Posted: June 28, 2007 - 8:00 am ET
(Denver, Colorado) U.S. Roman Catholic bishops began a campaign this week to strengthen the institution of marriage by encouraging spouses to perform simple day-to-day gestures for one other.
The campaign, a series of radio and television spots, is part of a broader effort to bring a greater Catholic voice to the debate over the meaning of marriage.
The spots show ordinary people in parks and other public places answering the question "What have you done for your marriage today?" The answers - waking up early with the baby, organizing a date night - are meant to promote small acts of kindness as medicine for making marriages last a lifetime.
Missing from the spots is any overt religious message, although they are identified as Catholic and end with an invitation to visit http://www.foryourmarriage.org . The Web site promises resources for Catholic and non-Catholic couples on everything from conflict resolution to finances.
Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, a member of the bishops' committee on marriage and family life, said the spots deliberately avoid religion to reach a wide audience.
"Both marriage and family are necessary for the common good of society," he said. "When either institution weakens, all of us suffer the consequences. When both marriage and family grow stronger, all of us benefit."
The $600,000 marketing campaign was introduced in Denver to coincide with the National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers conference underway here. The media spots are not paid advertisements, but public service announcements available to TV, radio and cable outlets.
U.S. Catholic bishops and conservative evangelicals have found common ground opposing same-sex marriage since it has emerged as a political issue.
But the bishops' National Pastoral Initiative on Marriage - which runs through 2011 and of which the marketing campaign is a part - seeks to branch beyond gay marriage and combat other trends that church leaders deem disturbing. That includes a declining marriage rate, more people living together outside of marriage and the prevalence of divorce.
"I don't think this is a political maneuver against gay marriage," said Timothy Muldoon, director of The Church in the 21st Century Center at Boston College. "Many bishops see this issue of marriage broadly as having significant impact on the well-being of a good society, not to mention an impact on the church. There is no hiding the fact that Catholics are Catholics because they were raised that way, people who choose to bring their children to church."
The bishops' larger marriage initiative, set in motion in 2004 and still in the research and development stages, aims to promote marriage as both "a human institution and a Christian sacrament." Plans call for improving parish marriage ministries, a pastoral letter and working in the legal and political arenas to "promote, strengthen and protect marriage."
Perhaps anticipating one criticism, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops emphasizes that married couples have played a key role in the initiative, both through focus groups and continued consultation.
"In spite of what the public reaction or perception might be, it isn't just a bunch of celibate men who are behind all of this," said John Grabowski, an associate professor of theology and religious studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington and a consultant on the project.
Grabowski acknowledged other challenges, including lingering mistrust created by the clergy sexual abuse crisis that exploded in 2002.
"It certainly has become harder for people with those funny collars on to get up and talk publicly about sexuality and marriage because the immediate cynical reaction on the part of some people is, 'Who are you to tell us about morality and sexual relationships?'" he said. "You can't deny that's in the background here."