How to compare Mormon and Catholic teaching on marriage?

This post began as a comment to a post of Bruce Charlton’s titled “The traditional Christian concept of marriage is too weak“.

One of Bruce’s main points in the post is that the traditional Christian concept of marriage denigrates marriage, since it considers celibacy to be a higher state. In a comment Bruce also wrote, “Is it … surprising that Mormons are doing so much better a job of speaking out in defence of marriage, getting married, getting married young, staying married and having children, and having more than two children – than are Catholics?”

In response to which I wrote, in substance[1], the following:

In asserting that the traditional Christian view of marriage denigrates marriage, you are assuming the truth and validity of the LDS view.

If the default view of marriage were that it was for eternity, and then someone came along and said it should only be for this life, then you might be “denigrating” it by taking something that is properly eternal and making it merely temporal. But if it’s properly temporal, then calling it temporal is just calling it what it is, which does not denigrate it. You might say that calling it eternal magnifies or exalts it, but not-exalting something is not the same as denigrating it.

(Of course, even the LDS Church allows for merely temporal marriages, as well as temporal divorce. Temple-sealed marriages are held up as the ideal, but not as essential to marriage as far as I can tell (I welcome correction if I’m wrong of course). See, e.g., the article titled “Divorce” from the Mormon Encyclopedia, posted on the BYU library website.)

In the Catholic view, celibacy is a higher state because it requires giving up natural human goods in order to devote oneself entirely to God. This makes perfect sense within the whole Catholic context. Yet this doesn’t denigrate marriage. In the same way, giving away one’s money is a higher state than keeping it, yet that doesn’t denigrate keeping your money, as if you should be ashamed of yourself for having a checking account. And again, turning the other cheek is a higher state than fighting to defend yourself or your property; yet fighting in self-defense is by no means considered a bad thing.

As far as why the LDS Church does a better job at getting Mormons to obey Church teaching (granting for the sake of argument that that’s true), I don’t think that can be ascribed so simply to its teaching being superior. As discussed before, we’re comparing apples and oranges: The Catholic Church and the LDS Church are too different in too many ways to make direct statistical comparisons. There may be more Mormons, proportionately, who obey their Church’s teachings, but I contend that Catholics who obey their Church’s teachings find them just as fulfilling and derive as much benefit from doing so.

Asking why more Catholics don’t do it, is like asking why more people don’t stop sinning when living virtuously makes you so much happier. There are a lot of reasons why people don’t obey the Church, and a lot of reasons why the Church doesn’t do a better job of conveying its teachings effectively. But neither of these leads necessarily to the conclusion that the teachings themselves are wrong or inferior.

Bruce, in this post and elsewhere on his blog, seems to judge LDS teaching on marriage superior to the Catholic understanding (and that of other Christians), based on things like the divorce rate and how many children the average Mormon couple has, compared with Catholics. But all that tells us is that the LDSC is better at getting Mormons to obey its teaching on marriage (if even that). The efficaciousness of a church’s teaching has to be judged, not by the overall rate of compliance with the teaching, but by the effect the teaching has on those who obey it. It’s fallacious to compare a group with (to pick numbers out of my head) 70% compliance, to a group with 25% compliance, because then you’re comparing a bunch of people who obey their church’s teachings, on the one hand, with people who disobey their church’s teachings on the other. Your conclusion then amounts to something like, “Mormon teaching is better because obedient Mormons steal less than disobedient Catholics.”

When you find large numbers of Catholics getting divorced or having one or no children due to using birth control, what you have are large numbers of disobedient Catholics. Whereas it’s been my observation that Catholics who obey those teachings have just as stable, happy and fruitful marriages as any Mormon.

You may ask the question whether Mormon teachings are more conducive to being obeyed than Catholic teachings, and why (because easier? more inspiring?), and those are legitimate questions. But they can’t be answered by comparing divorce statistics and birth rates of a 2,000-year-old church[2] with over a billion members spread throughout the world, with a 180-year-old church with around 14 million members, nearly half of whom live in the United States, and a sixth of whom live in a single state (Utah of course). Correlation doesn’t equal causation.

[1] Bruce edited my comment before posting it, allowing only about half of it to appear. I don’t know why he felt it needed redacting. Maybe it was just too darned long.

[2] If you dispute that the Catholic Church is 2,000 years old, as undoubtedly many Mormons would, I think one can say without fear of reasonable contradiction that it has existed continuously for at least 1,500 years.

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18 thoughts on “How to compare Mormon and Catholic teaching on marriage?

  1. *The efficaciousness of a church’s teaching has to be judged, not by the overall rate of compliance with the teaching, but by the effect the teaching has on those who obey it.*

    I see your point, but as you admit later on, given two sets of teachings that both lead to good real-world outcomes when obeyed, the fact that one set of teachings seems to ‘take’ more can’t be ignored. Otherwise you get a kind of No True Scotsman fallacy, where you say that socialism hasn’t been proved inferior to freedom because all actual socialist countries weren’t obeying the parts of socialism that say you should be nice to people and prosperous.

    In fact, both Mormonism and Catholicism have Christ’s injunction to be perfect, so we can both easily say that any failings at all in either church are just because people aren’t obeying the teachings.

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  2. I agree with you for the most part.

    If it were found that Mormon marriages are more stable and fruitful than Catholic marriages among people of the same level of participation and devotion to their faith, then I might suspect that the Mormon teaching on marriage, per se, was the reason why. However I would be quite surprised to find that that was the case; partly due to my own observations of devout and obedient Catholics; but also because marriages in Joseph Smith’s time generally were far more stable and fruitful than they are today, and that was the result of the cultural residue of the traditional Christian teaching on marriage, not the Mormon teaching, which was just then taking root.

    If, as you say, “given two sets of teachings that both lead to good real-world outcomes when obeyed,” we find that one is obeyed more, the question then becomes, why the members of one group are more obedient than members of the other. This, of course, is a different question, and one worth looking into. However as I said, I don’t think it can be answered by simply comparing statistics, since the groups being compared differ so extremely in so many ways.

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    • All I can say, Ag., is that while I have found Catholic theological thinking on the body and on marriage to be a helpful and inspiring complement to what I already know from the faith, I know more Catholics who are attracted by the Mormon marriage culture than vice versa.

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    • Here’s an example of what I mean: Let us suppose that people who marry within their religion are more likely to remain active in it. Let us also suppose that the percentage of Mormons who marry within their religion is greater than the percentage of Catholics who do. I have a strong suspicion that both of these supposals are accurate. We might reasonably surmise that the Mormon teaching on marriage that emphasizes marrying within the faith and forbids temple marriage to mixed-faith couples has something to do with it.

      I don’t think it will kill you to admit that Mormon teaching can lead to superior outcomes in some areas. Since mortality always involves trade-offs and imperfection, it seems to me highly unlikely that any mortal institution, even a divinely-founded one, would be superior to every other mortal institution by every reasonable metric.

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  3. It is my loss that you and I don’t know each other personally, I’ll admit that. But I can’t concede that my family and friends are not the finest people on earth.

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  4. Adam writes, “I don’t think it will kill you to admit that Mormon teaching can lead to superior outcomes in some areas.”

    I have no problem admitting that Mormon teaching can lead to better outcomes in some areas. Without any offense intended, I just can’t see assigning a cause-and-effect relationship between the Mormon teaching on eternal marriage in particular, and comparative marriage outcomes (by which I mean, basically, divorce and birth rates).

    As I’ve said before, I think the LDSC has a far more cohesive culture among its members, which I attribute largely to its strong “central command” structure. The LDSC in the main has the same moral standards as other Christian churches. When the United States as a whole had a strong Christian consensus in matters of marriage, divorce and sex, the U.S. also had better marriage outcomes than it has now (maybe even better than modern LDS outcomes?).

    What the LDSC has managed to do is maintain that consensus on a smaller scale; sort of a “sub-societal” consensus. So I attribute LDS outcomes primarily to its maintaining traditional Christian moral standards, combined with a strong cultural cohesiveness. In other words, in my humble opinion, LDS outcomes would be just as good due to these other factors, even without the teaching on eternal marriage. (My opinion is also partly based on my anecdotal experience of devout Catholics with outstanding marriage outcomes without belief in eternal marriage.)

    The Catholic Church in recent decades was not able to maintain that same level of cohesiveness for various reasons, but largely due to its more diffused command structure: Local bishops have more autonomy in the Catholic Church, and theologians have a fair amount of autonomy even from bishops. Unfortunately, you don’t have a situation where the Pope speaks and everyone in the chain of command can be relied upon to obey or be replaced. If it were otherwise, I suspect Catholic outcomes would be better.

    Pope Benedict has spoken of the possibility of having, in the future, a smaller but more dedicated Church. As I understand it this would be the result of the Pope and bishops laying down the law (as they did in the case of modernism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), without being so worried about alienating liberal and lukewarm Catholics. I think they have hesitated to go this route for fear of causing schism. But I wholeheartedly believe that it is the tack to take, and the sooner the better. Then again, what do I know?

    Since this is a structure that has developed over centuries, I’m not sure I can wish that the CC would adopt a structure more like the LDSC’s. I’m not sure that there might not be reasons why the CC’s structure is better. But I do admit that the LDSC’s structure has, so far, resulted in better outcomes in some areas (though I reserve the right to dispute precisely how much better they are, due to ambiguities in the statistics, mainly pinning down who is included in the population “Catholics” and the population “Mormons” and whether that results in a fair comparison).

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    • All very well, except that in the part of my comment that you don’t reply to, I think I’ve advanced a pretty good argument for why Mormon marriage culture in particular is part of our current comparative success.

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  5. “All very well, except that in the part of my comment that you don’t reply to, I think I’ve advanced a pretty good argument for why Mormon marriage culture in particular is part of our current comparative success.”

    I didn’t mean to leave part of it unresponded-to. I thought I was responding to its main thrust.

    I believe this is the part you’re saying I didn’t respond to:

    “Here’s an example of what I mean: Let us suppose that people who marry within their religion are more likely to remain active in it. Let us also suppose that the percentage of Mormons who marry within their religion is greater than the percentage of Catholics who do. I have a strong suspicion that both of these supposals are accurate. We might reasonably surmise that the Mormon teaching on marriage that emphasizes marrying within the faith and forbids temple marriage to mixed-faith couples has something to do with it.”

    It sounds like you’re saying that the teaching that Mormons should only marry other Mormons has something to do with keeping people active in the Mormon faith.

    I’m sure it does have something to do with it. That would seem to be part of the strong cultural cohesion that I talked about. But I still wonder whether it’s a cause or an effect. In other words, it makes sense that the teaching would lead to that outcome. But why do people obey the teaching in the first place? My theory is that you’ve got a community that is tightly wound around the center, and that helps it to perpetuate itself. I don’t mean this in a mechanical sense, as if any tightly wound community would be as successful as the LDSC. I mean that that kind of cohesion combined with Christian morality is a good recipe.

    I feel like I’m coming across as denigrating Mormon teachings. I don’t mean to, but when I keep insisting that there could be alternative explanations, I’m afraid that’s how it looks. It could be that you have better outcomes because your teachings are true, that God is inspiring your leaders to act in ways that encourage obedience, etc. But not being Mormon naturally I don’t tend to assign those causes.

    My main alternative explanation is that Catholic outcomes are lagging because the Catholic faith isn’t being preached in a full and straightforward manner. Based on my own experience, I believe that when preached in that way it changes lives. Why it’s being under-preached is complicated, but suffice it to say that St. Paul warned there would be wolves within the Church who would lead the flock astray (Acts 20:29-30). Nevertheless it has ever been thus, yet the Church lives.

    My point is that if I’m right, then what disparity of outcomes may exist has another explanation, which I believe is the correct one. I don’t expect you to accept my explanation, nor perhaps should you be surprised that I don’t accept yours.

    That being said, the fact that the LDS Church has a strong central leadership which has maintained cohesiveness in these trying days is certainly commendable.

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    • I think you’re stretching now. Given the significant data that interfaith marriages weaken religious devotion, the LDS emphasis on marrying within the faith is pretty hard to characterize as merely an effect, not a cause. As I’m sure you’re aware, we encourage marriage within the faith not as an expression of cultural solidarity but for specific reasons having to do with out beliefs on eternal marriage.

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      • I’m not sure what you think I’m stretching.

        I’m not saying it’s merely an effect. But I’m saying it can’t be a cause unless it’s obeyed, and the rate of obedience could be an effect. Although really I see it as more of a self-reinforcing cycle. Do you contend that if you ever (per impossible, if you like) lost the level of cohesion you have now, the level of obedience would stay the same?

        I’m not sure if you know that the Catholic Church too has discouraged marriage outside the faith for most of its history. (See http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09698a.htm) Like most of its other teachings, preaching and enforcement of this one has become lax in recent decades. A Catholic marrying a non-Catholic does still need a dispensation from the diocesan bishop and not merely the permission of his local priest, so it’s at least somewhat harder to do than marrying another Catholic. I have no idea how hard such a dispensation is to obtain. It may vary from bishop to bishop. But as far as I know the substance of the teaching itself hasn’t changed, only emphasis and enforcement have become lax.

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  6. Pingback: Mormonism and Pragmatism | Saints and Saints

  7. Another blessing of the Catholic view is that both the married and celibate lifestyles are viewed as valid. In the LDS faith, there is a definite stigma to being unmarried, which perhaps could lead to more people wanting to be married and getting married. When I was attending my YSA (Young Single Adult) ward, there was always talk about who was “aging out” because they turned 31, how sad it is that so and so isn’t married yet, so and so is in the family ward and still not married in her 40s, etc. Even right now, a girl I know that’s in her 30s and single seems to be heavily obsessing over marriage on a social media site at the moment. She doesn’t even have a boyfriend, and is saying that she has set a goal date for marriage of the end of this month (September), keeps talking about how the temple has availability for live sealings, how her dad wants all this information about her future spouse, is excited for wedding plans, etc. It’s very sad because people are confused about whether she’s engaged or about to be married, but she doesn’t have a significant other. Her friends think she should speak to someone to make sure everything is okay mentally. But to me, this seems to be something that can result from the heavy marriage emphasis found in the LDS faith, and wouldn’t happen at all in Catholicism. Further, marriage is tied to eternal life in Mormonism. To receive the highest blessings in the Celestial Kingdom, exaltation, you must be eternally sealed to your spouse in the temple. You cannot receive that eternal life if you are celibate or not sealed. The Catholic faith, while certainly viewing marriage as a holy, sacred, sacrament, and marriage is obviously symbolic of many things, such as the relationship between the Church and Christ, the marriage feast of the Lamb, etc, celibacy is also viewed as holy (one can view the words of Paul on that matter), and no one will be denied any eternal blessings for wanting to remain celibate throughout their mortal lives.

    So, I think it’s important to also view the surrounding reasoning for both the LDS and Catholic approaches to marriage, because I think the “stigma” associated with remaining unmarried and Mormon is a reality, and could possibly drive up the number of people getting married.

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    • Yes, cultural pressure can be good and bad. I think it’s good insofar as Mormon culture puts pressure on people to stay married and avoid procreating outside marriage. I am reminded of a time when my brother- and sister-in-law (with 3 kids) were going through a rough time, and started openly threatening to divorce one another. The extended family responded with a unified front in opposition to the idea. They ended up staying together, eventually attended a Marriage Encounter retreat, and some 10 years later are still together and apparently content, and their kids are all in college and doing well. That’s what I call good peer pressure.

      For me, social pressure to stay together once you are married is one thing; pressure to get married if you’re not already, I’m not so sure about. It seems like that could push people into accepting a poor match. However I am only commenting on the examples you give. Not being involved in Mormon culture myself, I’m not in a position to say how often such things happen if ever.

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  8. Pingback: Comparing Mormon and Catholic divorce rates | Agellius's Blog

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