For all the fuss and feathers in the media about the Synod, some very good proposals are coming out of the meetings, and one that has caught my eye is a proposal to develop and enhance premarital counseling programs, or what American Catholicism has referred to through my lifetime as “pre-Cana.” Marriage is not only a sacrament of the Church, but it is one of those rare times when our pastoral work significantly overlaps with the civil common good. Although in Catholic theology the couple actually marries each other, in civil law the ordained minister is the state witness who signs the legal license and must get the document in the mail within the very short span prescribed by a state’s law.
There is a moral imperative, I believe, to assist the couple, the Church, and civil society in the function of officiating clergyman, but experience over the years has taught me that generally there is a lot of resistance toward this extended help. If you corner an honest pastor, he will tell you that often he feels like the proprietor of a wedding chapel in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, which for some reason has made itself the foremost tasteless wedding site east of the Mississippi. When I was there some years ago there were forty freestanding wedding chapels. Apparently the ease of obtaining a Tennessee marriage license has something to do with that, or it may be the proximity to Great Smokey Mountain National Park, or maybe Dollywood (which, I might add, unlike Disneyworld has a splendid coffee and pastry shop.)
As a college chaplain and pastor for two decades, I performed my share of weddings. I would say that, from a minister’s vantage point, the sacramental experience was most rewarding when (1) both parties were known to me to be healthy and mature Catholics who have been immersed in Catholic life, learning, and worship, or (2) both parties realized their shortcomings—in faith and/or unresolved issues between them—and looked upon church preparation as a time of healing and skill building. The worst occasions of stress, for me at any rate, were the couples who presented themselves with cash in hand, a list of non-negotiables, and an attitude that I “owed” them my position as a legal officiator. Of course, as Robert Fulghum has so humorously and accurately depicted in his timeless essay, “The MOTB [The Mother of the Bride]” in his collection of essays, the families—particularly the mothers—sometimes steer the directions of premarital emphases away from the serious matters of lifetime fruitful love and fidelity into exercises of self-aggrandizement. Even my couples themselves had little power over that.
I can recall a few years ago reading a Facebook entry to the effect that a bride-to-be was spending the day or weekend working on “centerpieces for the tables at the reception.” This was a Catholic wedding, incidentally, and I will just say that things came to a very painful outcome. (I was not involved personally in this wedding.) When one looks at the time, the money, and the psychological investment in the externals of a wedding, it is hard to see a connection between the event and the potential half-century that will follow it. Weddings are not achievements; they mark the starting line, and it seems to me that both Church liturgy and especially marriage preparation ought to reflect this fact.
During the Synod I heard a proposal for a “marriage catechumenate” or program similar to the RCIA program itself. This in theory is an excellent concept, since a large number of those seeking Catholic weddings are not practicing the faith. Actually the French bishops perhaps three decades ago developed an even more radical concept: the idea of a non-sacramental rite for couples who were not ready, by reason of faith, to engage in a fully sacramental union in the Church at this point in their lives. This concept never stood a chance under Vatican scrutiny, but I daresay that many a Catholic couple would find themselves suited to that sort of arrangement today.
For the moment, though, what are we doing at this juncture to prepare couples who currently present themselves for sacramental marriage? I see a good number of church bulletins, and the section on marriage is generally foreboding. The subliminal is “no quickies,” and some arbitrary date—perhaps six months—is stated as the necessary preparation time. I always wonder how we know six months is enough for every couple, like we determine that every child should receive Holy Communion in the second grade or at age seven. I had many cases where one or both members of the applying couple was abusing substances. The standard AA protocol calls for one year of sobriety during which no important decisions are made.
Again, there are two realities to consider: the faith dimension of a marriage, and the mental health dimension. Marriage preparation ministry may be done by a priest, a deacon, a religious, or a trained lay couple, but in any case an effective screening must take place at the onset. While we think of ourselves as ministers of the Gospel and the sanctity in marriage, marital preparation invokes the first principle of the medical profession as well, “do no harm.” In practice this means that our first questions should probably not focus as much on Mass attendance and church envelope use as on the health and safety of the couple. Were I undertaking this ministry today, my questions would include pointed queries on substance use, as in precisely how much one drinks in exact numbers—three or more beers or whiskey shots on a daily basis is considered clinically noteworthy—and whether one or both parties engage in binge drinking. I would want to know about violence of any sort—verbal, psychological, physical—and I would look for any indication of personality disorders—histrionics, borderline, narcissistic, dependent, antisocial. I would look at career planning, family histories, and any indications of unresolved family issues. Most of my counseling in later years involved fracturing couples, and these were always the villain problems.
If you are thinking, “Boy, I’m not sure I could ask those kinds of things,” you are right to be cautious, but in fact someone should ask them now, when the opportunity for intervention presents itself, or they will come up later at a divorce hearing and/or annulment proceeding, after much suffering to innocent parties, such as children. I don’t think the Church, as a rule, appreciates the importance of premarital intervention or the tragedy of ignoring it. Now as to who actually intervenes here, that is a good question. My preference would be to see licensed providers working under the Church (as in, say, Catholic Charities) or in league with a diocese’s and/or parish’s marriage preparation ministry. Sadly, I have to note that in my own diocese our centralized Catholic Charities counseling services were discontinued a few years ago, for financial reasons, I believe. I and several other therapists were approached by my diocese to submit our credentialing packages for possible service to parishes, but I learned from the chancery that a number of pastors refused the idea for a variety of reasons.
And I’m sure the same pastors preach the indissolubility of the marriage bond at the drop of a hat, too.
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