionally equivalent to “never”. In this situation, a “no sex until married” moral norm makes a quite different set of demands on people, and we shouldn’t be that surprised if they respond to it differently – particularly if they are by definition immature people. In other words, the imperative to sexual abstinence that we preach today, although superficially similar, is in reality quite, quite different to the imperative to sexual abstinence that we preached for most of history.

      A couple of observations about this.

      1. I don’t suggest that because a moral norm is difficult to attain in a particular set of circumstances it therefore ceases to be a valid moral norm.

      2. Nevertheless these circumstances are an important and relevant part of the picture. I think it’s not a complete coincidence that the development of these circumstances is associated with:

      – increasing, sustained and eventually widespread rejection of traditional Christian ethics on sexuality, contraception, etc; and

      – increasing insistence on the significance and centrality of traditional Christian ethics on sexuality, contraception, etc.

      3. Current traditionalist discourse on this subject rarely acknowledges the changed circumstances in which young people are called to live chastely; this makes that discourse somewhat unreal, and also somewhat unhelpful.

      All of which is by way of saying, maybe your friends arrived at the practice of abstinent chastity when they could, and as a precursor to marriage. At an earlier age, with marriage a distant and hypothetical prospect, with the sexual urge ever-present and ever-powerful, and with the immaturity of the teenager, perhaps they simply couldn’t do this? I.e. it wasn’t so much that they weren’t formed to that, but that they weren’t open to be being formed to that?

      Can we do anything to change the circumstances in which people have to face this issue? Well, we could certainly try to create a less sex-obsessed culture for them. I don’t pretend to know how to do this, but there’s no reason in principle to think that it can’t be done. But, on some other points, there’s no going back. Earlier physical sexual maturity is the result of better health and nutrition. Later marriage is the result of more education and greater prosperity. And all these things are good in themselves, so we shouldn’t try to roll them back.

      I think what we are called to do is some prayerful and radical thinking about what it means to be chaste, and to live chastely, when you are a fully sexual person with no present prospect of marriage, and no vocation to celibacy. And then we need to think about how to help young people to grow to that point, and what to expect or demand of them while they are growing. But we have to acknowledge that there has been no previous period in history when advice to keep it in your pants for fifteen years or so has been generally effective for sustained periods of time, and a strategy which depends on it suddenly becoming effective is not likely to succeed.

      (And with respect to nuclear weapons, I don’t want to set up straw men, or for that matter to sidetrack. Yes, I can see theoretical applications of nuclear weapons which can be reconciled with Catholic moral principles. But I think that nuclear deterrence as in fact practised by the nuclear powers today is fundamentally inconsistent with Catholic moral teaching on the sanctity of life, and in particular on the intrinsic wrongness of an attack on innocent human life. I wouldn’t have raised the example if I though anyone seriously disagreed with this view. I chose nuclear deterrence and refugees, in fact, because these are both issues on which “traditional” Catholics have recently, in conversation with me, adopted distinctly unCatholic positions. But, if you are unhappy with either or both of the examples, I would still urge you to accept the basic argument; that, in certain quarters, departure from church teaching in matters related to sex attracts far more critical notice than departure from church teaching in matters unrelated to sex.)

  6. No worries, Perry!

    You make a very good point that oddly enough I’ve not heard before. It is so obvious as soon as you say it that this long gap between sexual maturity and marriage is fraught with difficulties.

    Of course, real strict maddie Traddies – I’m talking SSPX or sede vacantists here, not cuddly motu proprio types – believe one should become either a priest, brother, sister, or married, all as soon as possible!

    As the Apostle said, It’s better to marry than to burn. (!?)

    Some of the Theology of the Body devotees I know have come up with the perfect antidote to making any decision for or against any particular instantiation of marriage: to “discern” per omnia sæcula sæculorum. Some I suspect of awaiting an angel to come tell them what to do…

    (And yes, MAD does seem fundamentally immoral, since it would involve killing innocent people. Which reminds me of the old Cold War joke in Germany: What is a tactical nuclear weapon? One that lands on Germany!)

    • Peregrinus

      Some of the Theology of the Body devotees I know have come up with the perfect antidote to making any decision for or against any particular instantiation of marriage: to “discern” per omnia sæcula sæculorum. Some I suspect of awaiting an angel to come tell them what to do…

      Hmm. Aren’t they simply “canonising” the fear of commitment which we generally deplore in Generation X? My, but the zeitgeist rears its head in the oddest of places!

      Of course, real strict maddie Traddies – I’m talking SSPX or sede vacantists here, not cuddly motu proprio types – believe one should become either a priest, brother, sister, or married, all as soon as possible!

      A similar line is often taken by fundie Protestants – omitting, of course, the option of religious life. But perhaps they’re both being realistic here; given early sexual maturity and late marriage, we are pretty well unable to avoid a reappraisal of what chastity requires, and fundamentalism tries very hard to avoid reappraising anything.

      You make a very good point that oddly enough I’ve not heard before. It is so obvious as soon as you say it that this long gap between sexual maturity and marriage is fraught with difficulties.

      It’s not just fraught with difficulties; it requires reappraisal. Scripture and tradition are clear on the imperative to sexual morality but – with the conspicuous exception of adultery – rather vague on what behaviour is, or is not, sexually moral. Certainly in the OT period standards on this vary over time and circumstance, and if Jesus, or for that matter Paul, meant to “freeze” the categories of sexually moral actions according to the standards of their own time, they unaccountably failed to say so.

      I think there’s work to be done in nutting out what a call to chastity requires in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, and the (official) church isn’t doing a terribly good job in leading this work. The dominant courses seem to be (a) ignore the problem and say pretty much what was said two hundred years ago in rather different circumstances, or (b) say nothing. The result is that the work is being done from the ground up, as it were, by Christians who, not living within the protective walls of vowed celibacy, have no choice but to face the issue. They have to decide how to conduct their sexual lives with honestly, integrity, authenticity and fidelity.

      Theology of the Body is, I think, real attempt to get to grips with readdressing sexuality in the light of contemporary experiences and insights. It’s a bit too soon to say how effective or significant it is going to be, though. Thus far, it is still too much identified with just one man – and a man, moreover, who arouses strong feelings (positive and negative) for reasons unrelated to his sexual theology. We’ll see.

  7. You can’t escape the Zeitgeist.

    Hmmm, as David mentioned once, at an interfaith meeting of young Melbourne Catholics and Muslims, the former were nearly all unmarried, the latter nearly all married with children…

    Perhaps it is our society that has gone astray with its normalizing of late marriage.

    I must say, I always assumed that it was fairly obvious what sexual relations are improper – fornication et al. (as Scripture and Tradition, still reiterated by the Magisterium, put it – see the condemnations of many laxist propositions). May I ask what grey areas you are referring to?

    In any case, to ask crudely, as was done in the sixties, “How far can you go?” is to be asking the wrong question, since we should be about growing in virtue, to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, not just seeking to avoid mortal sin.

    • Peregrinus

      Ah, but what is “fornication”?

      So far as I know, it was a word expressly coined to translate Paul’s porneia, because they didn’t know exactly what the Greek word meant. It’s a coinage of Paul himself – so far as we know – and from the etymology it refers to sexual immorality, but it actually tells us nothing about what is sexually immoral. Paul kind of assumes that the reader already knows that.

      In modern English, “fornication” refers to sex between unmarried people, but this is because sex between unmarried people was generally condemned by Christian society at the time the English word was coined, so “everybody knew” that that must be what Paul was condemning, mustn’t it?

      In other words, we assume that by porneia Paul was condemning pre-marital sex because we already believe pre-marital sex to be immoral; we don’t believe it’s immoral because Paul condemned it.

      We can see from the OT that standards of sexual morality did in fact change over time, and there was certainly no general rule that sex outside of marriage was impermissible. If you couldn’t beget children with your wife, well, then, that was what handmaids (i.e. slaves) were for. If your brother died leaving a childless widow, well, you knew what you had to do. You could sleep with Holofernes in order to save Israel. There was no imperative to monogamy. And, if you were the King of the Israelites, not only were multiple wives the order of the day, but also multiple concubines.

      I’m not suggesting that these are the standards we should adopt. By the time of Christ, indeed, many of them had already disappeared and there was no suggestion that people should be going back to them. But, the point is, in the OT:

      – Sexual morality is important, but not central; it doesn’t receive anything like the attention that justice, or the duty of the rich to the poor, get.

      – Although sexual morality is important, the inherent morality of particular acts is not addressed – with the conspicuous exception, as I said before, of adultery.

      – Moral attitudes to particular matters – e.g. polygamy – changed with time and circumstances. In the time of Jesus, for example, Palestinian Jews did not practice polygamy. (Though Jews in Babylon did, and continued to do so until very nearly our own time. And neither community condemned the practice of the other.)

      I don’t see much in the NT to signal a change of direction. Sexual morality is still important. Adultery is still right out. And not a great deal is said about the specifics of other matters.

      It was quite a while, I believe, before the church saw marriage as something firmly within its province, and before it started to deny the reality of marriages not celebrated by it, or in accordance with its requirements. There was also a longish period when getting married was more of a process than an event. The process involved both (a) an exchange of vows, and (b) consummation, but not necessarily in that order. (Betrothal was frequently another step along the same journey, and one with a great deal more significance than our concept of engagement.) And consummation ahead of the vows was not necessarily condemned if it was part of an intentional journey towards that point. Attitudes to sex in those circumstances was quite different to attitudes to, say, patronising prostitutes, which was wrong though, with the exception of temple prostitutes, perhaps not quite as big a deal as it was later to become.

      This is all a bit hazy because for quite a few centuries Christian writers didn’t say a great deal about marriage and related issue of pre-marital sex. Until marriage became the exclusive business of the church, with the effective collapse of the Western Empire, and until the theology of marriage as a sacrament began to emerge, this wasn’t a topic that interested them quite so much.

      Over time I think there has been a shift in focus from marriage as a relationship to marriage as a ceremony; a “legalisation”, if you will, of church thinking about marriage. I think that probably reaches its height in the period after Trent, and may perhaps have begun to recede a little. I think the legalistic approach is coming under stress; we see this in, e.g., the bafflement which greets some marriage tribunal decisions and there’s a sense, at least from the ground up, that the way in which the church handles marriage issues is, if not quite broken, not quite working as it should either.

      All of which is a verbose way of saying that church understanding, thinking and practice on this issue is in a state of evolution, and in fact that it always has been. The notion of clear, simple and eternally valid moral rules (another form of “how far can you go”, in fact) is attractive but unreal. There are some questions to which there are clear, simple and immutable answers – adultery, again – but much depends on circumstance, consequences, prevailing standards, etc. Pre-marital sex is more to be condemned in a society with a purity culture, in which the situation of the woman (typically) is gravely harmed by pre-marital sex, but we do not live in such a society. (As in, even those who see pre-marital sex as wrong do not assume that a woman who is not a virgin is thereby damaged, devalued. If sex is a sin, it can be healed and forgiven like any other sin.) Nor do we live in a society in which single parenthood is the financial and practical catastrophe that it used to be, or in which bastardy is a stigma. And all these truths are part of the context in which we have to judge the morality of sexual actions. And of course I avoid any speculation about the significance of contraception for these issues, because that would open up a whole different discussion, and I have taken up too much of David’s bandwith already.

      I am not suggesting a free-for-all, or a wholehearted embrace of promiscuity. I am saying that people have no choice but to make moral decisions about how to live, sexually as well as in every other way, and they need a sexual ethic which is honest and faithful to scripture, tradition and the reality of their human experience. the widespread rejection of what the church currently offers is, I think, because it tends to fall at that last hurdle. This is not simple and we do people no service by pretending it is. Not is it fixed and immutable in every detail, and we do them no service by pretending it is.

      (Sorry, David, for taking up so much space. I promise to shut up now!)

      • There was also a longish period when getting married was more of a process than an event.

        That is almost certainly the case.

        However, marriage is a sacrament, according to Church teaching.

        By its teaching authority, the Church has wisely changed its rulings about the process of becoming married, in order to strengthen the union. These fall under Church Law.

        It is the Church alone who has the authority to make and change these rules as she sees fit, but at no time is she ever permitted to change the Laws of God.

        At no point has the Church ever justified adultery or fornication.

        The changes the Church has made about marriage over the centuries have, as far as I can tell, strengthened the sacrament.

        • And by “fornication” I mean the current usage of the word. I think we’d be hard pressed to find any point in history where the Church said it was just ducky for two non-married people to have sex with each other.

    • Perhaps it is our society that has gone astray with its normalizing of late marriage.

      I think it’s bizarre – utterly bizarre – that most people in our society are not settling down to married life by the time they are roughly in their mid-twenties.

      I am aiming that all my children will be prepared for any vocation the Lord calls them to by the time they are 21. If they are not prepared fairly well by that time or 25 at the latest (some studies apparently have indicated that the human brain matures between 18 – 25 years of age) I will consider my child-rearing to have been quite defective.

      I expect any of my children who are called to Holy Matrimony to do so at the opportune moment and not dither around. Studies and travel are all well and good (in their place) – but this societal inclination for prolonged adolescence is sickening.

      Provided they are sufficiently mature, I would be delighted with my children marrying or entering religious life in their early twenties, or the priesthood in their late 20s (given that it takes some 7 years to train).

  8. I must say, it seems to me that “to conduct… sexual lives with honestly, integrity, authenticity and fidelity” implies that the persons concerned must marry, since sexual intercourse per se, as surely the Church has always and everywhere taught and believed, is a chaste and holy act only within marriage, and not outside of it. Can you adduce counter-examples?

  9. Very erudite and interesting, Perry, but I think you implicitly downplay the living authority of the Church by basically saying that what is said is all very well but it doesn’t speak to modern man – as if he were a different species. Ironic, seeing as Vatican II and the new Mass allegedly sought to speak to modern man, but it seems both didn’t quite succeed! 😉

    I do believe there is a certain Catechism put forward as a sure guide in such matters…

    I do believe your approach suggests questions as an implied form of criticism of the Magisterium.

    I do believe you privilege Scripture over Tradition, slighting the latter.

    I do believe you neglect the very clear teaching of the approved authors and positive doctors, in the first place Aquinas, whose doctrine has been recognized for long centuries precisely as well-expressing the Church’s understanding.

    I do believe that the Vincentian canon applies here: change and continuity are both required.

    To argue that extra-marital sexual relations are somehow to be permitted is bad reasoning, turning aside from the long tradition of Catholic morality. By this method of argumentation anything desired could be justified, standing doctrine and mores on their head.

    And I think that philosophically there are clear, simple, eternally valid moral rules – such as the first principle of practical reasoning: do good and eschew evil. Else we fall into relativism.

    How do you avoid relativism? Your argument seems a classic piece of argument that what was wrong is now right.

    • Peregrinus

      Hi Joshua

      . . . I think you implicitly downplay the living authority of the Church by basically saying that what is said is all very well but it doesn’t speak to modern man – as if he were a different species.

      Well, that’s not what I’m trying to say. “Modern man” is not a different species. But I’m saying that issues of sexual morality are not being addressed in the context of modern circumstances.

      I do believe your approach suggests questions as an implied form of criticism of the Magisterium.

      Um. No, but I think I am (gently, I hope) criticising those who exercise the magisterium, for not addressing this issue. But you’ve made a very similar criticism yourself further up in this thread, where you say that the issue is “an embarrassing point to be left unsaid and undefended”. I think what you envisage them saying is not quite what I envisage them saying, but we are both critical of the fact that they are not saying it.

      I do believe you privilege Scripture over Tradition, slighting the latter.

      This has given me pause, I have to say. I have a couple of responses to it.

      1. Very possibly, yes, I am. But I’m raising questions here to which I do not have definite answers. Please bear in mind that when I ask “is such-and-such not the case?”, I’m quote open to the possibility that the right answer may be “no, it isn’t”.

      2. I’m sure you didn’t intend it that way, but I think we need to be careful of (i.e. to avoid) a discourse in which “scripture” is opposed to “tradition”. Scripture can’t slight tradition, and if tradition isn’t rooted in scripture then it isn’t really tradition.

      3. I also think we need to avoid assuming that “what we are used to” or “what we have always assumed” = “holy tradition”. And, as I said, thinking on sexual morality has already changed over time. What we stereotypically think of as :”traditional” sexual morality is very much a product of the modern age.

      I do believe you neglect the very clear teaching of the approved authors and positive doctors, in the first place Aquinas, whose doctrine has been recognized for long centuries precisely as well-expressing the Church’s understanding.

      Could be. As I say, I haven’t made this investigation myself. On the other hand, I don’t think we should read, e.g., Aquinas in isolation. We have to tie him back to scripture and the fathers, and into the wider theological tradition. I think what we need is a thorough exploration of tradition on this subject, and a consideration of what it means in current circumstances. That’s not they same as assuming without investigation that a particular set of rules regarding sexual behaviour – the ones that happen to have been offered to us when we were formed – are the last, best outcome of tradition on this point.

      I think that philosophically there are clear, simple, eternally valid moral rules – such as the first principle of practical reasoning: do good and eschew evil. Else we fall into relativism.

      How do you avoid relativism? Your argument seems a classic piece of argument that what was wrong is now right.

      Fair point. On the other hand, while what was wrong cannot become right, what we understand to be wrong can certainly come to be understood as right, and vice versa. We have to be open to new understandings of what is wrong and what is right in the light of experience, reflection and reason. We do not still have a first-century understanding of the moral status of slavery, for example, or of the moral requirements with respect to usury, because over time we have come, we think, to understand better what the gospel calls us to with respect to these issues. I think we are in a time, partly because of the factors I mentioned earlier in this thread, where we may be being called to a similar development in our thinking with respect to sexual morality.

      • Thanks for your courteous reply, Perry – you will note I was perhaps a bit agitated…

        You wrote: …“Modern man” is not a different species. But I’m saying that issues of sexual morality are not being addressed in the context of modern circumstances.

        Well, isn’t that to beg the question somewhat? Here we must distinguish…

        You went on to say: … I think I am (gently, I hope) criticising those who exercise the magisterium, for not addressing this issue… we are both critical of the fact that they are not saying it.

        Yes, those exercising the Magisterium (most bishops for example) don’t address this pressing modern conundrum nearly enough. A wag once said every generation gets the preaching it DOESN’T need: thus God-fearing purists of old got sermons reminding them of the narrow path that leads to life and the Dread Majesty of the Almighty, and we lax Pelagians get sermons about being kind and helpful and caring of the environment – when really each group actually needs reminding, not of what it already practises, but of what it has omitted.

        You wrote: …Please bear in mind that when I ask “is such-and-such not the case?”, I’m quote open to the possibility that the right answer may be “no, it isn’t”.

        Ah, no worries!

        You wrote: 2. I’m sure you didn’t intend it that way, but I think we need to be careful of (i.e. to avoid) a discourse in which “scripture” is opposed to “tradition”. Scripture can’t slight tradition, and if tradition isn’t rooted in scripture then it isn’t really tradition.

        Indeed and of course.

        You wrote: I don’t think we should read, e.g., Aquinas in isolation. We have to tie him back to scripture and the fathers, and into the wider theological tradition.

        Yes, absolutely!

        How do you avoid relativism? Your argument seems a classic piece of argument that what was wrong is now right.

        You wrote: …. while what was wrong cannot become right, what we understand to be wrong can certainly come to be understood as right, and vice versa. We have to be open to new understandings of what is wrong and what is right in the light of experience, reflection and reason.

        Quite true.

  10. What does this say about how well we are forming people for the vocation of marriage in Australia today?

    It says clearly that Catholic formation has been a complete dog’s breakfast these 40 years or so. That’s about half a lifetime, people.

    It won’t be fixed in a hurry.

    I’m inclined to think that bishops should simply cut loose most of the “Catholic” schools and let them become independent schools, with the requirement that they change their names to a non-religious name and not in any way shape or form pretend to the title “Catholic.”

    They could keep a few running as Catholic schools, provided they can get all the practicing, orthodox Catholic teachers into those schools.

    The next best suggestion I have is to raze them all to the ground.

  11. I think the concept of the Magisterium needs to be more carefully examined.

    Strictly, those who have the Magisterium are the bishops of the Catholic Church. In common parlance, it is restricted to Papal pronouncements (since the Archbishops of Lusaka or Colombo, for instance, are not in the habit of giving public addresses on doctrinal subjects, nor of issuing encyclical letters to their provinces). Unfortunately, the old episcopal custom of writing “pastorals” has largely died out. Their place has not been filled by episcopal conference propaganda – since these are less than the sum of their parts, unlike, say, the decrees of provincial synods of old.

    But most folk receive only the preaching of their local clergy – which, to be frank, is not generally of high standard. I would not equate the Magisterium with the pronouncements of any priest. But priests ought be keeping their parishioners informed about what the Church teaches, not just going on ad nauseam without saying much of interest.

    I have been lucky in my short life to have heard good solid preaching, but I have also realized that this is not very widespread.

  12. We come full circle: as a bishop I know stated, he realized in the early nineteen-seventies that catechesis was in dire straits, and the situation has remained parlous ever since, I would add.

    The problem is not, I believe wholeheartedly, with the teachings of the Church on this or indeed on any other issue – the problem, to misquote Chesterton, is that religious and moral doctrine is not being proposed, nor being intelligently, forcibly, persuasively set forth, justified and explained for the acceptance of the faithful, who therefore have no real chance of following it as they hear so little about it or why on earth it should be followed.

  13. Peregrinus

    As I see the magisterium, it’s not any one person or group of people. Nor is it a particular document or collection of documents. The magisterium is the teaching authority of the church. The pope exercises the magisterium, of course, but he does not exercise it alone; the episcopacy, as a body, also exercise the magisterium of the church. Likewise, teaching authority may be exercised through encyclicals or council decrees, but not just through them.

    The homilies of my parish priest are not normally considered an exercise of the magisterium. Nor are the writings of theologians. Nevertheless, what goes on in my parish church or yours is not irrelevant. The magisterium is not exercised in a vacuum. The Holy Spirit does not appear to the pope or the bishops in the form of a dove and tell them what to way, or what documents to affix a “magisterial” rubber stamp to. When bishops – including the pope – want to know what to teach, they do what we might expect. They look to scripture. They look to the fathers, and to the wider and deeper tradition. They look to their brother bishops, past and present. They look to the lived experience of their own churches. They pray, they listen, they study, they reason, they reflect, they talk, they pray again.

    There is a constant and continuing discourse within the church involving every member of the church – every member of the communion of saints, indeed. Out of this reasoning and reflecting and experiencing emerges the faith of the church, which is authoritatively declared by the church, through the bishops and the pope.

    In a thread above, David comments on the difficulties of a church whose teaching is articulated though quite formalised and rigid democratic procedures. The Catholic church has no such procedures for the articulation of doctrine, but this does not mean that doctrine originates with the bishops and is handed to the faithful. The bishops are not supposed to tell us what they believe or what they think, but what the church believes and thinks, and they can only discern this by listening to the church.

    This does not mean, of course, that they take the opinion of the faithful in the pews at the moment and declare it to be the teaching of the church. The church is eternal and transcendent, and does not consist simply of the people who happen to be in the pews this week, or this year. The fact remains, though, that the bishops are part of a greater whole, their own churches and the universal church, and listening to the church requires listening to the ideas of theologians, the experiences and insights of individual Christians and Christian communities, etc. Where is a bishop to hear the voice of the Spirit speaking today, if not in his own church? And this then feeds into the wider discourse of which magisterial teachings are the eventual fruit.

    So a model in which magisterial teachings are handed from the Spirit to the Pope, and from the Pope to the bishops, and from the bishops to us, is flawed. The magisterium, the authority to teach, comes from the church, the Body of Christ, and so do the specific teachings which are proclaimed.

    And I think a failure to respect this reality can lead not just to theological problems, but to pastoral problems. If a particular expression of a doctrine is not being “intelligently, forcibly and persuasively set forth” for the church at large, we should consider whether this might be because it is so far disconnected from the experiences, insights and reality of the church that it simply cannot be set forth forcibly and persuasively – that particular expression of doctrine lacks all force, and has no power to persuade, because it is disconnected from the lived faith of the church. A priest or bishop can set it out as intelligently as he likes, but unless it emerges from and is informed by the faith of the church it will never be persuasive.

  14. siena

    Louise. Thank you for cutting to the chase – for the chaste. It is quite clear our clerics and educators have dropped the ball and it is perhaps the homeschoolers and diligent, traditional Catholics who will keep the light of the gospel alive in this age of selfishness.
    Liberal views and Catholicism are incompatible.
    The former deny the sovereignty of Christ and his exhortation to go and sin no more.
    Catholic liberals “sin with their eyes open”….to quote Fr Felix Sarda y Salvana, from his book Liberalism is a Sin!
    Young people are capable of curbing their passions and developing strength of character. Why is it that academics excuse their adolescent passions? Surely this only leads to an extended adolescence.