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How the Zeitgeist Affected the Catholic Church in the U.S. After Vatican II

By Matt Abbott

The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, held from 1962 to 1965 at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, had as its objectives to seek the renewal of the Catholic Church and to modernize its forms and institutions.1 Unfortunately, during and after the Council, the Zeitgeist – the German term for “spirit of the age” – was largely responsible for the decline in certain key aspects of the Catholic Church in the U.S. These aspects are the number of priests and religious, weekly church attendance by its members, and the state of Catholic marriage. The Zeitgeist also fostered the rise of dissident Catholic organizations and individuals who have often misrepresented the teachings of Vatican II in order to promote their own agendas.

Kenneth C. Jones of St. Louis researched and compiled a number of statistics which he titled “Index of Leading Catholic Indicators: The Church Since Vatican II,” published in 2003. Among his findings:2 While the number of priests in the U.S. more than doubled to 58,000 between 1930 and 1965, since then, that number has fallen to 45,000, and by 2020, there will be only 31,000 priests left; the number of seminarians (men who are studying to become priests) declined over 90 percent between 1965 and 2002; in 1965, there were 180,000 Catholic nuns, but by 2002, that number had fallen to 75,000; a 1958 Gallup Poll reported that three in four Catholics attended Mass (church) on Sundays, but a recent study by the University of Notre Dame found that only one in four now attend; Catholic marriages have fallen in number by one-third since 1965, while the annual number of annulments (a decree from the Church, sought by Catholics after a civil divorce, asserting that because of a particular defect, a valid marriage was never entered into and thereby allows the parties to marry in the Church) that has risen from 338 in 1968 to 50,000 in 2002.

One area of decline that can, and should, be explored more in detail is Catholic marriage. In the Church, marriage (matrimony) is considered one of the seven sacraments. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The love of the spouses requires, of its very nature, the unity and indissolubility of the spouses' community of persons, which embraces their entire life: ‘so they are no longer two, but one flesh.’ They ‘are called to grow continually in their communion through day-to-day fidelity to their marriage promise of total mutual self-giving.’ This human communion is confirmed, purified, and completed by communion in Jesus Christ, given through the sacrament of Matrimony…” (no. 1644).

This brings us to the issue of annulments. The term is usually used in reference to the sacrament of matrimony. Marriages can be declared invalid for a variety of reasons: lack of canonical form if one party is Catholic and thus required to be married in the presence of a priest, deacon or bishop; the existence of an undispensed impediment; the presence of psychological factors that render one or both parties incapable of knowing what they were doing or of assuming the fundamental responsibilities of marriage.3 Church officials, in the form of a tribunal, are required to investigate all aspects of a marriage and divorce before declaring that marriage null and void. Once an annulment is granted, the parties involved are free to marry in the Church.

One reason for the large increase in the number of annulments in the past three decades has to do with procedural changes in canon law. The main, reason, however, appears to be the fact that the divorce rate, from 1960 to 1991, increased 133 percent.4 The percentage of marriages currently ending in divorce is debatable; but it nonetheless is significant.

There are, of course, a number of reasons why a marriage might end in divorce. An oft-overlooked (and politically incorrect) reason is the widespread use of contraception, even among Catholic married couples. In a published lecture titled Contraception: Why Not?, Dr. Janet E. Smith, Chair of Life Issues at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Mich., discusses why the divorce rate doubled between 1965, when 25 percent of marriages ended in divorce, and 1975, when 50 percent of marriages ended in divorce.5 Smith cites the research of social scientist Robert Michael, who concluded "that as the contraceptive pill became more and more available, divorce became more and more popular."6 In fact, Michael attributed "45 percent of this increase [in divorce] to increased use of contraceptives."

There are three reasons for this, according to Michael. First, his statistical data showed "that those who use contraceptives have fewer children and have them later in marriage…those who have the first baby in the first two years of marriage and another baby in the next couple years of marriage, have a much longer lasting marriage than those who don't." Secondly, ...

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