Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Making Marriage Hard

Arguments within the church continue at a low simmer as various factions prepare for the second round of the Synod on the Family in October. Some groups seem convinced that the synod can change (either explicitly or in practice) the teachings of the Church on issues such as the indissolubility of marriage, same sex marriage, etc.

On the matter of doctrine, I believe that the Church cannot change, and in matters of discipline I hope that the bishops will not choose to make changes which would lend the appearance of doctrinal change, confusing a world already far too confused on the nature of marriage.

With all this tension in the air, it was a surprise to me to read a piece I agree with in the National Catholic Reporter on the issue of making the process of getting married within the Church less burdensome. This isn't dealing with the "hot button" issues like changing the annulment process, but rather the ways in which the bureaucracy of  large parishes and the American bias towards massive wedding celebrations have come together to make it increasingly hard for couples to get married.

A May 25, 2012, NCR report looked at church-led efforts to address the growing challenge of getting young Catholic couples to a Catholic altar. In that story, San Francisco Auxiliary Bishop Robert McElroy, now bishop of San Diego, spoke of church requirements -- among them the six-month advance notice, marriage preparation costs and wedding location rules -- that "throw up a lot of barriers."
Following their December 2013 engagement, Katie Hernandez and Philip Trejo did what most Catholic couples do: began searching for a date and parish for their wedding.

They first turned to Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Lancaster, Calif. -- Katie's home parish, where her mother has worked since 2000 and where Philip worked for five years. Despite those connections, the response they received was the same one her sister had heard six years earlier: If you're not registered parishioners, you can't get married here.

Frustrated, the couple moved quickly to find a new church, turning to St. Mary Catholic Church, where Katie has taught physical education for two years. At the Palmdale, Calif., parish, they found a more welcoming environment, something Katie credited to her job and friendship with pastor Fr. Vaughn Winters.

Though they secured a church, the hurdles didn't disappear, with the process appearing at times more bureaucratic than sacramental. Both Katie and Philip had difficulty tracking down their sacramental records, with a priest at one point telling Katie she couldn't get married until proof was presented. A list of various fees that compounded as they went through the six-month marriage preparation had her wondering, "It's a sacrament, and we're paying for what?"

Later, she witnessed a priest move another wedding because the bride hadn't paid the proper deposit -- a rescheduling that benefited Katie, but left her thinking, "That's crazy. How do we do these things to people?"
Karmen and Eduardo Mayorga had been married around two years when they decided in 2013 to have their union blessed in the Catholic church. By then, the couple had an established life together: They shared a home and Karmen had become a mother to Eduardo's three children.

When they approached their parish priest at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in El Paso, Texas, he informed them that Eduardo, who was baptized in the Catholic church but raised in the Jehovah's Witness faith, must first receive the sacraments of Communion and confirmation. While friends thought the blessing could come first, the El Paso diocese told Karmen that marriage preparation requirements differed from parish to parish.

Work conflicts led the Mayorgas to explore taking sacramental classes at other parishes. In the process, the response of some parish staff and priests was more administrative than congratulatory. It felt to Karmen more "like getting your driver's license" than prepping for a sacrament.
These sorts of stories rang familiar from back when we were trying to get married, as well as dealing with baptisms at some parishes in which the process seemed more designed to check boxes on a form than to grant children the graces of baptism promptly.

We lucked out in our own preparations to get married. The difficulty was that we were graduating college in Ohio and moving out to the Los Angeles area, where we wanted to get married as soon as possible. We weren't members of a parish and several parishes had rules that you had to have been a registered parishioner for six months before you could sign up to get married in the parish and begin yet another six month waiting period between when you asked to get married and when you could actually get married. Luckily, my parents' parish was willing to treat us as parishioners, so we got on the marriage schedule during our senior year of college and were married six weeks after graduating.

Other barriers can be financial. Sometimes the required marriage prep classes come with fees. The parish where we got married required that couples hire the parish approved wedding coordinator to organize things.

A number of these rules are put in place to deal with the problem that at times people who are not practicing Catholic want to use the church as the setting for a big church wedding. Others are designed to try to keep people from entering into marriages that are likely to fall apart later.

I'm sympathetic to these lines of thinking. Marriage is a sacrament, and we want people to be taking it seriously despite a culture in which far too often people do not. And yet, if we allow how parishes deal with weddings to seem like they are acting as gatekeeper to a huge, fancy ceremony -- doling it out only to those who show themselves deserving by jumping through certain administrative hoops -- I fear that we inadvertently reinforce the tendency already all too common in our culture to view marriage as a capstone achievement: First you live together, you get a good job, you buy a house, and get ready to have kids, and then you get married to show that you've "arrived" in life and are ready to settle down and be a successful family.

It's encouraging that people perceive marriage as something they want to "get right", but since we know that having sex outside of marriage is a mortal sin, we don't want to be encouraging people to live together until their household has sufficiently "arrived" to bless it with marriage.

In this area, I think there are two things we should think about:

First, a number of the hurdles, in regards to both time and money, are designed to manage the scheduling of the church for large "church weddings". However, the sacrament itself does not require an organist, white dress, phalanx of bridesmaids and groomsmen, and hundreds of guests. There is absolutely nothing to prevent a Catholic marriage from being celebrated quietly: priest, couple, witnesses, perhaps a few family and friends. In our culture of conspicuous consumption, there may not at first be much desire for such a quiet ceremony, but it should at least be clearly presented as an option, rather than making one Friday night wedding and two to three during the course of Saturday be some sort of a hard cap on the number of weddings which can be performed in a large parish.

Second, we need to take a serious look at some of the requirements which are put up in order to make sure people are serious about marriage, and ask ourselves if they are actually doing anything to help prevent people from entering into vows that they will not keep. All things considered, we went to a pretty decent set of marriage prep classes, and yet the only effect they had on our relationship was to prevent us from participating in the play the theater was putting on our last semester of college (the marriage prep classes overlapped with rehearsals.) Maybe other couples who hadn't had three years of dating to think through issues ("Have you talked about how you will manage finances?") received some benefit, but I kind of wonder. It often seems to me that this is more an exercise in do-something-ism: We should do something to help make sure that people understand the nature of Catholic marriage and that those likely to divorce don't get married. This is something. Therefore, we should do this.

But is it helping? Is telling couple to wait six months and attend a couple of desultory classes really going to do much to inspire fidelity to the Church's view of marriage or to help those with serious relationship problems to realize it in time?

A particular area in which it seems like there should be some streamlining, especially if people are not trying to schedule a big church ceremony, is when people are trying to get an existing union of some sort blessed: whether that's a marriage outside the Church, or a situation in which people who are nor married have been living together for some time and perhaps have children together.

Obviously, if there's a situation in which either the man or woman is possibly already married, there is a need to stop and look at whether that was a valid marriage and thus whether they can be married in the Church at all. However, if no such impediment exists, a delay means either asking a couple who have been living as if married for some time to stop doing so (which needless to say would involve various relationship challenges) or else winking at the fact that they are not married (which is morally a problem.)

In cases where the couple have simply been living in sin together, some hold that they should be encouraged to separate and live chastely for some period of time before being married. I used to have a lot of sympathy with this approach. However, more recently I've come to think that this is misguided. Marriage is not a reward for living chastely prior to marriage, it is a vow to live together as husband and wife, open to children, until death. If people have been living together in an un-blessed version of such a relationship, telling them to break up their household and live apart in order to be able to receive the sacrament so that they can then live together again seems a wrongheaded approach, and one which puts up unnecessary barriers before people who are making an attempt to right their lives in the eyes of the Lord. The solution, I think, is simply to insist that they make a proper confession, receive absolution for their sins, and then marry them quickly and quietly.

There's a similar tendency these days, if a couple has become pregnant out of wedlock, to insist on the couple waiting for a significant period before getting married, sometimes until a certain amount of time after the baby is born. I think one of the ideas here is to make sure that the couple does not feel unduly pressured by the pregnancy to get married, perhaps only later to decide that they're not actually willing to stick by the vows they entered into so quickly. Another perhaps goes back to the big-event-scheduling approach to marriage: why should you get priority and be able to bump someone else's slot in a crowded schedule just because you got pregnant? Clearly, it would be a problem to bump some other couple's wedding so that a pregnant couple could have a big church wedding sooner rather than later. However, setting aside the question of event planning, which is arguably not how we should be thinking about the sacrament anyway: If a couple is going to raise a family together, and is already expecting a child, I'm not clear that telling them to live apart through pregnancy, or asking them to live together "as brother and sister", or tacitly encouraging them to live together in sin is particularly good for them. What is being accomplished? Why not simply marry them and let them get started with living as the family which they have so precipitously formed?

It assuredly is a big problem that for many Catholics, living together outside of marriage seems like a reasonable thing to do. However, I don't think that we necessarily help that situation when we make it increasingly difficult to get married.


Agnes said...

Interesting to see how marriage preparation works (or doesn't work) in the US. I agree with this approach very much: instead of going into controversial issues, instead of trying to conform "doctrine" (at least, the interpretation of it) or discipline to the expectation of the world, we can make a lot of progress by simply behaving as Christians ought: kind, non-judgmental, helpful, understanding.
Another thing: it is somewhat surprising that even in a rich and advanced country like the US sacramental records aren't organized into an electronic database so that proof of baptism/marriage could be more easily obtained. I do not doubt that the amount of data to be converted into electronic database is huge, but it would be very useful.

Jenny said...

Easily the most frustrating aspect of my wedding was dealing with the Church. Trying to get the priest on the phone to schedule anything was nearly impossible. Talking to the secretary was the same as leaving a message in a black hole. I am fairly certain getting the POTUS on the phone might be a simpler task.

We had to take a diocesan engagement retreat where we were put into small groups headed by a married couple. We were supposed to discuss the points by ourselves and in group, but nobody followed up to make sure we did and nobody bothered to check if we had any relationship conflicts that needed resolving. It was all filtered through sharing intimate details with a group of strangers for the weekend. Not gonna happen even if I did have problems that needed addressing.

The main thing I remember about it was when we were supposed to share with the group a time we had had a fight and how we could fight more fairly or something. We had never really had a fight, whereas I understood fight to mean yelling angrily at each other in disagreement, and I said as much. The wife of the facilitating couple all but called me a liar. Okay then. But even if I had been lying, there was never any follow-up to anyone in authority to say a) she obviously has a tenuous relationship with the truth or b) they obviously need more help in conflict resolution. It was just an expensive box to check: We completed the required retreat.

Lauren said...

I was actually happy with our marriage prep. We met with the priest monthly to discuss spiritual and relationship issues. We went to the required retreat, and I found it helpful. It was because of that retreat that my fiancé and I decided to give up artificial birth control and premarital sex, and use NFP after marriage. I'd consider that a plus. The church asked for a donation of 10% of the wedding costs. So the costs were in accord with the size wedding we were having, and this was at a historic cathedral tourist destination. The diocese does have a 6 month waiting period, and I have heard that other dioceses that implement them have lowered their divorce rates. I can see how the 6 months needs to be flexible for the individual situation of the couple and at the discretion of the priest. However, it doesn't seem to be a horrible guideline to me. Maybe I just got lucky, and we were active parish members. Obviously not just trying to score a pretty church wedding.

Anonymous said...

At first I was skeptical of your thesis, on the ground that making marriage easier is only going to encourage frivolous marriages, and such frivolous marriages will doom people to being barred from communion once the inevitable divorce and remarriage occurs.

But on reflection, I think you make a good point. Parish sacrament prep classes do not tend to be of very high quality, in my experience. It's likely that they are perceived by most couples as little more than a hurdle to be cleared and a trial to be endured.

What is more likely to make people take marriage seriously is constant and consistent preaching on the sanctity and permanence of marriage. If that is not instilled in one's upbringing, the void is not going to be filled by a few "prep" sessions.

mandamum said...

Fr. John Riccardo commented at one point, in his "Christ is the Answer" taped talks show, that at his parish they gave up the marriage prep classes and instead had the couple attend an Alpha course within the parish. He and his team were concerned with how few people stayed on after marrying in the Church, and wanted to aim the treatment more at the root. After all, why care about how to live a Christian marriage if one has no idea why to be a Christian in the first place?

I'm glad to know that marriage prep re NFP can have a positive effect on people - I've always assumed that's why it seems so heavily evident. For us, it was frustrating that there didn't seem to be anything else (except of course, the questionaire and some hand waving about financial personalities). I was consciously, prayerfully, with much discernment, preparing to marry not only outside the visible bounds of the Church, but across "disparity of cult" (ie marrying an unbaptized person) (but one who had read - and agreed with - Humanae Vitae, so that wasn't an issue) and I tried hard to get some additional prep to ensure we'd crossed as many t's as we could. But it was hard - it's hard to find someone willing to ask the hard questions, because that's an uncomfortable place to be.


Enbrethiliel said...


How does one even register to belong to a parish? I don't think I've ever done that in my life. I just show up. But there do seem to be records somewhere: I recall a visiting priest saying he didn't envy our parish priest for having to minister to more families than he could visit in a year. (That is, over 365.)

As far as I can tell, you can get married in any Catholic church in the Philippines as long as you're willing to pay a stipend and all your documents are in order. In my opinion, imposing a stipend isn't so bad. The worst that happens is that beautiful churches will keep getting more beautiful (if only because it makes good business sense =P), while plain churches tend to stay plain. On the other hand, the documents are so gameable.

I once fought bitterly with my former best friend, whom it would be stretching to call a "non-practicing Catholic," over this. We argued because she applied for Confirmation with her brother right before his wedding, not because she really believed (on the contrary, she thought it was mostly bunk), but because she saw what a big hassle it was for him to scrape together the paperwork for a Catholic ceremony and she wanted to avoid the same when it was time for her to get married.

Which is my long-winded way of saying that I agree that these hoops don't really have the effects of getting us to take the sacraments seriously or of discouraging "bad" marriages (which, incidentally, her brother and sister-in-law's union has turned out to be). Instead, they seem to penalise couples who are serious about their faith.

Darwin said...

I recall a visiting priest saying he didn't envy our parish priest for having to minister to more families than he could visit in a year. (That is, over 365.)

So, this has me thinking. Our parish is kind of big for being in a medium size town (it's a 150+ year old church and there's only one in the town which has grown a lot in recent years) but it's not inordinately large by local standards. We have 3,000+ families...

Which helps explain why we don't know some other families simply because they normally go do a different mass on Sunday than we do.

Lauren said...

Is the parish registration largely an American thing? I had a discussion about it with my African neighbor who did not understand why he would want to register at the local parish when they didn't have anything like that back home. I explained about the envelopes; still confused. Then I explained about the charitable tax deduction, and he was totally on board.

On a side note, growing up in the Jewish community there is no injunction against paying for religious ceremonies. Hebrew school, bar/bat mitzvah prep, and high holidays tickets require being a member of the congregation and are expensive. Weddings are usually less of a big deal. When your community largely comes around just for these life milestones, and is not active on a weekly basis the congregation has to support itself somehow.

Cminor said...

Enbretheliel and Lauren, normally it's just a matter of filling out names of family members and contact info on a card so the parish has a record of your existence. And yes, it is a very American thing and as far as I can tell not so much elsewhere. I've been doing work for our parish Hispanic ministry and convincing the faithful to fill out those darn little white cards is a topic over which we've racked our brains at more than one meeting. Complicating the fact that nobody's used to registering and don't really understand why it matters is the reticence of the undocumented to give out too much information about themselves. We dangle the lure of the substantial parishioners' discount for renting the parish hall for quinceaneras often.

Re the marriage difficulties, One would think in this nation of immigrants we'd have some strategies for dealing with documentation problems. We know a very devout couple, married for years and the parents of two fine young men, who never married in the church because of paperwork--he escaped Cuba with his parents in the '60's and wouldn't ya know it, nobody thought to grab the baptism certificates. His parents could have attested to his baptism, but their parish apparently decided to be difficult about it. I'm sure similar situations are legion; there ought to be simple, painless procedures for dealing with them.

Laceagate said...

A shameless plug from my TC blogging days.

I never thought there'd be another person out there who shared my view. One of the frustrations I'm experiencing with the Church is this encouragement of a big event when there are many other issues to address with marriage.

Marriage prep is a joke because it needs to start well before people think about marriage. Marriage prep should be part of a "discerning one's vocation" prep, starting a little after grammar school. It's not bad to get young people thinking about how they want to spend the rest of their lives. It doesn't mean they have to decide to get married at 18 or 21. It just means they should be thinking seriously about it and understand a vocation isn't like a career choice. Marriage isn't a career choice, and neither is becoming a priest, monk, or a nun. Or living a holy single life in service to others.

We have to place some of the blame on parents here. On the flip side, we need to acknowledge parents entrust the Church to be assisting in teaching these things.

It is strange the Church makes it difficult to get married when clearly there are people who want to get married. Most people in my generation (Millennials) lived together outside of marriage for financial purposes. They wanted to cut down on double expenses, so living together was the most logical step to them. It helped them save for a wedding. I mean, no Catholic wants to go to the courthouse or elope. They want the sacrament in a church, witnessed by their family and friends. Unfortunately this dilemma causes them to live in a manner not advised by the order for them to get married in the Church.

Anonymous said...

Parish marriage prep for us was pretty useless. General discussions of conflict resolution and financial planning were superficial and fairly irrelevant to a sacrament anyway. In my opinion, marriage prep should focus on the religious aspects of marriage.

But I strongly agree with Laceagate (7/03/2015 2:10 AM): by the time a couple has found each other and wants to get married it is almost too late for marriage prep anyway. They have a vested interest in jumping through hoops so they can get on with things.

Rather, I think a more sacramentally-oriented marriage prep ought to be offered in high school, about grade 10 or 11. As this is normally long before a prospective marriage partner is even on the radar, a person can then be more objective in deterimining the question "am I called to be married at all" rather than "how can I go about getting married to this particular person as soon as possible."