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.