Just as in Jesus' time, it is difficult to reconcile Jesus' teaching about divorce with our society. With divorce rates around 50%, Jesus would say to us that our marriages are a mess "because of the hardness of our hearts."
During my lifetime, I have seen a dramatic change in attitudes toward marriage and divorce. In the 50's and 60's, divorce was somewhat rare and there were few single parent families. It was a much simpler time and many people listened to and respected the Catholic Church.
Then, came the sexual revolution and things rapidly changed. Much of this change was driven by the birth control pill. As the pill was rapidly accepted throughout all segments of society in the 70's and 80's, we witnessed an interesting and troubling phenomenon. As the percent of women using the birth control pill grew, the percentage of marriages ending in divorce grew at approximately the same rate. Unfortunately, this was true in Catholic marriages also. There was little difference between the percentage of marriages ending in divorce for non-Catholics and Catholics. in both groups, the number peaked and has stayed around 50%.
In July 1968, Pope Paul VI wrote a short prophetic encyclical: Humanae Vitae. This encyclical said the marital act must be unitive (two become one) and procreative (life-giving). The encyclical also said that if artificial birth control is widely accepted, we would see an increase in divorces, abortions, pornography, and spouse and child abuse. We would also see governments interfering in this area and unnatural methods of creating life. Unfortunately, all of these predictions, which were considered to be ridiculous when the encyclical was written, have proven to be true.
This encyclical was not understood or accepted by most Catholics. In fact, even some theologians, priests, and bishops rejected it. It was just too counter-cultural for many people to embrace. Because of this, the birth control pill was widely used by Catholic women. It was not difficult to find a priest who said that this was OK.
Fortunately, some Catholic couples have continued to follow church teaching as outlined in Humanae Vitae. The divorce rate among these couples is under 5%. Many of them are using Natural Family Planning or NFP to space their children. This has about the same effectiveness rate as the pill. It has proven to be very effective in helping them either achieve or avoid pregnancy. And many of our priestly vocations have come from these families. My wife and I taught NFP for many years. We witnessed many couples whose marriages were blessed and strengthened, including ours, as a result of using NFP.
Today, we are witnessing another troubling trend. Many couples are choosing not to get married and just live together. They figure, why bother, since it will just end in divorce, like we see with so many of our friends.
So, today, let us pray for all married couples. Let us pray that we have the courage to live and to embrace our marriage covenant. Through our marriage, we are meant to live a covenant which is free, total, faithful, and fruitful and which images Christ's love for His Church. Let us live our marriage covenant with joy and encourage other couples to do the same.