Peter Novecosky, OSB

Marriage with benefits

The extraordinary synod on the family begins in Rome on Sunday, Oct. 5. Readers of the Prairie Messenger are aware of the wide-ranging discussions and high expectations surrounding this synod. The official theme is “the pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization,” but much of the discussion ahead of time, partly provoked by remarks made by Pope Francis, has centred on a pastoral approach for divorced and remarried Catholics. This synod will run until Oct. 15 and it is a precursor for another synod of bishops on the same topic next year.

While some bishops are focusing on the biblical, theological and canonical supports for marriage and the family, others may turn to the findings of the empirical sciences. Sometimes the experiential witness for a healthy family life carries more weight in today’s society than do theological arguments.

A recent Catholic News Service story reports that religious belief and practice enhances a married lifestyle. It notes that numerous studies confirm that those who are involved in religion and those who are married are healthier physically, mentally happier and live longer than those who are not.

“The health benefits of marriage are so strong that a married man with heart disease can be expected to live, on average, 1,400 days (nearly four years) longer than an unmarried man with a healthy heart,” said Dr. Scott Haltzman, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and human behaviour at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. The health benefits for married women are in sync with those for men.

Couples with higher levels of religiosity “tend to enjoy greater marital satisfaction, fidelity and stability, with less likelihood of domestic violence,” a compilation of studies by the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think-tank, has found.

Additional benefits of high levels of religious belief and practice, the foundation said, are: families have lower divorce rates, lower levels of teen sexual activity, less abuse of alcohol and drugs, lower levels of many infectious diseases, less juvenile crime and less violent crime.

“Marriage and religion influence various dimensions of life, including physical health and longevity, mental health, happiness, economic well-being and the raising of children,” wrote sociologist Linda J. Waite and economist Evelyn J. Lehrer in a paper published in 2009 by the National Institutes of Health.

“We argue that both marriage and religiosity generally have far-reaching positive effects; that they influence similar domains of life; and that there are important parallels through which each achieves these outcomes,” they added.

The health benefits of marriage go across the board, according to the late psychiatry professor Robert Coombs, from the University of California in Los Angeles. In a 2012 interview, he emphasized the positive effects of marriage. “Virtually every study of mortality and marital status shows the unmarried of both sexes have higher death rates, whether by accident, disease or self-inflicted wounds, and this is found in every country that maintains accurate health statistics,” he said.

The synod, while aware of the benefits of healthy and stable marriages, must also address those who are outside this box. Pope Francis has described the church as a “field hospital” which needs to treat the wounded first of all. Most parishes and their organizations work with the healthy rather than the wounded. The pope is calling for a change in orientation. It will be interesting to see how the discussions at the synod turn out and also what this will mean for parish ministry in the future.

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