By Stephanie Simon, Los Angeles Times
JULY 22, 2007 (www.mercurynews.com) - The gestures are sweet but modest: I carried my wife's purse. I made her breakfast. I taped a note to her mirror telling her I liked her haircut.
Nothing earth-shattering there. And yet the Roman Catholic Church is counting on publicizing these small acts of everyday kindness to revitalize the institution of marriage.
Alarmed by the persistently high divorce rate and the growth in couples living together without a license, Catholic bishops nationwide have teamed up on a major media campaign aimed at promoting and strengthening marriage.
The first ad campaign, launched this month, features ordinary people talking about what they've done to enrich their marriages. The bishops hope that the stories - I brought my husband mustard for his sandwich; I gave him an enormous hug to start the day - will inspire spouses everywhere to work harder to keep the flame alive.
But some supporters of the campaign say this might not be an ideal moment for the Catholic Church to peddle relationship advice.
"These guys are plagued by scandals involving sexual misconduct - how come they're telling other people what to do? That's the obvious, cynical reaction," said John Grabowski, an associate professor of moral theology at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
Grabowski also noted that the campaign will be colored by the debate over same-sex marriage. The Catholic Church strongly opposes such unions; the bishops plan to step up their political
activism on the issue in coming years. With that in the background, some viewers might dismiss the ads as conservative propaganda.
"That's a minefield the bishops will have to walk," Grabowski said.
He thinks they can do it; indeed, he's signed on as an adviser to the campaign.
The bishops also are consulting with couples at all stages of dating, marriage and divorce, to make sure the advice isn't coming solely from single men sworn to celibacy.
In future stages, the bishops' campaign - known as the National Pastoral Initiative on Marriage - will be directed more narrowly at Catholic couples. A pastoral letter, due out within the year, will reinforce the theology of heterosexual marriage as a sacrament. The bishops also plan to develop brochures and counseling resources for priests.
Aimed at everyone
For now, the ad campaign is designed with ecumenical appeal. There are no references to the Catholic Church until the end of each spot, when the announcer promotes the campaign's Web site, ForYourMarriage.org. The couples interviewed appear to come from a variety of backgrounds; one woman wears a traditional Muslim head scarf.
"How effective it will be is anyone's guess, but it can't hurt," said David Popenoe, director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University.
The church is not buying airtime for the ads; it's trying to get them placed as 30- and 60-second public-service announcements on radio, network TV and cable outlets nationwide.
So far, the campaign has cost $600,000 in parishioner donations. Much of that has gone to develop the Web site, which offers spot polls ("Was the last fight you had with your spouse worth it?"), compatibility quizzes and the marriage tip of the day.
Those tips are often grimly resolute in nature, such as this one: "Love is not simply a feeling; it is a decision . . . When the feeling fades - and it will at times - recommit to building your relationship."
That's not a very gauzy view of romance, but sociologists and counselors say it's a vital dose of reality in an era when close to 50 percent of first marriages, 60 percent of second marriages and 75 percent of third marriages end in divorce. Catholics are less likely than Protestants to divorce, but faith leaders say they still see far too many ruptured and rocky unions.
Historically, the Catholic Church has not been much help.
Many Protestant pastors - especially in hip evangelical mega-churches - regularly devote sermons to practical advice on communication, conflict resolution, even sex. But those topics rarely come up in Catholic homilies, Grabowski said. Priests often require couples to attend counseling before the wedding, but some Christian counselors say they're hard-pressed to find parish-based programs to strengthen existing marriages.
"They don't give it the support that Protestant churches do," said Margaret Martinez, who runs a Christian marriage counseling program called Retrouvaille. "I'm very glad to see the bishops are finally waking up."