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Bishops’ ad campaign promotes marriage

Times Staff Writer

The gestures are sweet, but modest:

One husband carried his wife’s purse. Another made his wife breakfast. And another taped a note to her mirror telling her he 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 explosion in couples living together without a license, Catholic bishops nationwide have teamed up on a media blitz aimed at promoting and strengthening marriage.

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The first ad campaign, launched this month, featured ordinary people talking about what they’ve done to enrich their marriage. The bishops hope the stories -- one wife brought her husband mustard for his sandwich; another gave hers an enormous hug to start the day -- will inspire spouses everywhere to work to keep the flame alive.

Some supporters of the campaign say this may not be an ideal moment for the 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 the Catholic University of America.

Grabowski also said that the campaign would be colored by the same-sex marriage debate. 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 believes they can do it and has signed on as an advisor to the campaign. The bishops are also consulting with couples at all stages of dating, marriage and divorce, to make sure the advice isn’t coming solely from a bunch of 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, to be released 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.

For now, however, 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 ForYourMarriage.org, the campaign’s website. 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- and cable-TV outlets nationwide.

So far, the campaign has cost $600,000 in parishioner donations. Much of that has gone to develop the website, 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 delicate view of romance, but sociologists and counselors say it’s a vital dose of reality in an era when close to 50% of first marriages, 60% of second marriages and 75% of third marriages end in divorce. Catholics are less likely than Protestants to divorce, but faith leaders say they still see many ruptured and rocky unions.

Young couples go into marriage “with the idea that love will conquer all,” said Bill Urbine, who directs family life programs for the Diocese of Allentown, Pa. “They just don’t get it.”

Historically, their church has not been much help.

Many Protestant pastors -- especially in hip, evangelical megachurches -- 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 pre-marriage counseling, but some counselors inside and outside the church 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.”

The couples interviewed in the bishops’ TV spots suggest ways, large and small, to nurture a marriage: Set up a date night; send a loving e-mail; clean the house without being asked.

“I flirted with my husband like when we first got married. That’s what I did for him this morning. And it made him happy,” one middle-aged woman says in an ad.

An elderly man offers: “I’ve done today what I usually do. And that is: Obey.”

As president of the Christian Family Movement, a lay organization promoting good relationships, Lauri Przybysz didn’t think she needed such tips; after all, she and her husband have been together 34 years. But after she saw the ads, she realized she could be doing better.

“It made me more romantic in my choice of gifts for his birthday,” Przybysz said. “I didn’t just get him golf shirts. I got him cologne.” Then she offered some advice of her own: “There’s a lot of good massage oil out there,” she said. “You’re never married too long to spice things up.”

stephanie.simon@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Altered State

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As the percentage of people who are married has declined, the number of cohabiting but unmarried opposite-sex couples has grown.

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Number of unmarried, cohabiting, opposite-sex couples

(in millions)

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1960: 0.4

1970: 0.5

1980: 1.6

1990: 2.9

2000: 4.7

2006: 5.4

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Source: Rutgers University National Marriage Project


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