Saturday, 31 May 2008

Marriage preparation: a need for reform?

Being single, the nearest I have got to being involved in marriage preparation was when I was asked to give a talk to the parents of the First Communion children in the parish, some five years ago now. Near the beginning of my talk I spoke about the idea of the husband-wife relationship in a marriage as being a sign of the relationship between Christ, who is its head, and the Church. So, the husband represents Christ and the wife represents the Church, which can also be seen figured as the Virgin Mary. This signification is essential to an understanding of marriage as a sacrament and not just as a community in human society, albeit that the community in human society aspect has a divine origin "from the beginning". It is, of course, why the Church teaches that a sacramental marriage is indissoluble.

What struck me at the time was that the parents listening to me might well have not heard that said to them before; and they almost certainly would not have had any help as to how that aspect of the sacramental character of marriage can be lived out in daily life. As I write this post, I am reminded,too, of the bidding prayers that I wrote for my sister's wedding - they were the only place in the ceremony where explicit reference was made to marriage as imaging the relationship between Christ and his Church - and the appreciation of them that was expressed afterwards.

I am prompted to comment on this by a post at just doing my best, describing the blogger's experience of a marriage preparation course. It is a very calm and dignified post, but the following extract gives some idea of the blogger's evaluation of her own marriage preparation course (but do follow the link and read her entire post):

I was hugely disappointed that the organisers were so desperate not to offend people who don't follow the Church's teaching that they ignored that teaching altogether and actually went out of their way in some cases to indicate that they didn't follow it either. I truly believe that a course which purports to be Catholic should actually be Catholic. Where you have a mixed marriage, I think that the non-Catholic spouse should know what it means to be married to a Catholic. If they don't hear it on a Catholic marriage preparation course, where else are they going to hear it?

I have wondered for some time now whether the preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage should not perhaps mirror more closely that required for the other "Sacrament at the service of Communion", Ordination. That requires up to six years of preparation, sometimes longer ... well, perhaps I am not suggesting that for marriage! But other aspects - a human formation, a spiritual formation, a pastoral formation and a suitable philosophical/theological formation could be put in place. A bishop should perhaps define for his diocese a minimum standard of formation that should be received before a couple may marry, rather like the minimum requirement for studies before ordination that is contained in Canon Law. It would be interesting, too, if both partners to the marriage were required to write to the parish priest requesting the Sacrament, in a form of words that makes clear their understanding of what marriage is. Perhaps some form of pre-marriage retreat should also be expected. If this seems "over the top" to some, I would respond that it reflects that what is being sought is not just "marriage" but the reception of a Sacrament, and it is this latter that requires a sacramental type of preparation.

Some aspects of the human formation do appear to have been present in the preparation day described in just doing my best's post (communication). Spiritual and theological formation appears to have been pretty much absent. A pastoral formation could be very interesting, responding as it does to Familiaris Consortio's discussion of the role of families towards each other and towards society as a whole [comment made from memory, so I might not have got this quite right].

Whilst it would be wrong to make the demands of marriage preparation unecessarily burdensome, I think it is clear that the one day course described is not sufficient. I have no doubt that it should be possible to provide a preparation that is authentically Catholic, that is pastorally appropriate for non-Catholic partners to marriage, and responds in an authentically Catholic way to those couples who come to marriage preparation after already starting to live together.

POSTSCRIPT: I have just visited the Marriage Care web pages that describe their aims in marriage preparation. Without being uncharitable, and recognising that it is at the service of the common good for a (Catholic) organisation to offer marriage preparation to those who are not Catholics, the inadequacy of their statement of aims as a preparation for Catholic sacramental marriage is quite transparent. Their preparation programme would need to be supplemented by additional provision in order for it to be satisfactory for sacramental preparation.


Joe said...

This is part of a comment received, and is published unchanged by me. The full comment is too long to post, but I think this first part of it effectively communicates what the commenter wanted to say.

"The Marriage Care website has some resources for teaching schoolchildren about sexuality and relationships, wiht a strong emphasis on treating every view as equally valid, and couched in the usual diversity/equality language. A systematic approach to teaching pupils what the Church teaches, use of the Catechism, Humanae Vitae, Familiaris Consortio, Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality etc, are conspicuous by their absence. Instead, there are numerous references to organisations that can provide further non-judgemental 'guidance and help'. The information below is taken from a KS4 lesson plan: ..."

and there follows a long account of different methods of barrier contraception.

The sad thing here is that, whilst someone like me can recognise a kind of "arms length" sort of relationship between Marriage Care and the Catholic Church, and therefore not identify its materials automatically as Catholic teaching, those outside the Church will not see that "arms length" and take Marriage Care resources as Catholic teaching. This can only have a serious adverse affect on the mission of the Church.

Anonymous said...

The Priest has the expertise to teach all about the Sacrament of Marriage but he can't do everything. So commited, willing people are called upon to help, maybe they are not given the relevent training to" get the message across".
As for the idea of the couple both putting it in writing to the Parish Priest that they want to receive the Sacrament of Marriage, that might frighten some people, because remember the Church is made up of people of all levels of ability. The Sacrament of Marriage shouldn't be entered lightly but l don't think we should make it harder for people who are obviously committed.

Joe said...

The question of the couple writing to the Parish Priest: before ordination and religious profession, a candidate is required to write a form of letter to their superior or bishop in their own handwriting requesting the step. It is intended to provide an assurance of their freedom from any external pressures, as well as their own commitment. Why not for marriage as well, which has a similar permanence of commitment as final profession or ordination?

Anonymous said...

A man putting himself forward for the Priesthood would have to have a certain level of education - i'm not saying people are uneducated but for some this might be more difficult than others.When you write "it is intended to provide an assurance of freedom..." it conjures up an image of the "groom" writing the letter with "bride" holding a gun to his head or vice-versa!!

miss book said...

Thanks, Joe, you are quite right in that it was too long a comment: I think I got carried away in trying to evidence what I wanted to say.Many of the Marriage Care Sex-Ed lesson plans carry a disclaimer to the effect that the contents do not necessarily reflect their (presumably Catholic) views, but they also recommend giving the pupils copies of the 'useful websites/helplines, 'for personal use after this lesson'.

Joe said...

One of Cardinal Touran's principles for dialogue is that you need to be confident and assured about your own faith position in order to engage with the "other". Are Marriage Care meeting this criterion?

la mamma said...

An interesting post, Joe. I think that you're right. If couples are not prepared for Catholic marriage, the Church is selling them short. It's not fair on them. Marriage prep, like first communion prep and baptismal prep are golden opportunities for formation of the laity and to squander such opportunities is just plain daft.

When I was engaged, I read a book about marriage prep. I forget what it was called, but it discussed 'remote', 'proximate' and 'immediate' preparation for marriage. 'Remote' preparation is basically ones Catholic formation through childhood and teenage years - so you do have a hand in marriage prep through any input you have in formation of youth!

I remember that under 'immediate' preparation the engaged were advised to make use of the sacrament of confession just before marriage. I wonder just how widely that bit of advice is bandied around marriage prep courses?

I'd always considered marriage prep to be the place where one would learn about NFP, or at least learn where to learn about NFP. Does that happen? Engaged couples are being sold short if they're not told.