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Simcha FisherJune 29, 2022
Close-up of a bride and groom holding hands on their wedding day.(Unsplash/Drew Coffman)

Keep the lines of communication open, and buy gold.

Those are the two things and the only things my husband and I learned in our marriage preparation classes 25 years ago.

It’s hard to say which bit of advice was less helpful. We already knew communication was important, but what we really needed was practice. And the financial advice was sound, but we had exactly enough cash for one month’s rent and a new mattress, so that’s what we spent it on.

In other words, what we learned during marriage preparation was one thing that was true but uselessly abstract, and one thing that was true but comically irrelevant.

And this, unfortunately, seems to be par for the course for most Catholics. When I asked Catholics about their experience with marriage preparation, some said they enjoyed and appreciated it and learned valuable things. But many more told me that the experience was just an extra burden during an already stressful time, or even that it soured a skeptical partner against the faith. The recent announcement by the Vatican of a year-long (albeit voluntary, at least for now) “catechumenal itinerary for married life” has been met with mild to scathing cynicism from Catholics—including priests and lay people—on social media.

“Catholics think if you just get the right program, everything will be fine,” said Robert Krishna, a Dominican priest in the archdiocese of Melbourne, Australia. “And if they don’t understand what they need to do, repeat yourself louder and slower. That’s not the answer.”

Still, the answer cannot be simply to require no preparation. More than one canon lawyer who has worked on marriage tribunals has told me that many couples present themselves at the altar with little to no understanding of what marriage is. Their relationships fall apart because they were unprepared for marriage. So someone has to do something.

What type of marriage preparation is actually useful, helpful and stays with a couple as they grow into the sacrament they have conferred on each other? I talked with Father Krishna, several married people, and a married couple who have been running Engaged Encounter weekend retreats since 2005, and here is what I learned:

Circumstances vary widely. Couples should have access to more than one option so they can choose what works best for them.Some couples need to hear basic principles like, “You must be faithful; marriage is for life; children are good; yes, the church still forbids contraception.” Nobody else is going to tell them these things. Some couples approach the altar with only the vaguest idea of why they are there, and while some receive the “hard teachings” with skepticism, some are grateful and amazed to hear about the rich teachings the church has to offer regarding marriage, love, sacrifice, sexuality, childbearing and mutual sanctification.

Many couples present themselves at the altar with little to no understanding of what marriage is. Their relationships fall apart because they were unprepared for marriage.

But other couples are already deeply familiar with these ideas and would like help putting them into practice. Courtney Wells, a New Hampshire attorney married to an Episcopal priest, was disappointed with the preparation they received from the Catholic Church.

“My husband and I were desperately looking for some kind of spiritual nourishment as we prepared for marriage,” she said. “I would love for a diocese to lovingly offer [a more lengthy catechumenate] as an option, not a mandate, for couples who want to prayerfully prepare for how their lives are going to change upon getting married. Talks on how to pray together, navigating family issues, navigating illness, etc. drawn out over the course of a year would be so much more nourishing than a poorly executed, six-hour self-help class. And I think it would build community amongst those young families, the kind of thing I longed for when I was the only young mother at my parish.”

Still others would desperately like to opt out altogether, once they demonstrate they are already reasonably prepared. They are mature, intellectually equipped, well-supported and already scheduled to the hilt. They are well aware that what they need above all is time to build a life together—and the last thing they want is to travel long distances, sit through lectures and engage in forced socialization with strangers.

Many couples need an introduction to real intimacy.When my parents taught marriage preparation class, my mother said she thought she could tell which couples were really in love, because the idea of natural family planning seemed beautiful to them, rather than ridiculous. This was an oversimplification, but she was correct that many couples long for something more transcendent than that ultra-practical view of sexuality the secular world offers. Most couples are already living together, and they already know what a utilitarian approach to love feels like. They are hungry for some kind of greater intimacy.

“They’re looking for something, or else they wouldn’t be coming to the church at all,” said Paul Moses, a 17-year veteran running Engaged Encounter retreats for the diocese of Brooklyn. “We have something special. We have this treasure.”

Moses’ wife, Maureen, said that she feels like a weekend has been a success if the couple learns to pray together.

“If they learn to pray together, that’s the most intimate thing you can actually do. You can have sex like crazy and don’t even think of it; it’s what our society presents. But if they learn that praying together can make that sex very holy, I think that’s a really good thing,” she said.

Many couples said that their marriage preparation class was the first time anyone told them what the church’s teaching on sexuality actually is (and perhaps the first time someone suggested that sex was beautiful and meaningful). Here, too, some customization would be ideal: Some couples need a basic primer on Catholic sexual morality; others would like practical guidance on how to live in harmony while following church teaching; others would appreciate in-depth classes or literature.

In any case, every marriage preparation course should emphasize prayer as a necessary and intimate act for married couples.

Every marriage preparation course should emphasize prayer as a necessary and intimate act for married couples.

Gatekeeping isn’t always a bad thing. Father Krishna said that some people who offer marriage preparation see it as their last chance to squeeze in some formation before the church loses its grip on a couple entirely. That is wrongheaded, he believes. It is, however, a final chance to invite couples to look at each other with wide open eyes, and to really understand the seriousness of the commitment they are undertaking.

There are several ways to do this.

Some couples, even if they are already living together, have never discussed fundamental topics like finances, family size, division of labor, their approach to discipline of children and so on. The FOCCUS Pre-marriage inventory test is popular for a reason. When it works well, it reveals whether or not a couple is of the same mind on important matters, giving them the chance to work out their differences or even decide that the marriage may not work. It is not foolproof (a dishonest person can simply lie, to appear compatible), but it can be illuminating.

Father Krishna goes a step further and thinks couples should undergo a psychological evaluation, like the one prospective seminarians take. It could uncover not only serious red flags like narcissism or personality disorders, but also the garden-variety weaknesses that so many people struggle with. The goal would be not to dissuade anyone from marrying, but to ensure that they are entering the union with as much information as possible, understanding that they will likely be facing certain struggles that can’t be anticipated.

“[Many couples] don’t realize all the ways in which they will need to support each other,” Father Krishna said.

Many couples also mentioned that they wished that, before marriage, they could have taken the exhaustive questionnaire given to couples seeking a decree of nullity. It digs deep and gets people to probe their attitudes toward sex, toward divorce, toward self, and the example of their family of origin and how it formed their ideas of marriage and current pattens of behavior.

In general, says Father Krishna, he sees couples approaching marriage without understanding that they are pledging to support their spouse through times of growth and suffering.

“They don’t realize their own weaknesses or those of the other person, and they’re not therefore committed to supporting the other person through it. That’s the reason most marriages that fail, fail,” he said.

Several Catholics said that they wished the priest or facilitator had been trained to recognize some obvious red flags. While it’s rare and difficult for a priest to refuse to witness a marriage if he suspects abuse, he can strenuously warn against it. Couples often do not want to hear such warnings, or they may feel like they are in too deep to turn back; but at very least he can write a sealed note about his misgivings, for a future marriage tribunal to take into account.

Almost nobody wants silly games or other forced frivolity. Community is vital and does get built through socializing and other informal activities, but it rarely arises through compulsory fun time. Snacks, an idyllic retreat setting, a break from the normal routine, and a few ice-breakers are one thing; entire mandatory evenings devoted to salsa dancing and guessing games are another. The church offers things that nobody else in the world can offer. It should do that and do that well—and then respect that couples preparing for marriage are adults and have other demands on their time.

Most people prefer authenticity and honesty over entertainment value. And as much as couples squirm when hard topics are presented, many said they would rather sit through uncomfortable talks with solid information than to have their time wasted with half-baked comedy routines.

Ultimately, there is no substitute for community. If simply making marriage preparation louder and slower won’t improve the situation, then what will?

Father Krisha suggests something that he knows is a tall order: “Fixing parishes as a whole, so that the parish becomes a genuine community.”

“People need so much more than simply information,” he said. They need help and guidance from other people.

Strong communities—and not workbooks, questionnaires and seminars—should be teaching Catholics from a young age what marriage ought to look like.

Essentially, marriage preparation as it exists today cannot do the job of a robust, supportive family, community and parish life. These types of strong communities—and not workbooks, questionnaires and seminars—ideally should be teaching Catholics from a young age what marriage ought to look like. They should be modeling fidelity and forgiveness, demonstrating how cooperation and mutual submission work in real life and revealing how normal it is to face and work through times of trials and suffering. And they should be supporting them when the inevitable times of confusion and difficulty arise.

Couples need role models: real-life examples of Catholic marriage, so they understand what they are getting into; and they need support while they are undertaking it—and sometimes they need support in getting out of it.

Ultimately, marriage is something for which there can be no completely adequate preparation. We can never be prepared; we can only get ready.

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