Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Catholic Marriage Preparation

On Friday, July 25, the Courier Times carried a revealing, insightful piece by Terry Mattingly, noting that MOST couples seeking Catholic marriage ceremonies are already living together.  While priests realize that sexual relations between unmarried people is gravely wrong, Mattingly says that some are even reticent about saying anything:
  • "At the end of the 20th century, the U.S. Catholic bishops were circulating materials noting that nearly half of all couples seeking Catholic marriage-preparation sessions were already cohabitating. A set of 1988 guidelines, entitled 'Faithful to Each Other Forever,' warned priests to avoid two extremes:  
    '(1) Immediately confronting the couple and condemning their behavior and
    (2) Ignoring the cohabitation aspect of their relationship.'
    "Ever since, priests have been asked to view marriage-preparation sessions as chances to welcome couples back into the life of the church. However, they are also supposed to communicate that sex outside of marriage is a grave sin.  Thus, some Catholic dioceses -- but not all -- urge those who are cohabiting to live separately and cease premarital sex while preparing for the Sacrament of Marriage."
While I am not familiar with the U.S. Bishops' Faithful to Each Other Forever (1988), I am familiar with the Vatican's more recent Preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage (1998), which is readily available - and free of charge - on the internet:
  • "Preparation for marriage, for married and family life, is of great importance for the good of the Church....In the past, this preparation could count on the support of society which recognized the values and benefits of marriage....In general, separations and marriage failures were rare, and divorce was considered a social 'plague'....In many nations, especially economically developed ones, the number of marriages has decreased. Marriage is usually contracted at a later age and the number of divorces and separations is increasing, even during the first years of married life."

Where I grew up, young people could take a full driver's ed course in high school, which included both on-the road instruction and classroom learning.  Instead of months of classroom learning, a single three hour class was also an option.  My impression has long been that Catholic marriage preparation is often treated like a similar, quick three hour class.  This is especially ironic, when you consider that the Catechism of the Catholic Church talks about just two "sacraments at the service of communion," which "are directed towards the salvation of others....They confer a particular mission in the Church and serve to build up the People of God" (1534).  These two sacraments are Holy Orders and Marriage. 

While preparation for Holy Orders, ordination to the diaconate/priesthood/episcopacy, is rightly seen as a multi-year project, preparation for Marriage often seems treated like an all-day Saturday or a weekend program could somehow suffice!  By contrast, Preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage sees preparation for marriage as beginning with "remote preparation" in earliest childhood, followed later by "proximate" and "immediate" stages.  "It is in the family, the domestic church, that Christian parents are the first witnesses and educators of the children both in the growth of 'faith, hope and charity', and in each child discovering his or her own vocation."

During the "proximate" stage, Preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage speaks of instruction in natural family planning (i.e., fertility awareness) for engaged couples.  Many Catholics might be surprised to learn that rudimentary instruction in natural family planning only became required in the Archdiocese's marriage preparation programs within the past year or so!

Overall, the Vatican's Preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage presents Catholic Church teaching in an unapologetic manner with obvious belief that it has Good News for couples!  If priests, deacons, and pastoral workers truly believe this Good News, they will refuse to shy away from presenting any "uncomfortable" truths.

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