What’s Missing From Catholic Marriage Prep?

If there is something the recent controversy over how many marriages are valid teaches us, it is that we in the Catholic Church have a marriage problem. Even if most marriages are valid (I believe they are), are they healthy marriages?  Whether it is the acceptance of divorce, contraception, or a host of other factors, I don’t think it can be reasonably argued the institution of marriage is in healthy shape in the Catholic Church today.  Assigning blame for this is a pointless exercise.  From the hierarchal church (including popes) to the domestic church, we have mostly failed in our mission.

Yet we should not let that failure lead us to trying solutions which are ineffective at treating the problem, and sometimes even make the condition worse.  I would submit that is what is happening in most marriage preparation courses throughout the country.  To say this is not to cast a judgment upon this involved in such marriage prep work.  Normally they are holy and knowledgeable people who genuinely want to strengthen the institution of marriage.  But they are often asked to do the wrong things, and they often lack the support of the wider church (institutional and domestic) to strengthen the vocation of marriage.

The first problem comes in how we understand marriage.  While we can all recite verbatim the understanding that marriage is a vocation, do our actions tell that story?  If an individual decides they wish to enter the religious life, they are discovered normally in adolescence, and carefully groomed towards that position by education, retreats, etc.  Once they make that decision, they then have years of discernment during which several benchmarks are met, as a way of signaling they are spiritually ready for this vocation.  Declare yourself interested in the vocation of marriage, and you receive some kind compliments.  Once you are engaged, you are given a 4-12 week class, and then you are on your way.  Whereas religious formation often requires substantial spiritual instruction, the spiritual element is almost absent from most marriage prep, outside calls to keep prayer central.

There is a clear imbalance here.  While the priesthood is properly understood as being of supreme importance, the vocation of marriage is given little thought in light of the above reality.  While you could call this many things, a proper word would be “clericalism”, the idea that the laity are somehow less important to the Church than the ordained.  It matters little that Pope Pius XI condemned this idea (a prejudice “not yet destroyed”), or that the Second Vatican Council condemned this idea in Lumen Gentium.  What if our churches fostered the vocation from a young age, and gave people the tools to prepare for marriage even during adolescence?

Another problem with marriage formation is that our instructions often forget the purpose of marriage and of any vocation really.  What’s the point of a vocation?  Holiness!  A vocation is the ways Christians live out the call to be holy.  Our participation in these vocations is a sign that we are set apart from the world, and that we are claimed by Jesus Christ as His disciples.  How does the latest compatibility test couples are required to take further this goal?  According to Pope St. Pius X, the whole point of religious instruction is the amendment of life.  (Acerbo Nimis, paragraph 13)  This amendment teaches the Christian to flee vice and to practice virtue.  Most marriage prep fails in this regard because it is not even trying to teach it.  Instead, they are focused on teaching the very basics of marriage:  it is meant to be forever, don’t use contraception, etc.

I don’t wish to give the impression that I am casting doubt on these instructions.  Marriage is forever, contraception is a grave evil that cannot be justified, etc.  Yet the approach we take is overly intellectual.  I’d argue this is a byproduct of an ecclesial culture that implicitly accepts most marriages as invalid.    They are doing whatever they can to make a marriage as likely as possible to pass tribunal inquiry.  That’s a noble goal.  We should aspire to as many valid marriages as possible.   Yet where is amendment of life in any of this?  Where’s the understanding in marriage prep that marriage leads to holiness, and that, broken as you are, you can become whole through marriage?  Since you can become whole, here is the information and practical resources that will help that grace transform your life?

When looked at from this perspective, it should be clear where the next step of contemporary marriage prep lies:  marriage prep is often segregated from the routine life of the parish.  You might hear an announcement that if you need marriage prep, see the pastor to arrange for classes.  I would ask the following question:  how often are the sacraments offered for the purpose of marriage formation?  How often are dating and engaged couples invited to confession together as a couple?  Are priests available for the sacrament of confession for these souls, or are they still on the 30 minutes on Saturday afternoon, and they leave if there is a 45 second break train?  How often is adoration offered for those couples looking to enter into marriage?  What prayer resources do they make available on their journey of discernment that is the often messy dating and courtship process?  Parishes cannot cause dating couples to be holy.  What a parish can do is offer opportunities to grow in holiness.  What is being done there?

I would say a final problem lies in the fact that most marriage prep is concerned with the mainly abstract understanding of marriage.  Here is why divorce is wrong.  Here is why contraception is wrong.  Here’s why you should practice NFP.  Seldom are couples given the tools to make their marriages thrive.  Most marriages aren’t failing because of lack of compatibility.  They are failing because marriage can be difficult.  Scrap the compatibility test and pop psychology lesson.  Instead, teach the spiritual underpinnings of basic financial discipline, and how balancing the checkbook, while not a virtue, might be able to help you with practicing virtues.  Even most of those who use contraception can probably tell you, in basic form, why the Catholic Church rejects it.  Even those who might enter a marriage rejecting contraception will often find themselves tempted by it when one loses their job, doesn’t want to bring a child into a situation they cannot support, but also doesn’t want to postpone any relations indefinitely, especially after this kind of recession where unemployment lasts so long!  What message does our marriage prep have for those individuals on how to deal with that very real and very strong temptation?

Most workaholics who divorce don’t go into a marriage intending to divorce.  They do however go into marriage with a poor ability to balance priorities, and as a result spend way too much time in the office, rationalizing that unhealthy obsession with “paying the bills” and maintaining that upper middle-class lifestyle. One turns to substance abuse not because they were always a rotten addict, but because they often lacked everything from previous discipline to a wide support network. A good amount of marriage prep courses offer nothing for these very real difficulties, instead focusing on memorizing intellectual abstractions.

Yet for all these problems, perhaps the biggest problem lay in the very understanding of marriage prep.  Marriage is not a course you prepare for like the SAT’s.  It is a vocation you are formed for, and transformed by.  There’s very little the marriage prep book by the best-selling author (who will be glad to speak to your parish about it for a fee!) can do in that situation.  This isn’t due to a lack of knowledge or holiness on their part.  It is due to very flawed nature of understanding marriage prep as some temporary event segregated from the overall Christian life, rather than as cultivating a vocation to marriage, and then helping couples make that vocation fruitful.  This is a very real problem, one that is often overlooked.  The greatest challenge facing marriage today is turning that preparation from a destination to a process, a process that continues even after “I do.”  If we want to make the institution of marriage stronger, it requires our immediate attention.

Kevin Tierney


Kevin Tierney is the Associate Editor of the Learn and Live the Faith Section at Catholic Lane. He and his family live in Brighton, MI. Connect with him via FB  or on twitter @CatholicSmark.

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  • Fr. Andrew Dickinson

    Good points. One quibble is your appearance of the Church historically neglecting marriage as a lessor lay vocation. I don’t think it was so much active as it was passive. Marriages happened relatively stably and, dare I say, easily, when compared to religious vocations. Their formation was an implicit part of culture rather than an explicit cultural offshoot. We are certainly in a different era.

  • eddiestardust


  • Bob Wilkens

    the problem in marriage is the same as in the Church in general. ….lack of true spirituality of giving up self out of love to a God who loves us into existence every second….and you touched on this, marriage as a way to this holiness in total self sacrificial giving, in this case begetting life…..as Christ gave himself up for his Church, so should we give up ourselves to others, which truly can happen only after we give ourselves to God, the fount of all holiness… and in marriage this giving is done between spouses, leading them to give as well to the children, and to everyone they meet….

    but how many American Catholics have a true spiritual director guiding them to union with God, which is the aim of all scripture, the Church, and the sacraments, and of life itself?

    the entire strategy was to preach, baptise and get them inside the Church, and then impart the spiritual wisdom. We stopped at step 2 a very long time ago in most places.

  • Peter Santos

    The way I see it, it is not so much clericalism (the imbalance in formation that you mention) as much as secularism.

    Marriage is the most natural thing. From time immemorial people have been getting hitched. And when the world was still very much Christian, people knew that marriage is for life and that it entails sacrifices.

    As someone said, the priesthood is not natural – it is supernatural hence it is only natural that there will be much formation required.

    It is only in our secular world that we now need formation for marriage precisely because we have lost sight of what marriage is all about. We can put this down to the sexual revolution.

    That we need better preparation for marriage is because we live in a culture enslaved to the self and to the libido.

  • Bob Wilkens

    We must find God FIRST…….THAT is what is missing. THAT is where true happiness is, and NOT in some other deeply flawed person. Marriage is doomed to problems and even failure when we base our happiness on simply making it another selfish desire “that THIS time for SURE it will make me happy!”.

  • Sue

    A large number of the points made involve things like Adoration, Confession, learning to rely & trust on God’s Providence, that should already be a part of a Catholic’s life long before they begin dating! If prayer, Mass attendance, reception of the sacraments, & living the Faith on a daily basis through good times & bad has been a part of family life, people are already well-prepared for Catholic marriage. We have six children, three of whom are being married in the next 8 months. As I listen to their reviews of the marriage prep programs they’re attending, I’m very impressed! But our kids grew up with Adoration, frequent Mass, daily prayer (private & family), seeing us struggle as we had to bury our stillborn son & being short of funds, living simple lives–they’ve LIVED it already! Yeah, some of them briefly left the Faith in their college years, but they all came back because the Truths of the Faith, the witness of living the Faith had already been instilled in them!

  • That more formation is required isn’t really the issue. It’s more just HOW imbalanced it currently is that needs looking at I’d say.

  • Margaret O’Hagan

    A very important subject today for pre-marriage courses would have to be IVF and why it is forbidden by the Church. Nobody speaks of it!

  • Conquistador17

    Father, I agree with this. I was married in 1995 to a Protestant ‘convert’. I use this in quotes because she went through RCIA and joined the Church, being confirmed and receiving first communion at Easter time. Prior to marriage, she told me that she wanted to be able to take communion with her husband and that she knew that the price for that was that she had to join the Church. I explained to her that being Catholic is not something you ‘do’, it is something you ‘are’. That she needed to join the Church because she wanted to be Catholic, not because she wanted to take communion with me. This was discussed in prep with the priest.

    Almost immediately after marriage, she stopped regular Mass attendance and never went to confession. She met with several priests, many of whom told her that she was more Catholic than most Catholics they pastor. Good Protestant that she was, she continued attending a Methodist church and receiving communion there. I stuck it out for 20 years but the incessant drive to make our marriage a Protestant one reached critical mass. At that point, she told me that she never believed in the Real Presence and told both the priest that married us and the sister who was running the RCIA program. No one told me that. I would not have proceeded to marriage over that.

    The priest who married us and the sister in charge of RCIA did not deem this significant enough to prohibit her from joining the Church, however. She went to confession 3 times in 20 years only after a fair bit of pressure from me about the Catechism’s directive for at least annual confession. But she never skipped Communion.

    Now I am at mid-life with a lot of wreckage on my hands that may have been avoided with a more open communication during marriage prep and RCIA. I will file for an annulment after the divorce is complete and leave it to the Church to decide what is proper for me. I sure could have used some more assistance in the prep (and after marriage, too) though I am not sure it would have changed my wife’s disposition toward the Church. Perhaps it was easier at one time but I think this kind of stuff points to a whole different level of need than has been historically present. Ultimately, the responsibility and fault for the disaster is mine. I sure would have liked to known some of the other stuff, though.

  • Twinkle5

    It is because so many priests want to be liked! I heard my priest tell me one time how riveting a speech was on IVF he had heard at a priest conference–and proceeded to never relay it to our congregation. We need to pray for our priests to be bold!

  • Karee Santos

    As a marriage prep instructor, I agree 100% with the vision of Catholic marriage prep that you share here. I think most pre-Cana instructors would. And you can find good marriage prep programs and materials (esp. in major dioceses like Boston and NY) that incorporate the elements you mention. Spiritual formation is made a priority, training in virtue is stressed, and lots of practical advice is offered. You’ve basically summarized the highlights of my recent book on Catholic marriage and, yes, I’d be happy to speak at your parish for a fee (kidding!). There are great resources and info out there. The problem is in transmitting them to the people that need them. Parents need to educate themselves on what makes a great Catholic marriage so they can teach their children (rather than taking an anything goes attitude). Priests, deacons, catechists, and parish school teachers all need to have a deep understanding of Catholic marriage and be able to pass it on. Engaged and married couples must be open to hearing the message and realizing how much it can help them — and frequently they aren’t. As a program of sacramental preparation, pre-Cana can only do so much. What you seem to be talking about is reviving a culture of Catholic marriage. And that takes participation by the whole community.

  • Karee Santos

    We incorporated that in our pre-Cana program after one of the students complained that it was missing!

  • Conquistador17

    Thanks, Father. That is a unique approach to accountability that I have not heard. I have always been taught that you cannot blame anyone else. But as I have grown older and seen that so many factors affect bad outcomes, it has struck me that some actions cannot be adjudicated as black/white, 100% fault to one. What you are saying seems to be apropos for the Year of Mercy. Perhaps we have not understood mercy and accountability correctly? I know that when I would read all of the many people who have written and shared about the issue of divorced/remarried Catholics, I will admit that I felt as if I was going to be entering a virtual leper colony among Catholics. There is no quarter for some of those folks toward divorced Catholics. Are there any writers you could recommend that might help one gain a deeper understanding of mercy? Thank you for your thoughtful reply and your service to the Church.

  • Michael Reardon

    Thanks for your reply. Sorry if something I said was misleading, but I’m not actually a priest! But I think you’re right that it has to do with mercy. If Satan is the prince of pride, then we must struggle to be humble. Out of human ignorance, we think that humility is having mercy on others to our own detriment. But actually, in my opinion, mercy toward oneself, and *allowing* others to be merciful to us, can be much more difficult than having mercy on others ourselves. We know that we are supposed to love our neighbor as ourselves, but we often forget the second part: we must love ourselves first, as children of God! A rock cannot love a human as itself because it does not have the capacity for love. When we realize our own unique goodness and capacities, we can recognize our ability to be loved and then share this with others in love. So more directly to your point, the fact that Jesus has taken all the blame means that your guilt is mediated. The divorce situation is still because of you to an extent, and there are consequences in this life, but (a) your salvation is still God’s will, and (b) God took the blame so we wouldn’t have to wallow in it forever.

  • Ladasha Smithson

    Preach on Eddie. The so call problems with Catholic marriage prep would disappear if the Church actually put effort into helping Catholics find spouses.

  • Ladasha Smithson

    I disagree with you notion that the Church was passive historically.

    The Church, is ultimately made up of all the believers. Catholic parents and grandparents used to help their children find spouses. There used to be dances exclusive to singles instead of what we have now for married and engaged couples only. Being setup by a family member or friend wasn’t taboo. Ministries for singles weren’t run by other singles. There used to be professional match makers who helped people find spouses.

    Making sure the next generation of Catholics got married was considered the responsibility of the previous generation. The Church was never passive about marriage, up until recently that is.

  • MariaDevotee


    The Church doesn’t have a problem with marriage prep.

    It has a problem with helping singles find marriage.