Pope Francis has convened a synod of Bishops later this month to discuss the shaky state of marriage and the family. As this approaches, an international group of academics has written an open letter with suggestions on practical measures the Church and society can take to strengthen marriage.

The 48 signatories include Pastor Rick Warren, one of the most prominent evangelical preachers in the US; Professor Robert P. George, of Princeton University; Jason and Crystalina Evert, founders of the Colorado-based Chastity Project; and David Quinn, of the Iona Institute, in Ireland.

Here are excerpts from the letter:

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This Synod is an opportunity to express timeless truths about marriage. Why do those truths matter? How do they represent true love, not “exclusion” or “prejudice,” or any of the other charges brought against marriage today? Men and women need desperately to hear the truth about why they should get married in the first place. And, once married, why Christ and the Church desire that they should remain faithful to each other throughout their lives on this earth. That, when marriage gets tough (as it does for most couples), the Church will be a source of support, not just for individual spouses, but for the marriage itself …

The stakes are high. According to a 2013 Child Trends international report: “Dramatic increases in cohabitation, divorce, and nonmarital childbearing in the Americas, Europe, and Oceania over the last four decades suggest that the institution of marriage is much less relevant in these parts of the world.” In the United States the marriage rate is the lowest ever recorded, unmarried cohabitation is rapidly becoming an acceptable alternative to marriage, and more than half of births to women under 30 years of age now occur outside marriage. Among countless other negative associations, each of these trends has been linked to lower net worth and economic mobility, poverty, and welfare – for women and children, in particular.

Among existing marriages, many are fragile and strained. Between forty and fifty percent of all first marriages in the U.S. are projected to end in divorce. This rate rises sharply with each successive remarriage and research suggests the reason is not low marital quality, but weak commitment.

The consequences of divorce and cohabitation for children and adults are many and diverse – from poverty and lower educational achievement to poorer physical health; from lower marital commitment in adulthood to earlier death. And while every nation is unique, studies show that the impact of these trends spans the globe. A small sampling of such studies: China, Finland, Sweden, Uruguay, Mexico, Greece, Africa, and East Asian Pacific nations.

The costs of pornography to societies are significant. Studies of pornography’s impact on relationships suggest it is a major contributor to the destruction of marriages. Unfortunately, long-term research on pornography’s effect on marriage is virtually nonexistent.

So called “no fault divorce” laws in the U.S. and many other nations have licensed a system in which judges and lawyers facilitate the dissolution of marriages, often against the will of spouses who stand firm in their marital commitment.

Despite the bleakness of these trends, we are encouraged and made resolute by the Holy Father’s exhortation: “Challenges exist to be overcome! Let us be realists, but without losing our joy, our boldness and our hope-filled commitment.”

Perhaps the boldest new way we can evangelize married couples (and by extension their children’s future marriages) is to build small communities of married couples who support each other unconditionally in their vocations to married life. These communities would provide networks of support grounded in the bonds of faith and family, commitment to lifelong marriage, and responsibility to and for each other.

Here we offer some practical ways to create and sustain such communities:

* Commission the Pontifical Council on the Family to conduct cross-discipline, longitudinal research on the role of pornography and “no fault” divorce in the marriage crisis.

* Educate seminarians. Provide mandatory courses covering social science evidence on the benefits of marriage, threats to marriage, and the consequences of divorce and cohabitation to children and society.

* Train priests to showcase in their homilies the spiritual and social value of marriage, contemporary challenges to it, and parish help for troubled marriages. A recent study found that 72% of American Catholic women say the weekly homily is their primary source for learning about the faith.

* Create small, vibrant networks of strong married couples as mentors at the parish level, available to give spouses the tools to sustain healthy, lifelong marriages.

* Educate parishioners on the extraordinary influence they can have on the marriages of friends and family. Social science data show that the presence of divorced family and friends increases one’s own risk of divorce. Alternatively, the data suggest that family members and friends can increase commitment and satisfaction within marriages of those they love through their example and support.

* Encourage and support the reconciliation of married couples who are separated or have been divorced by civil courts.

* Request bishops worldwide to initiate regular prayers during Sunday Mass for strong, faithful marriages.

* Support efforts to preserve what is right and just in existing marriage laws, to resist any changes to those laws that would further weaken the institution, and to restore legal provisions that protect marriage as a conjugal union of one man and one woman, entered into with an openness to the gift of children, and lived faithfully and permanently as the foundation of the natural family.

* Support religious freedom in divorce courts. Many do not know that religious freedom is routinely violated by divorce judges who ignore or demean the views of a spouse who seeks to save a marriage, keep the children in a religious school, or prevent an abandoning spouse from exposing the children to an unmarried sexual partner. Begin a consortium of attorneys and legislators to combat this problem.

To accomplish any of these goals on an international scale would be a great step forward for marriages and families. To accomplish them all may turn the worldwide marriage crisis on its head.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.