The State of Our Unions

We’re in the middle of  “National Marriage Week” (February 7-14), which will be culminating – if you can use that term about something almost no one is aware of – on  Valentine’s Day.  In principle, it’s a time to focus attention on the “state of our unions,” something the National Marriage Project (NMP) based at the University of Virginia has been doing through regular research and an annual report.

Its 2022 report (available by clicking here) examined the growing tendency to put off marriage: the average age that men now marry is 30 and women, 28.  NMP recognized that various factors – economic uncertainty and extended schooling among the leading causes – contribute to this deferral.  What was more interesting to me, however, was how the report conceptualized the difference.  It spoke about “cornerstone” versus “capstone” marriages.

“Cornerstone” weddings (usually occurring at younger ages) see marriage as an essential element to building a common identity and future, going forward together. By contrast,  “capstone” weddings (usually taking place at later ages) see marriage as the culmination of all sorts of self-preparation – finishing school, finding a job, building some professional credentials – before taking the nuptial leap.

NMP cites various social science factors for and against each model.  The one that stood out most to me is what I’d call the “time and me” factor: the longer one lives alone, the more likely one will be set in one’s ways, making the marital transition from “I” to “we” that much more difficult.

But it’s worth considering several theological questions that the secular perspective adopted by the NMP does not address.

Somewhere in the background of the “cornerstone v. capstone” contrast, I sense the split between a Catholic and a Protestant theology of marriage.  For Catholicism – in theory, if not much in the actual practice of Catholic Americans – marriage is a sacrament, i.e. a causative factor in spiritual formation and development.  Marriage has a connection to salvation and confers graces needed to live out its calling.  In Protestantism, for the most part, marriage is not a sacrament but an “estate,” a change of civil status with no inherent spiritual dimension, and is certainly not a channel of grace.

“Cornerstone” marriage seems better to mirror a Catholic understanding of marriage.  As a result of being married, this institution/reality/sacrament causes and forges a new common identity moving forward.  We don’t bring David (and Bathsheba) fully formed in clay by Michelangelo; we recognize marriage is where the sculpting (and firing) occurs.

“Capstone” marriage strikes me as far more Pelagian: after I have earned my degree, gotten a job, started climbing up the ladder, begun paying down my debts (or the taxpayer has assumed them), sown my wild oats, and found a sufficiently similar counterpart, I’ll be ready to tie the knot.  This seems less a blending than a coordinating.

The obvious problem is that Michelangelo’s “David” might not so easily match Dégas’ “Little Dancer” – and, by that point, both have pretty much been fired and hardened into shape.


“Cornerstone” marriage seems to take the future as indeterminate – “for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health” – all the while reckoning it is a future to be encountered and traversed together.

“Capstone” marriage appears to imagine the future can be planned, with the best-laid plans of mice and men favoring the better, the richer, and the healthier.  Does capstone marriage prepare its partners in joint crisis planning when those plans, as they inevitably will, go astray?

And, as regards blending versus coordinating, where does the “two become one flesh” enter in?  While neither model, in its contemporary cultural expression, seems explicitly to highlight parenthood, the “capstone” model seems to reinforce what is already some of our worst attitudes towards having children: the “parental project.”

Former Archbishop of Paris Michel Aupetit repeatedly scorned what he called “the parental project,” where a child is seen not so much as a gift as an entitlement, with various complications such as whether a child is begotten in the marital embrace or made in a Petri dish according to preset specifications.

“Parental projects” have long been seen by many in our culture as a kind of “crowning achievement” on the list of life goals, “planned” at the best, most proper moment (so far as that ticking female biological clock permits).

What steps can we take so that “capstone marriages” are not the norm in our identity-confused and increasingly risk-averse society?

Prudence and foresight are important in marriage.  One should not be rash.  One should plan.  One should save.  But. . .

 Once upon a time, a woman looked at a man for his potential as a good provider, a man looked at a woman for her potential as wife and mother.  I’m not criticizing those things, even as socioeconomic conditions have changed.

But love is also a risk because life is a risk.  Plans and projects notwithstanding, life throws all of us curve balls. Flexibility and suppleness developed together seem of far greater use in dealing with the unpredictable than does a “capstone” life, charted out like the figures of a financial accountant.  And doesn’t capstone thinking already tend to overvalue economic matters, which then also jaundices readiness to risk parenthood?

The sacraments are gifts, not rewards.  They exist not because we are worthy of them, but because, through their proper reception, we are made more worthy of them.  Does that perhaps tell us something about how we might approach the sacrament of marriage, not only during “National Marriage Week,” but all our lives?


*Image: The Wedding (La Noce) by Henri Rousseau, 1905 [Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris]

You may also enjoy:

Dana Gioia’s Marriage of Many Years

Fr. Gerald E. Murray’s The Priest’s Role in Marriage Preparation

John Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views herein are exclusively his.