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

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Marriage Prep: Theory, Practice, and "How Far Can We Go?"

Darwin has some analysis at The Pillar about the state of marriage, Catholic and otherwise, to accompany Pope Francis's recent call for a three-stage, multi-year catechumenate of marriage.

The Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life released June 15 “Catechumenal Itineraries for Married Life,” a draft text published in Italian and Spanish,” with an introduction by Pope Francis.

In his introduction, the pope wrote that the document meets "the need for a ‘new catechumenate’ in preparation for marriage" — a need the pontiff said he has flagged before. 

Describing difficulties the recommendations aim to address, Pope Francis wrote that:

“What emerged was the serious concern that, with too superficial a preparation, couples run the real risk of entering into a marriage that is null and void or has such a weak foundation that it ‘falls apart’ in a short time and cannot withstand even the first inevitable crises.”

The pope noted that the Church already devotes many years to the formation of candidates for the priesthood and religious life, and observes that in comparison the Church provides only a few days or weeks of active formation for couples approaching matrimony, which is a vocation of equal importance in the Church.

To fill this gap, the document prescribes a catechumenate of marriage, which Pope Francis described as follows: 

“It is structured according to the three stages: the preparation for marriage (remote, proximate and immediate); the celebration of the wedding; the accompaniment of the first years of married life.”

The situation

The family is, according to the Church, the foundation of human society. 

But while the number of Catholics in the world has increased 17% over the last 12 years, the number of marriages celebrated by the Church has decreased 26% over that same period of time, according to statistics released in the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae.

Indeed, in every region of the world, the number of marriages celebrated within the Church has dropped in relation to the Catholic population between 2007 and 2019 —  in some cases drastically.

The article includes plenty of charts and graphs tracing these trends. 

We had a year-and-a-half engagement, which was quite correct for our situation as college students, and yet I still believe it would be an abuse to mandate a longer "catechumenate of marriage" engagement period, because every couple is different. Had we met after college, we might have married within six months. As we approach our 21st anniversary next week, it's an amusing exercise to reflect on the fundamental uselessness of our own marriage prep. We took (separately) a FOCCUS questionnaire, which is a tool to assess whether a couple has (or thinks they have) discussed certain necessary topics, and whether there are are areas of disagreement that should be addressed before marriage. Here's a sample of the questions. Some friends did find it helpful -- "Oh, maybe we should be talking about finances before we get married!". As for us, the priest whose job it was to go over the assessment with us looked at our scores, then looked at us and said, "I'm not saying you cheated, but I've never seen a couple have almost 100% overlap on their answers."

This was before we took our marriage prep classes, and nothing in those classes would have changed our answers, or indeed have contributed in any way to improving our fitness for marriage. What would have been vastly more informative (and interesting) would have been to talk through an annulment assessment, both together and with a priest and/or mentor. Here's an example of such a document, from the tribunal of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. This is not a bulletproof cure-all, but it might improve the psychological health of many relationships to address, before taking vows, the kinds of issues that will surface later and cause a lot of pain and turmoil. You deal with your issues, or (sooner or later) they will deal will you.

But there is also never any relationship that will be free from pain and turmoil. We are human, and to be human is to be constantly growing into deeper spiritual realities that are beyond our human capability to handle. "Die to self," says Jesus, and this isn't prescriptive, but descriptive. We will die to self. We are constantly dying to self, confronted with pain and glory -- or painful glory -- that breaks and remakes us. Marriage provides an excellent school of death to self, because you are intimately entwined with a person who is not you, who, despite the deepest human love, you cannot save and who cannot save you. It is a source of pain because growth is painful -- not because it's bad, but because it's stretchy. And pain is diagnostic. It warns you that something is changing. And change is not always bad! 

This is something, incidentally, that would have been almost incomprehensible to me when I took marriage prep, because I had the utter confidence (justified, I might add) of marrying my best friend whom I would never do anything hurt, and who would never do anything to hurt me (which, 21 years later, is still true). And I did not understand, and might not have believed it if I had been told so, that pain is caused not only by sin, which we have striven hard to avoid, but also by growth, which is unavoidable. If you are not growing you are dying -- and that's painful too.

Perhaps the only way to explain it is by using the story of the coal with which the angel touched Isaiah's mouth (Is. 6:6-7), which gave him the grace to speak clearly and openly, and probably hurt like hell. Never, in our 21-year marriage or our 25-year friendship, have we spoken an unkind or abusive word to one another, and I call our friends and children (who naturally have a love of dishing on their parents) as witness. But we have had to speak words that hurt -- or, rather, words that we held in for fear that they might hurt the other, which, when finally spoken, led to loving, fertile conversations. I believe this is the true submission spoken of in Ephesians 5, and it calls for much more vulnerability and Christ-like humility than the garden-variety weirdness promoted by the "husband as head of the household, dammit!" interpretation.

In our household, we are trying to provide our children with a years-long catechumenate of marriage, so that they are not playing catch-up when it comes to the more immediate period of preparation. The first and most vital way we do this is through our own example, and I think we do okay. But even the finest example needs to be supplemented through active teaching. One of the best Catholic books about sex and relationships for teens and young adults is How Far Can We Go?, A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating, by Leah Perrault and Brett Salkeld

Of all the vast collection of guides to chastity for Catholics, this has been truest to our lived experience as young adults who navigated a deepening, increasing intimate relationship while saving sex for marriage. Ten years ago, I wrote a review of this book which is still our most viewed post, and ten years later, I've given my three oldest daughters their own copies -- autographed, as it happens, because Brett Salkeld recently sent me five copies for us to keep or donate.

Two of those copies are for you, dear readers. If you would like to be entered in our drawing, please comment below. (If you want to comment without being entered, you can of course do so, but let me know.) On Friday we'll pull a name out of Eleanor's battered hat, and post the winners both as an update to this post and in the comments.

AND THE WINNERS ARE: LadyHobbit and Mandamum!


Kathy Savinell said...

This is very thoughtful. Useful for Catholics and non-catholics alike. I am thankful for writers like you who can articulate the beauty of growth within marriage and also stand up for sex within the boundaries of marriage. God knows we need all the witnesses we can get! Thank you!

Carney said...

Sign us up! Really, this time! (Stephen here)

Recker25 said...

Robert and I matched on all but I one question on our questionnaire. We had done a lot of talking and dreaming before we got engaged. We also had 3 months together and then 3 months apart for 4 years. So lots of time in college to think. I would have been very frustrated to have a year long engagement class. We did go through the RCIA process our 1st year of marriage. Robert was my sponsor and we found that beneficial to our marriage. We got on the same page for a lot of things. If that had been mandated I don't know if I would be raising my kids catholic today.

Anna said...

Yeesh, mandated length of engagement is a terrible idea (both for the insistence that everyone wait that long, and for the idea that no one should wait longer). But the annulment questionnaire idea is outside the box (who wants to go over that with the starry-eyed?) and also something that sounds actually helpful!
Anyway, yes, sign me up for the drawing!

mandamum said...

I'd love to get a copy - will probably have to buy my own if I don't win your drawing. My husband and I had a 6mo engagement (+1 mo for wedding-date-picking purposes), and we tried REALLY HARD to find serious formation, because I was Catholic and he was non-baptized, and we wanted to take that challenge seriously. (The Church takes it seriously enough that my Bishop had to sign off on my marriage.) But everyone else looked at our very determination to find formation and praised it as showing we didn't need it. Gah.

Part of our proximate pre-engagement formation was reading Humanae Vitae together, so my husband knew what he was getting into :-D When he first met me, I was first-kiss-on-altar, but that didn't last long as I generally hate being more restrictive than the Church.

When I first saw these new ideas about marriage formation, the time thing made me wonder...and worry. If the year is 6 mo pre, 6 mo post, that might be great. (...*might*...) If a full year, it's like the frustrating 2-yr prep for 1st communion and confirmation here. I signed my last 1st communicant up in K (we do the classes at home as homeschoolers), so she could make her 1st communion when ready, even if in 1st gr, because she'd been officially signed up for the requisite 2yrs. But I didn't sign my current guy up last year because he was still so un-interested, and I didn't feel like pushing him, and now he's all gung-ho but will have 2 yrs to wait anyway because the paper says so. (Really, I signed them up at baptism, and have been preparing them ever since, so c'mon!) The confirmation doesn't even do CLASS for 2 yrs - they take the 1 yr class and split it across 2 falls or 2 springs, because mumble mumble classroom space, teacher availability - but we still MUST have 2 yrs of "prep" ("2 years of reflection and praying is a good thing, after all" Because one can't seek to grow in holiness, or desire to prepare for confirmation, until one has signed the paper and is at least past 8th grade....) To do the same with marriage prep time would be appalling - I don't think it's the lack of time spent as engaged couple that is causing marriages to fail, and it seems it would narrow further the field of those actually coming to the Church for marriage without increasing the benefit.

mandamum said...

(I had friends who were told, by a priest they trusted, that as such already serious committed Catholics, they should spend MORE time preparing for their marriage by growing in holiness and praying for each other, and something something, so their eventual marriage would be a truly amazing spectacle of a holy sign to the world. They took his advice...and eventually she married someone else. Preparation is no place to linger longer than truly necessary.)

Lizzie said...

Those other vocations don't have sex with the person you're most attracted to at the end of the formation. Seems like a horrible idea to set a lengthy engagement time. Be chaste! But wait x number of years!
Pretty sure marriage stats could be improved by Catholics having a better education in their faith. The dying to self part? That can't be taught. you just have to figure it out.

Christina Cox said...

I would love a copy! I definitely do not think more time in marriage prep is the answer. I think it will just push people away.

Heather Ricco said...

I would love a copy for my kids. I had no idea about the potential changes to marriage prep. I think NFP could use some changes, because when we went through the classes before marriage, it was mostly already married people (already having relations). They didn't talk about the difficulties that could be inherent if you did not have sex before marriage. Would have saved us some unneccessary pain.

Ladyhobbit said...

I'd also like a copy for my kids (and grandkids)!

Anonymous said...

I want to win a copy. Since it comes highly recommended, I'll buy if I don't win.

Michael said...

I'll put my name in the hat for this one; Our eldest are 12 but this sounds intriguing

MrsDarwin said...

The little boys drew names from the hat this morning, and the winners are...!


Please email us at with your address (and real name!), and we will put your books in the mail!

Everyone else: go buy a copy of this excellent book!

Michael said...

I had to look in to the scary headline "One Year of Marriage Formation" again, and it seems that includes periods both before and after marriage, with the very long period of formation applying primarily to the less well catechized:

48. The catechumenate will be a more or less long period of formation which includes immediate preparation… and accompaniment in the first years of marriage. The following indications are intended to be indicative only and must be implemented with pastoral intelligence according to the concrete possibilities that present themselves in each particular Church. In general, it is suggested that the forthcoming preparation should last approximately one year depending on the couple's previous experience of faith and ecclesial involvement, Having made the decision to marry - a moment that could be sealed by the rite of engagement - the immediate preparation for marriage could begin, lasting a few months, to be set up as a real initiation into the nuptial sacrament. The duration of these stages will have to be adapted, we repeat, taking into account the religious, cultural, social aspects of the environment in which one lives and even the personal situations of each couple. What is essential is to look at the rhythm of the meetings to accustom couples to take responsible care of their vocation and their marriage.

(google machine translation)