Young Catholics marry and resist modern societal trends

Marriage is in decline, especially sacramental marriage. Young people in particular are shying away from marriage in favor of remaining single, or other alternatives.  

A 2014 Gallup poll found only 27 percent of millennials (those born between 1980 and 1996) were married, while 59 percent were single or never married and 9 percent were in a domestic partnership. For comparison, in 1960, 72 percent of all adults ages 18 and older were married, while only 15 percent were single or never married. 

The Catholic Church has also seen a drop in the number of sacramental marriages in the past 20 years. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a national, nonprofit, applied social science research center that studies the Catholic Church, there were 294,144 Catholic marriages in 1994 compared to 144,148 in 2016 – a decline of 49 percent. 

Several studies have indicated factors contributing to the decrease in marriage include the prevalence of cohabitation, the use of pornography and a decline in religious worship.

Some young Catholic couples, however, are swimming against the tide. 

For Nick and Emily Cairney, marriage discernment was long and marked with struggles to remain pure.   

The couple met while attending Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. Nick, now 26, and Emily, now 25, began dating after their freshmen year, in the summer of 2013. They were married on Feb. 3, 2018, at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Fremont and now live in Mission, Kansas. 


While dating, the couple felt the conflict between mainstream culture, with its invitation to instant gratification, and the call to Catholic virtue. 

“I think the biggest challenge that we’ve faced in our relationship was always chastity,” Nick said.

“Before I met Emily, and even into our relationship a little bit, I had an addiction to pornography. That was definitely a struggle for me, trying to get rid of that in my life. It was a difficult transition,” he said.

Nick pursued a number of means to overcome his habit. “At first, I combated my addiction with distraction. Now I combat it with focused prayer,” he said.  

Pornography is a huge obstacle to marriage, said Patrick Fagan, director of the Marriage and Religion Research Initiative (MARRI) at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. If a man is using pornography, he may be making love to his wife, but it is not really her whom he’s loving, he said.

According to, a marriage-and-family-centered online encyclopedia edited by Fagan, “pornography users increasingly see the institution of marriage as sexually confining, have diminished belief in the importance of marital faithfulness, and have increasing doubts about the value of marriage as an essential social institution.”

Though he doesn’t view pornography anymore, the effects of the addiction still linger in his marriage, Nick said. “I don’t think I will ever truly be rid of that.” 


Though refraining from sex was difficult, Nick and Emily made a commitment to abstain until marriage and held each other accountable. 

“Chastity is something we struggled through together,” Emily said. “It was compassion and constantly reminding each other that it was right and why we wanted to stay chaste.” 

Prayer and frequent recourse to the sacraments also helped the two remain focused on purity, she said.   

As the Cairneys’ experience shows, keeping God at the center of a couple’s relationship is crucial to its success. This is evidenced by the connection between weekly worship and the longevity of marriage, said Fagan. 

Research on the longevity of marriage in the 1950s compared white Irish Catholics in Boston with southern black Baptists. The similarity between the two groups was the correlation between their frequency of religious worship and how long their marriages lasted. The less frequent their worship, the more breakdown in their marriages, Fagan said. 

Emily and Nick Cairney were wed Feb. 3, 2018, at St. Patrick Church in Fremont. AMANDA BAUS



As their relationship matured, Emily’s discernment focused on two things.

“Beyond discerning the vocation of marriage, you’ve also got to discern what person you’re going to marry,” she said.

“My spiritual director helped me realize that I had a poor understanding of what marriage was, and an unrealistic expectation about what a husband ought to be,” she said.

“Instead of discerning whether I loved and wanted to build a marriage with Nick, I was measuring Nick to see whether he matched my images of marriage and husband, and of course, he did not because my ideas were complete fantasy. I was objectifying him,” Emily said. 

Gregory Bottaro, a Catholic psychologist, said realistic expectations are fundamental in building a healthy relationship. Young men and women may discern marriage looking for saintlike virtues in their future spouse, but this is impractical, he said. 

“We are perfected in and through our vocations, not before we enter into them,” Bottaro said. “The vow of marriage is meant to turn us into saints, so how can we expect to meet one before we are married?” 


Another Catholic couple, Shannon and T.J. Kroh, both 24, each thought seriously about religious life during their relationship before becoming confident in their vocation to marriage. Their willingness to pursue each option gave them clarity.  

“It really hit me that marriage was my vocation after I went on a mission trip with the Missionaries of Charity in St. Louis,” Shannon said. “I remember praying before I went on the retreat, ‘God, if you want me to be a sister, this is the order I would join. Help to make it clear what you want from me.’”

“I remember being very attracted to the sisterhood and I loved everything I saw, but there were married couples that came with their kids to help the sisters in the soup kitchen, and seeing them attracted me more. I really felt that call to be a servant as a wife and as a mom,” she said. 

Shannon and T.J. were married on Dec. 29, 2018, at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Gretna, and they now live in Lincoln. 

For both couples, marriage preparation was the subject of intense prayer. “It is not something to go into lightly at all,” Shannon said. “Obviously it’s a huge blessing but it is a really huge responsibility. It’s my job to get T.J. to heaven now.”


Though the wait was challenging, Shannon and T.J. also decided to remain celibate until marriage. “It’s really tempting, and it will be even more tempting as you get closer to the wedding to move in together because you feel like you might as well be married,” said T.J. 

But the wait increased the strength of their relationship. “Just be patient with the process. It’s worth it,” he said. 

Their experience is not the norm in today’s society. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in 2015, 67 percent of married people had cohabited before marriage with one or more partners. 

A MARRI study on cohabitation and future marital stability found cohabiters are 25 percent more likely to report relationship instability. Cohabiting couples were also less likely to consolidate resources and reported a weaker relationship commitment.

“I don’t ever regret not just going for it,” Shannon said. “I love that we waited because it makes it so much more worth it. We put in the work for that and it feels so much better to have it exactly how God wanted it,” she said.


Young married couples – like the Cairneys and the Krohs – with their emphasis on patience, prayer and sacrifice for the other, can have a significant impact on marriage rates for their generation, said Fagan. 

“The re-evangelization of the world, a huge part of it, is going to happen around marriage, and the missionaries are going to be those who married well,” Fagan said. “Their marriages stand out, their kids stand out and their neighbors will notice it and it will be like what happened with the early Christians.”

People will say, “See how they love one another,” he said.  

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