There was a short item in the Telegraph for Wednesday, with the headline: “Save your marriage by thinking of death”. That’s the kind of item that compels you to read on with morbid fascination. If it weren’t written so baldly it could almost have Shakespearean overtones: Hamlet raving at Ophelia to whom he was meant to be betrothed, or ranting at Gertrude for whom marriage and death were close to the bone.
Actually the article is mundane in its way. It seems that a Professor Jamie Arndt from the University of Missouri has been doing some research (as they often do) and found that awareness of death can reduce divorce rates. He thinks that contemplating death could make people more positive and less selfish. According to the professor, whose research has been published in Personality and Social Psychology Review, catastrophic events, such as 9/11, can give a different perspective on life: “People expressed higher degrees of gratitude, hope, kindness and leadership.”
I approve of this sort of research. It is not only more psychologically intriguing than the “Scientists have proved that eating too much cabbage can kill you” variety (which is invariably overtaken the following week by alternative research which proves a cabbage a day keeps a heart attack at bay), but it is also in line with Church teaching about life in general. When we really believe that death might be round the next corner, to be swiftly followed by judgment, hell or heaven as the Catechism tells us, it tends to put our relationships into a different perspective.
In addition to this news, Sir Paul Coleridge, a High Court judge in the Family Division, has become so appalled by all the divorce proceedings crowding his courts, and the effect this has on the hapless children involved, that last week he announced the start of a new Marriage Foundation, the aim of which is to devise policies and practical support to help reverse the current trend and champion the institution of marriage “as the gold standard of relationships”. It seems that marriage rates have more than halved in the last 40 years and the number of lone-parent households has increased by an average of 26,000 a year. Sir Paul, a descendant of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (whose own marriage sadly ended in permanent separation from his wife, Sara), thinks it’s time to do something positive about these doleful figures.
I’m not sure if the judge yet knows about Professor Arndt’s research. Naturally feminist critics have been pouring cold water on his campaign. But I think he is a brave man with a noble cause that should be taken seriously.
I once read a wonderfully funny book called My Heart Lies South. Written by an American woman, Elizabeth Borton de Trevino, who had married a Mexican in the 1930s and who had gone to live with him in Monterrey, it describes the courtship rituals and the married life of Mexican society in those days. In this Catholic culture there was no divorce; and if you were in an unhappy marriage you didn’t exactly try to rescue it “by thinking of death”. You simply prayed that God would change the errant husband (it is always husbands who need changing) for the better – or alternatively, whisk him quickly off to Purgatory so that you would be left in peace. That’s a Catholic touch to Professor Arndt’s research: “Save your spouse’s soul by praying for his death.”