NEW YORK – When Bishop Edward Burns of Dallas on November 6 celebrates the annual diocesan Mass for newlyweds, he says it is a way to reassure them that the diocese is committed to them.

“It’s our role to be proactive,” Burns –a nominee for chairman of the U.S. Bishops Conference Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth – told Crux. “We have to continue to give strong marriages the momentum, the support, the prayers that are necessary to grow. We cannot become lukewarm about marriage especially in the current climate.”

This climate includes an ever-changing perception of the importance of marriage in society. The 2021 American Family Survey by Desert News and Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, released Oct. 12, found that “the numbers continue to see slight corrosion in the public’s evaluation of marriage as an institution.”

Among the survey’s findings, 52 percent of respondents said marriage is needed to create strong families, down from 54 percent last year, and 62 percent in 2015. Less than half of the respondents – 45 percent – said society is better off when people are married, down from 49 percent last year and 52 percent in 2015.

This, the seventh edition of the survey, was conducted June 25-July 8. It interviewed 3,201 respondents who were matched down to a sample of 3,000 based on gender, age, race and education to produce the final dataset.

Helen Alvaré, a member of the Holy See’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, told Crux what’s worrisome about the declining perception of marriage is that the beliefs don’t jive with the empirical data.

“You have a declining number of folks supporting the importance of marriage at the same time the empirics increasingly demonstrate that marriage is the foundation for a lot of good things – child health, happiness, educational attainment, future marital stability, economic stability – built inside the married family,” said Alvaré, the Robert A. Levy Endowed Chair in Law and Liberty at the George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School.

Alvaré noted that data shows people who suffered the most depression during COVID-19 are people who are unmarried and have no children. The 2021 American Family Survey also found that COVID-19 “caused [respondents] to appreciate their partner more.” This is another example of discrepancies between reality and people’s opinions about what matters, she said, adding that “lived experiences tell us more than people’s opinions of what is or is not important.”

For the Catholic Church to combat the secularized perception of marriage, Alvaré suggests making marriage and family programs available longer throughout a person’s life both before and after marriage, which some dioceses have already begun incorporating.

Timothy O’Malley, director of education at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life who researches and teaches in the areas of marriage and family, explained that he believes society might be reaching a point of stasis in how far marriage will decline in the U.S.

O’Malley noted, however, that there is still more the Church can do to combat the changing perceptions and build up marriage and family life beginning with supporting people across the board who are interested.

“That’s the offensive rather than the defensive approach,” O’Malley, author of the book Off the Hook: God, Love, Dating, and Marriage in a Hookup World, told Crux. “It can’t just be releasing a variety of documents on why we think marriage is important. It has to foster marriage and family life at the very local level.”

While that work exists in dioceses nationwide, there’s a hope going forward that local churches recognize that marriage and families are at “the center of their mission.”

They are being helped by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ new marriage and family life ministry framework, “Called to the Joy of Love.”

“I hope that it shifts the needle towards a greater emphasis on who we serve as a church,” said Julia Dezelski, the USCCB assistant director of the Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth. “We’re primarily serving families and they need strong marriages.”

The new pastoral framework was passed at the U.S. bishops’ general assembly in June. It’s built on four pillars: Prayer, formation, developing pastoral strategies to respond to the realities of married couples, families and those discerning marriage, and advocacy.

“First and foremost, I hope it strengthens marriage,” Burns said. “Marriage is so vital and necessary in strengthening families and when you strengthen families, you strengthen society.”

Multiple diocesan directors of marriage and family life ministry told Crux that at this point they’re still reviewing the new framework. However, that doesn’t mean they’ve remained stagnant as the societal perceptions of marriage have changed.

Christian Rada, the director of marriage, family and respect life education in the Diocese of Brooklyn told Crux they’ve encouraged pastors and catechetical leaders to be there with families more than general times like baptisms, first communions, confirmations, weddings and funerals.

“It’s important that the church is there for you during these moments but also that the church is there during the in between moments that the church is supposed to be a second family, a home where when you go through the doors you feel like you’re at this place that is welcoming and wants to be there to celebrate the joys, but also the sorrows,” Rada said.

Similarly, in the Archdiocese of Portland Jason Kidd, the director of the Marriage, Family, Youth and Young Adult Office told Crux there’s been a “large shift in serving marriages more frequently and having a once-a-year retreat.” He added that they’ve worked with some parishes to strengthen the whole family through greater parental involvement in a child’s sacramental preparation.

The Archdiocese of Boston, meanwhile, has its “Transformed in Love” marriage preparation program that aims to “get them in this gateway moment when they’re coming through our doors and we try to meet them where they’re at,” says Liz Cotrupi, the director of the archdiocese’s Family Life and Ecclesial Movements Office.

The reception after the newlywed Mass in the Diocese of Dallas has a wedding cake to celebrate, and resources to help couples meet their secular and sacred needs. It’s an effort Burns hopes will help bring the couples back to the Cathedral pews decades later.

“My goal as the shepherd is to make sure they get to 25 and 50 years of marriage, and then we’re going to have the opportunity to celebrate their anniversary,” the Dallas bishop said.

Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg