Concerning sex, marriage, babies, pews and the rise of the 'nones'

Researchers studying religion in America have long observed a kind of faith-based law of gravity: While young people often stray, most return to the pews after they get married and have children.

But something new is happening, especially among the "nones" -- the growing ranks of individuals who declare themselves "unaffiliated," when it comes to religious life. While researchers have dissected their political views, now it's time to focus on their actions linked to marriage and children.

"We have always known that family size is related to religiosity. The more devout people are the more likely they are to get married and have a higher number of children," said John Green of the University of Akron, a veteran researcher on faith and public life.

But Americans born after the 1960s have been shaped by storms of change linked to sexuality and marriage. For them, noted Green, contraception and abortion are normal parts of the American way of life. Cohabitation rates keep rising and people tend to marry later than in the past. Thus, they are older if and when they choose to have children.

It's time to probe the impact of these trends on religion, said Green, in a telephone interview. He was reacting to the Pew Research Center's massive 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study, released on Nov. 3.

"You used to be able to say that the young would drift away from the faith of their youth, but then they would get married and have kids and that would pull them back … or maybe they would choose some other faith," he said. "The assumption was that marriage and family change people and they get more religious as they get older.

"Maybe what we're seeing now is that it's the faith component that is actually driving the actions of the young people who are choosing to get married and to have children in the first place. …

Cohabitation, Confession, Communion

For generations, people in pews knew what to call it when folks "shacked up" before marriage -- "living in sin." "Sin" is a harder word to use, today.

The Catholic archbishop of Santa Fe, N.M., recently raised eyebrows with a mere letter reminding his flock that cohabitation is a grave sin that Catholics must take to confession or there will be eternal consequences. Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan's priests read his sobering words from their pulpits on April 3, the fourth Sunday of Lent -- the penitential season before Easter.

Those who cohabit, stressed Sheehan, are "objectively living in a state of mortal sin and may not receive Holy Communion. They are in great spiritual danger. At the best ... they are ignorant of God's plan for man and woman. At the worst, they are contemptuous of God's commandments and His sacraments. ...

"Often their plea is that they 'cannot afford a church wedding' i.e. the external trappings, or that 'what difference does a piece of paper make?' -- as if a sacramental covenant is nothing more than a piece of paper! Such statements show religious ignorance, or a lack of faith and awareness of the evil of sin."

In addition to forbidding known cohabiters from receiving Communion, Sheehan urged priests to avoid public scandal by refusing to commission them to serve Communion. After all, he said, "one commits the sin of sacrilege by administering a Sacrament in the state of mortal sin."

Also, priests should prevent those who cohabitate from serving as godparents for baptisms and confirmations, since the documents for these rites say it's "critical for the sponsor to be a practicing Catholic." How, Sheehan added, "can anyone be seriously called a practicing Catholic who is not able to receive the sacraments because they are living in sin?"

This latest Communion controversy is not taking place in a vacuum. American bishops continue to debate whether or not to deny Holy Communion to Catholic politicians who reject church teachings on hot-button issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

At the same time, Catholic leaders are making special efforts -- especially during Lent -- to draw Catholics back to confession or, as it is now known, the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. After all, a 2008 study at Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found that 45 percent of American Catholics say they never go to confession and 12 percent say they go once a year. A generation or two after many Catholics lined up for confession on a weekly or monthly basis, a mere 2 percent say they participate in this sacrament once a month or more.

This is the context for Sheehan's letter, which raised additional issues central to the day-to-day lives of thousands of priests, parents and parish leaders. How should priests handle cohabitating couples that seek premarital counseling? Can these couples attend "Pre-Cana" programs for the engaged? How do priests convince these Catholics to seek forgiveness when they don't believe they are sinning?

Good luck with that, said commentator Heidi Schlumpf of the National Catholic Reporter. She gave Sheehan's letter a quick thumbs down, calling it a mere attempt to fire up traditionalists.

"I'm struck how un-persuasive this letter is," she wrote, online. "But then I wonder if that is its purpose. It seems Sheehan has no real interest in persuading or teaching, but rather only punishing those who disagree with him. Oh, and making those who already agree with him happy for 'laying down the law.' "

Father John Zuhlsdorf, author of the popular "What Does the Prayer Really Say?" weblog, stressed that the Santa Fe statement was blunt, but that silence and timidity would be even worse. The key, he said, is that Archbishop Sheehan dared to defend church teachings to the Catholics who are under this care.

"In this age of 'I'm OK, you're OK,' a bishop risks being called mean and uncompassionate if he does anything other than remain silent or wring his hands," said Zuhlsdorf, a former Lutheran who is completing his doctorate at the Patristic Institute "Augustinianum" in Rome.

"So how do you defend doctrines that many people think are offensive without committing what many people believe is the ultimate sin, which is offending people? ... Yet this is what bishops are supposed to do -- defend the teachings of the church. All of them. The whole package."

Mama says, 'Go to church'

Here's a rather predictable news flash: American mothers want the fathers of their children to stick around, help with the kids and go to church. There's something else that united the participants in "Mama Says," a recent survey from the National Fatherhood Initiative -- 93 percent of them believe America is suffering from what researchers called a "father absence crisis." An earlier survey by the non-partisan group found that 91 percent of American fathers affirm that stark judgment.

The survey didn't include many religious questions, but the role of faith in American homes and marriages kept rising to the surface.

"What the religious questions revealed to us is that the mothers who were the most religious were consistently the mothers who were the most satisfied with the jobs that their men were doing as fathers," said Vincent DiCaro of the National Fatherhood Initiative, which is based in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. "If you look at the whole survey, it's clear that mothers think that strong religious values help dads be better dads."

If there was a surprise in the survey, he said, it was the high value that American mothers in general placed on "churches and other communities of faith" when it came time to name resources that could help fathers improve their parenting skills.

As expected, "very religious" mothers were strongly pro-church. However, the value of fathers seeking parenting help from religious institutions also received a "very important" nod from 72 percent of the mothers who said they were "not very religious" and from 58 percent of those who called themselves "not at all religious."

The "very religious" mothers in this survey were different in other ways, too.

They were more likely -- 69 percent compared to 51 percent for others -- to believe that mass media consistently portray fathers in a negative light.

The "very religious" mothers also seemed to value what the researchers called "communitarian" values, while less religious respondents offered more "individualistic" views on parenting issues. This was consistent with the views of "very religious" fathers in an earlier study.

Finally, added DiCaro, the mothers who identified themselves as "very religious" were the ones "who continue to believe that the role that fathers play in the home is irreplaceable. ... The really religious mothers are the only group that still feels that way, which is certainly a comment about how many people view fathers in America, today."

Since the survey focused on the beliefs and perceptions of mothers, it didn't provide new information about the actual role that religious faith plays in the faithfulness and effectiveness of the fathers themselves, both in their roles as parents and husbands. It did not attempt to show cause and effect.

"Still, it is of some interest that the higher the religiosity of the mother, the higher, on average, was her evaluation of the parenting of the father," noted sociologist Norval Glenn of the University of Texas, one of the authors of the final report. "I think it is reasonable to assume that the reason for that is that the more religious mothers generally were, or had been, married to men who were also high in religiosity.

"This relationship held even when the parents were no longer living together, and this suggests that religiosity helps men be better fathers even when they don't live with their children or the mothers of their children."

Woven through the entire study was the painful reality that, for many American mothers, brokenness has become the new reality in their homes.

For example, 84 percent of married mothers said they were "very or somewhat satisfied" with the parenting of the fathers they were evaluating. However, that number sank to 23 percent when the mothers and fathers were not living together. This is, the researchers concluded, the reason why the rate of satisfaction that African-American mothers expressed when evaluating fathers was only half that of white mothers.

It is easy to find the bottom line in this survey, said DiCaro.

"It is undeniable that the most satisfied mothers were those who had fathers who were living with them, under the same roof with their children," he said. "Once again, marriage is the great equalizer, and that's true for blacks, whites, Latinos and everybody. It certainly equalizes how fathers do as fathers, at least in the eyes of the mothers."

Missionary cohabitating, Part II

From the pulpit, the typical pastor can see all kinds of people whose ears will burn during a sermon about what used to be called "living in sin."

There will be a few young adults who are cohabitating, as well as many moms and dads whose children quietly share street addresses with their significant others. There will be smiling couples the pastor married without asking many personal questions. There may be one or two divorced deacons with skeletons in their closets.

Few ministers have the courage to risk offending these people, said Scott Stanley of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. Pastors are afraid that if they preach on cohabitation many people will get mad and that some will hit the exits.

"Pastors are getting very gun shy when it comes to issues of marriage, family and sex," he said. "Certainly, cohabitation would be right at the top of a list of these issues, along with premarital sex. They are so tired of getting beat up because they have hurt people's feelings.

"So they just give up and what you hear is silence from the church. All people are hearing are the 'Go!' signals from the media and the culture."

This silence seems to be having an effect, especially with women, according to a study by Stanley and his colleagues Sarah Whitton and Howard Markman.

The researchers found -- as expected -- that deeply religious men are much less likely to cohabitate before saying their vows. But, to their surprise, they learned that religious women are just as likely to move in before marriage as non-religious women.

These religious women probably think they are being cautious and "testing" their relationships. They may be convinced that they have to cohabitate in order to compete for love in this day and age. Some may believe that they will eventually be able to convert their live-in lovers to a traditional view of faith, marriage and family.

"Truth is, a woman gains nothing" by cohabitating before marriage, said journalist Michael McManus, author of "Marriage Savers: Helping Your Friends and Family Stay Married." Whatever their rationalizations, these women "are just being fools. ... Too many women today are allowing themselves to be used as playmates," he said.

Some church leaders, said McManus, have fallen silent on this issue because they no longer believe that sex outside of marriage is sin. Their silence is understandable. It is harder to understand the silence in so many congregations -- Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox -- that still affirm centuries of Judeo-Christian teachings on sexual morality.

Yet that silence is real. The "Marriage Savers" network ( is active in 163 cities and towns in 39 states and, wherever he travels to speak, McManus said he never sees more than one or two hands raised when he asks, "How many of you have ever heard a sermon on cohabitation?"

McManus is convinced most pastors simply do not know that 5 million unmarried Americans are living together. More than 60 percent of couples cohabitate before marriage. Pastors do not know that these women face higher levels of depression and lower levels of communication and commitment. They are more than 60 percent more likely to be assaulted and their children are endangered, as well.

Data from the University of Wisconsin provides a painful bottom line: couples that cohabit before marriage increase their odds of divorce by 50 percent. Researchers found that only 15 out of every 100 cohabitating couples were married after a decade.

The goal is not to attack couples with these numbers, said McManus. The goal is to warn them and to offer them mentors, in the form of married couples who understand the challenges that are ahead. The church needs to reach out to young people while they are dating, before the pressures built to live together. Parents need this information, too.

"We need to set a high standard, but we can do that in a loving way," he said. "What the church has done is collapse its standards. The modern church is -- by its silence -- giving young couples nothing to aspire to. They need a higher goal."

Missionary cohabitating, Part I

Church people have a name for what happens when young believers get romantically involved with unbelievers.

They call it "missionary dating," usually with one eyebrow raised in skepticism. Most of these relationships involve a good girl who is convinced that, with time, she can help a bad boy see the error of his ways and learn to walk the straight and narrow path.

Times have changed. According to new research, a surprising number of females have graduated from "missionary dating" to "missionary cohabitating."

"My theory is that women are willing to make sacrifices for their partners, once they have become emotionally attached," said researcher Scott Stanley, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. "They're willing to make compromises to try to hang on to the relationship. Men won't do that. ...

"These girls are probably thinking, 'He's not perfect. But I love him and I can help him change.' Meanwhile, we know what the guys are thinking. They're thinking, 'I'm not sure she is the one I want. She's not my soul mate. But she'll do for now.' "

What is fascinating is that women who say they are deeply religious are just as likely to live with men before marriage as women who are not, wrote Stanley, Sarah Whitton and Howard Markman. Their work is summarized in "Maybe I Do: Interpersonal Commitment and Premarital or Non-Marital Cohabitation," written for the Journal of Family Issues.

Meanwhile, they found that men with strong religious beliefs are much less likely to cohabitate before marriage than non-religious men.

As a rule, people who lived together before marriage were less religious than those who refused to do so. Religious believers also said they were more committed to the institution of marriage. This is precisely what Stanley and the members of the University of Denver team expected to find as they interviewed 908 people who were married, engaged or cohabitating.

What surprised them was the sharp contrast between the choices made by religious women and religious men.

Do the math. There are currently more than 5 million unmarried American couples living together. Somewhere, there are a lot of religious women who have taken "missionary dating" to a whole new level. They seem to think that they can evangelize the men in their beds.

Meanwhile, Stanley and his colleagues are convinced that women who want solid, "until death do us part" marriages should be on the lookout for men who have strong religious beliefs, who are deeply committed to the institution of marriage and who, as a matter of conviction, reject cohabitation.

That may sound obvious, but it was in the data. If religious women want the odds on their side, they have to hunt for men who are willing to rebel against the conventional wisdom of this age.

"Given that 60 percent or more of couples now live together prior to marriage," wrote Stanley, Whitton and Markman, it seems that "not living together prior to marriage is becoming unconventional. From such a viewpoint, the unconventional couples who do not live together prior to marriage may be the couples with the more dedicated and religious males."

These unique religious males appear to be trying to "preserve the maximum differentiation between marriage and non-marriage. ... In the context of societal trends that increasingly blur the lines between cohabitation and marriage, this stance would represent the new unconventionality."

Stanley said that his team's research parallels other studies on one key point. Millions of young Americans are terrified of divorce and, thus, want to be careful before tying the knot. Young men seem to grasp that marriage does require major sacrifices, sacrifices that many are not willing to make.

Thus, they use cohabitation as a stalling device.

"Young men and women have accepted the message from their culture -- a message that is not supported by the data -- that cohabitation is a good way to prepare for marriage," he said. "They believe that they are in training for marriage. They are in training, but it seems that cohabitating is training them to develop exit strategies for getting out of relationships, including their marriages."