I don't know about you, but this kind of thing happens to me all the time when I am reading the news.
Let's say that you are cruising along and you hit an interesting story. Then, as you keep reading, the hard-drive in your mind starts spinning and eventually a thought balloon pops up that says something like this: "Wait a minute. Maybe this story is connected to ...."
Trust me. This happens to journalists all the time. This process is part of the mental tool kit that reporters develop when they work on a beat for a decade or two (or in the case of the members of the GetReligionista team, a combined 150-plus years or more on the religion beat).
Here's a recent example, which is a pretty obvious one. We start with a Crux story I saw the other day with the headline, "Study suggests Catholic marriage will be dead in Italy by 2031." Here's the overture:
Pope Francis has made family life and marriage a keen priority, and if he ever needed proof of the urgency of the cause even in his own backyard, a widely respected Italian research group has provided it: According to its recent projection, by the year 2031 absolutely no one in Italy will be married in church.
Censis (“Center for Social Investment Studies”) has a quasi-official status in Italy, with its analysis often relied upon by the government in forming policy decisions. In a recent study on marriage in Italy, based on trends over the last 20 years, it found that the number of Italians entering into formal marriages has been in freefall.
In 1994, according to its data, there were 291,607 marriages in Italy, a country of 60 million people where Catholics still account, formally speaking, for 95 percent of the population. By 2014, the number of marriages had fallen to 189,765, a drop of 35 percent.
We are, of course, talking about sacramental, Catholic marriages -- as opposed to civil rites. The story noted that church weddings declined 54 percent between 1994 and 2014. Things look even worse when you isolate the actual numbers:
In terms of raw numbers, there were 235,936 marriages celebrated in a church in Italy in 1994, 171,900 in 2004, and 108,000 in 1994. According to the Censis projections, by the year 2020 there will be more civil marriages in Italy than religious, as the overall number of marriages continues to drop.
Looking out even further, the Censis data suggests that if nothing happens to alter the demographic landscape, 2031 -- meaning 15 years from now -- will be the first year in which there isn’t a single Catholic marriage celebrated in one of the world’s most Catholic nations.
In this case, we are not really dealing with a "ghost," a hidden religion angle. The Crux team is all about seeing the Catholic ghosts in just about any story that comes along.
Nevertheless, the hard-drive in my mind kept spinning.
Eventually, here is what hit me. Do you remember that very controversial off-the-cuff statement that Pope Francis made the other day about the state of marriage in the Catholic world? Here is a reminder, care of an older story at NBC News, since this pope tends to make quite a few controversial off-the-cuff remarks about moral theology:
Pope Francis said ... that the majority of today's marriages are invalid because most couples don't understand that marriage is meant to be permanent.
"We live in a culture of the provisional," Francis said in response to a question from an audience member about the "crisis of marriage" after his address opening a pastoral conference of the Diocese of Rome. ...
Francis said modern couples don't comprehend the importance of the sacrament of marriage, which he said is "indissoluble."
"Young people say 'for life,' but they do not know what it means," he said.
Now, Pope Francis was talking about an attitude, among the young in particular, that marriages are simply a matter of convenience or even finances. That alone, he said, would render a marriage "nulli" -- "invalid" in English -- in the eyes of the church.
That said, can you see the question that entered my mind, the link to another major story?
To be blunt: To what degree is the trend away from Catholic marriage and towards civil marriage affecting the hot-button Catholic debates, in Italy and elsewhere, about marriage, divorce and annulments? By definition, isn't a civil marriage automatically not a valid marriage in the eyes of church law? I don't know the answer to that one.
So what happens when someone, after a civil marriage and divorce, decides to renew their ties to the church at the time of a second marriage, as in a Catholic marriage in a church?
If you connect these stories, it seems to me that this would affect thousands and thousands of Catholics in Italy, Europe and quite a few other post-Christian cultures. Come to think of it, what is the status of, oh, a "Baptist" wedding for believers who later convert to Catholicism? How about a "Mormon" wedding? A wedding in a liberal Protestant church -- one with gender-neutral rites -- that was not performed in the name of the "Father, Son and Holy Ghost"?
Just asking. There could be some interesting local stories hidden in this trend. Italy isn't the only place this is happening. Can you say "nones"?