Articles relating to the sanctity of marriage have been churning out from Catholic media sources recently. The identity of marriage as between a man and a woman has been outlined and explained. Volumes have been written about the sacredness of sex and the scandal of contraception.
Catholic couples with even limited exposure to Catholic media know that contraception is wrong, that the potential spouse needs to be a different gender for the marriage to be valid, and that they should wait until marriage to engage in sexual relations.
While the prohibitions are clear, marriage preparation fails to instruct couples in what they should be doing once they get married. Matrimony is its own sacrament, so it must be important and holy. But those are vague concepts. What do they mean?
Very little, if any, material on how a couple ought to practically utilize the graces of marriage for the salvation of themselves and each other is given in many marriage preparation programs. My husband and I had a disappointing experience with Pre-Cana in our diocese. It seemed as long as basics such as communication, primary financial skills and defining abusive behaviors were covered in a Saturday afternoon retreat, attendees were considered prepared for a lifetime vocation and ready to effectively evangelize and raise the next generation of the faithful.
My observation is not meant to minimize the efforts of those who write on the sanctity of marriage and associated issues. In our morally-compromised society, their witness is desperately needed. There are too many people completely unaware of what the Church teaches on these issues and they need to be reached. The problem is that this written evangelization alone is often treated like comprehensive marriage preparation. Reading a book or a few articles is insufficient for actually building strong marriages.
Another problem is that vocations to marriage tend to be treated as “default vocations” for those of us not “holy” enough to be called into the priesthood or religious life. If one looks at diocesan vocations resources, there are tons of formation programs, vocation fairs, and weekend retreats aimed at recruiting young people for the priesthood and religious life. My experience being educated in Catholic schools and participating in parish youth programs gave me plenty of exposure. No resources were aimed at preparing young people for marriage.
I understand that there are shortages and that we need new priests and religious desperately. Church programs that encourage religious vocations have been formed in response to a crisis. Nevertheless the church will not gain new religious and priests if she does not cultivate fertile ground of the family in which religious vocations grow. It seems strange that the Church has devoted so much time and energy to harvesting religious vocations from existent marriages, yet spends so little preparing marriages that are just beginning.
To put it bluntly, the marriage formation programs seem to be lower priority than encouraging religious vocations. When my husband and I started marriage preparation, I hoped that we would cover new ground with our pastor. I wanted learn more about what the sacrament of matrimony entailed, and hopefully be formed in a way that would deepen my relationship with my fiancé. I wanted to be challenged and gain insight into the areas where I needed to grow.
Our pastor basically told us that we were both from “good families” and there was nothing he could teach us. Diocesan formation was no better. There was nothing about what marriage is or means as a sacrament, very little spiritual formation and no counseling or individual direction of any kind. We had hoped to hear Theology of the Body or Humanae Vitae at least mentioned. Instead we were offered vague “relationship skills.” It was a set of skills for damage control when things get rocky, at best. It was fluff-laden, empty platitudes at worst.
Going through marriage prep felt as if we were there to fill a requirement and nothing more. It felt like the diocese was saying, “Show up, sit still for a few hours while we spout general good advice , and we’ll give you a certificate so that we can say that we taught you something.”
Contrast my marriage preparation experience with the support and years of formation that priests and religious receive before ordination or final vows. Regardless of their prior knowledge of the faith or their personal prayer life, a priest or religious must undergo formation with a spiritual director. They are directed to find mentors who have been living as religious that can help guide their growth. They are required to study practical skills needed in their vocations as well as undergoing spiritual formation. They are made to understand that what they are attempting to undergo is a life-long commitment, and they are given the tools to live their commitments.
I talked to other couples we know who were preparing for marriage and heard similar stories to ours. One couple we knew drove for four hours to attend a Pre-Cana retreat, only to suffer through a two-hour talk on the symbolism of unity candles. Another couple we know walked out on a similar retreat half-way through, disgusted. This couple, like us, was also told by their priest that there was nothing he could really teach them, that they also came from apparently “good families”, and he assumed that they were ready.
I am by no means encouraging years-long engagement periods, but I do think that there ought to be more serious formation before marriage. It should involve prayer, spiritual direction, and direct teaching of Church doctrine. Priests also need to have the courage to help a couple discern if they are, in fact, called to this vocation. Couples need to work with their pastors to identify possible problems in preparation for the daily challenges of living together. Marriage is a serious, life-long vocation, and deserves treatment as such.
Defending the sanctity of marriage is important, and I am grateful to those who undertake the effort. There are many who need to hear the beautiful truth of the Church’s teaching on marriage. I will say, however, that defending the sanctity of marriage might be easier if we as a Church held marriage in higher regard. We must take the formation of our families more seriously from the very beginning, and actively nurture what we defend. The vocation of marriage deserves equal dignity to religious in preparation, formation, and guidance because it has an equal and complementary importance in the life of the Church.