On June 3 I posted on the dramatic decrease in the number of Catholic weddings in the United States over the past two generations, from 426,309 in 1970 to 98,354 in 2022, per research of the Center for Applied Research of the Apostolate [CARA] at Georgetown University. [Incidentally, CARA’s annual data base of Catholic sacramental life, religious schooling, attendance, etc. is a free and indispensable resource for anyone involved in Church work, though it makes for depressing reading.]
How many weddings are performed in the United States? Let’s break down the official number from diocesan and parish registries across the country.
There were 16,429 parishes in the United States last year, meaning the average parish is performing under 6 weddings per year according to the last available official statistics. Since my first post on this subject a month ago, I checked the numbers against my own region. I learned that my own parish, a “mega-parish” and once considered a “destination site” for weddings with its beautiful church and grounds, celebrated one wedding in the months of May and June combined. A priest friend of mine assigned to a downtown church in Orlando celebrated his first wedding there, one year after he arrived. If the Catholic family is the cradle of the Faith, and parents are the “first teachers of the Faith” as the Baptismal rite for infants proclaims, these numbers are harrowing for the future of Catholicism in the United States, period.
Clearly, Catholic brides and grooms are not phoning the church offices as part of their wedding plans. Why? Perhaps they have heard over the years that once you enter the Church office, you are probably in trouble.
GUILTY UNITIL PROVEN MORE GUILTY:
Prospective brides and grooms generally have significant difficulties when they need the Church to discuss their wedding plans. I would venture to guess that 95% of Catholic couples who approach the Church will run afoul of the many hurdles that lie in their path. I wanted to look more closely at the hurdles faced by intrepid Catholics who might be inclined to approach the Church about a prospective sacramental wedding, with an eye toward the question of whether our establishment approach to “pre-Cana ministry” has become a living example of St. Luke 11:46, ““Yes,” said Jesus, “what sorrow also awaits you experts in religious law! For you crush people with unbearable religious demands, and you never lift a finger to ease the burden.” So, what “burdens” face the prospective bride and groom as they consider picking up the phone to make an appointment at the parish office? Here is the gauntlet. Here we go!
About applicant couples:
--They are probably sexually active.
--They may be living together.
--They are using artificial birth control.
--They may wish to have a small family or to postpone children.
--The bride might be pregnant.
--They might not be registered in a parish.
--They may have no record of parish stewardship.
--They may not attend Mass regularly.
--One or both might never have been Confirmed, or even made First Communion.
--Their religious education might have ended at the eighth grade, if that far.
--One or both might have been previously married and does not understand the reality of a “previous bond” in Canon or Church Law.
--One or both might have [unbaptized?] children from the present or a previous relationship.
--Their families might be inactive Catholics in the parish.
--One or both might have spent some time as a member of another Christian denomination.
--Their trust in the Church might have been injured by the abuse scandal.
--They might hold political beliefs on such matters as same sex marriage and availability of abortion at variance with Catholic teaching.
--One or both might have issues with ICE or other citizenship matters.
--The couple might be of modest means with a guest list of 50; the parish church seats 1500 and the fee for a church marriage is $1000.
--The couple’s pastor or representative might be grossly incompetent, judgmental, or theologically/pastorally inept.
One of the best research projects on the religious experience of young adults—the imminent brides and grooms planning to celebrate weddings--comes from St. Mary’s Press, “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics.”  There is an excellent podcast on this study from Minnesota Public Radio linked here with a panel of young adults. Interestingly, one of the primary reasons given in the study and in the podcast for youthful disaffiliation is the perception among the young that the Church behaves primarily as an overly judgmental institution toward them. Many, some as young as thirteen in the St. Mary’s study, spoke of a great sense of relief after disengaging from the Church. These young adults are not asking for the moon and a lifetime pass to decadence. They are adrift in a very trying culture and looking for a home. And while it is a worthy venture to parishes and dioceses to establish ministries such as “theology on tap” for young adults, it is unfortunate that the Church overthinks the one event that captures the memory of young adulthood forever: marriage.
As you saw above, I came up with sixteen potential roadblock issues in the time it took me to consume a cup of Dunkin’s Cinnamania Coffee, and I have not even touched upon other genre of issues that arise in the initial premarital meetings with couples. As a psychotherapist today, I approach new client couples in medical/clinical settings with a keen eye for substance abuse [particularly binge-drinking alcohol], domestic violence, and a mental health diagnosis such as depression or borderline personality disorder, issues which can be lethal to a relationship but generally unrecognized by most church ministers.
WELCOME HOME, KIDS
I performed Catholic weddings from 1974-1992, long enough to grow in appreciation of the possibilities of the marriage event as one of God’s sacraments. My seminary days shaped my theological thinking that all sacraments are rites of conversion in the richest sense of the term, a move to something better, i.e., greater intimacy with God and God’s family. In that context, the Sacrament of Marriage marks the end of one era of life with a conversional moment to receive the Spirit with a lifelong partner. Marriage is the one sacrament that two baptized persons administer to each other—the cleric is an official ecclesiastical observer. I did not marry until I was 50 and laicized, and I recall very clearly my wedding day, sitting in the living room of my little house reflecting upon the new way of life I was freely embracing that Friday evening at our wedding Mass. [My meditation was interrupted, I might add, by an untimely knock at my door from a bill collecting agency. It seems my employer at the time had paid all of us therapists on staff with bad checks! For better or worse, richer, or poorer...]
In my years of marrying couples, I often felt like a “real father” as I was usually older—sometimes much older--than my candidates for marriage. Fathers love their kids, they bear with their kids when they make youthful mistakes, and they want nothing but the best for them. I could not bring myself to approach the pre-Cana ministry as adversarial. I always assumed as a pastor that my engaged couples were probably sexually active and often living together, and that they were using artificial birth control. I saw no helpful reason to raise these issues as moral obstacles in the course of our work. These were the times. They still are. I might wish otherwise, like parents feel, but these are the cards we pastors were [and continue to be] dealt. I never had the sense that a cohabitating couple, for example, had chosen this route before marriage as an act of contempt for God or disobedience, the necessary conditions for a true mortal sin. Better to think of the young in the words of the Catholic philosopher Blaise Pascal [1623-1662], who coined the phrase “the heart has reasons that reason knows nothing about.” Every couple we meet in the matrimonial process comes to us as unique as a snowflake.
I also assumed that they had next to no meaningful adult religious formation, a reality backed by strong statistical evidence today. Given these deficits and the others I cited above, I labored mightily to keep their “wedding reunion with the Church” from becoming a time of acute embarrassment or accusation, the same stance I took in the confessional. I tended to adopt the attitudes of the famous confessors Sts. Alphonsus Ligouri and John Vianney that too much prying into sexual domestic matters, for example, unduly disturbed an innocent conscience. But beyond that, I believed that premarital pastoral counseling was primarily an act of embrace by the Church, not scolding. There will be a lifetime ahead for the couple to embrace the challenges of the Gospel for the first time as adults and the riches and wisdom of the saints. My work was to spark the interest and draw them to the Eucharistic table, from which they may trace the footsteps of Christ as lovers and parents.
Much of my marital preparation was an introduction to the couple of how much God loved them and the ways that they could foster a prayerful and an apostolic life in their homes and in the parish. In a sense my advising content was not totally different from what a catechumen might receive—and given the wretched state of religious education today, we are probably right to assume nothing and think of most adults as catechumens. I encouraged my couples to engage in the parish—though I came to see that 27-year-olds, for example, have their hands full already with developing their careers, buying homes, finishing education, paying down student loans and the like. And, in many cases, children will soon follow [if they haven’t already]. If I had it to do over, I would have spent more time in marital preparation assisting them in the habits of home prayer and Scripture reading. Those kinds of programs were just beginning to emerge in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
When Margaret and I finished our paperwork to marry in 1998, our venerable Monsignor, Patrick J. Caverly, said, “The Pre-Cana Program has nothing to teach you. But I would recommend you make a week retreat with the Trappist monks up at Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina to prepare for your wedding.” We followed his advice. This fall, as we celebrate our silver wedding anniversary, we will be heading up to Mepkin for another week of retreat in late September. We know the retreat grounds and the monastic routine well by now and we even arranged to be interred there when the time comes; and these days we study monastic spirituality on Zoom every month with other regular retreatant regulars. Marriage can be a gateway to a true rebirth in the Spirit. Sadly, younger couples don’t always get the kind of advice we got, I fear. They may be expected to invest an inordinate amount of time in Natural Family Planning instruction instead. Nothing takes the romance out of an engaged couple’s life faster than the as many as eight sessions [!] of NFP at a cost of several hundreds of dollars. [Where are you, St. Luke? Checking in with more burdens....]
In my early days as a priest, when my parish was small and rural, at the end of our sessions together I took each of my engaged couples out for a steak dinner—on Jesus’s credit card, so to speak—a month or two before their wedding. I also charged them no money or fees for the wedding. “You are parish family,” I would say, “and we have free coffee and donuts for you after every weekend Mass.” They knew exactly what I was driving at. [BTW, my parish never lost money on free donuts in ten years.]
FATHERS CAN'T FIX EVERYTHING, BUT THEY SURE CAN CONSOLE THEIR KIDS
It does happen that significant issues can arise which demand greater attention than the parish staff alone can provide or alleviate. One such issue is a previous marriage by one of the parties to a third individual, or more rarely, when both parties were married to other people. Church law is quite firm that in most cases an annulment is required before a new marriage can be attempted. Annulments take time, though over my lifetime diocesan tribunals—the office of the bishop that processes such requests—have worked hard to manage the cases more effectively, on the grounds that “justice delayed is justice denied.”
Every church bulletin on the planet contains an advisory that wedding dates are not set until the annulment is granted. However, a low percentage of Catholics attend Sunday Mass anymore and are unaware of this factor, or couples come into the office unaware that a civil divorce alone is not sufficient for them to engage in a Catholic wedding.
Circumstances such as these called forth every bit of sensitivity and creativity I could muster. Fortunately, I had taken special courses in Church Law in the seminary such that I could explain the process in considerable detail, to the degree that the logic of annulments might make sense to them, and I knew what the tribunal judges were looking for. I was honest and told them that if I “broke the annulment rule” I would get fired. Suffice to say that I tried to walk with them throughout the prolonged process in a fatherly way.
Another issue is evidence of serious difficulties between the engaged couples themselves. I was lucky during my priestly years that this occurred infrequently. Again, I watched for such things as binge drinking, violence, and significant mental health issues such as narcissistic or borderline personality features. I don’t remember ever telling a couple they might destroy each other in a marriage, but I do recall talking to one of the parties in several marriages where I sensed indecision. I always made it clear to individuals that if they had severe doubts, I would help them if they chose to delay or cancel the wedding—e.g., I would talk to the parents, send an update to a prospective therapist, etc. In these cases, I would also dictate a lengthy impression of my work with the couple for the official in the Tribunal, if things reached that stage at some point in the future. An officiating priest is an excellent annulment witness.
It is extremely difficult, for an engaged party, to step up and cancel a wedding far along in the planning stages. No one ever canceled a wedding on my advice, and I never told a couple they could not marry for mental health/compatibility reasons. It is interesting to me that twice in very recent years I had two divorced parties from different unions tell me that they wished they had “followed my advice,” so I guess they read my mind because I never said that directly. Today there is public recognition that mental illness strikes as early as the teen years. I hope today’s clerics are getting good diocesan advice and support on mental health ministry or taking courses and reading on their own about marriage and family counseling. [In 1984 my diocese, Orlando, included a $600 annual allowance for its priests to study and take courses. God bless Bishop Thomas Grady. Rollins College was then offering three-credit graduate courses for $290 and ended up paying about 70% of my tuition as I earned my M.A. in counseling in 1988, with the coursework spread over four years.]
Some dioceses fund a strong clinical counseling service [usually an arm of Catholic Charities] available to engage with pre-Cana couples where there are major problems. In my day such counseling was mandated for youthful marriages or where a premarital baby was on the way. Today many dioceses are strapped for cash and unable to provide such a range of services. I would suggest to younger clergy that they develop their own rolodex of ancillary services for their marriage ministries. Licensed Catholic therapists in the parish are often happy to help on many levels.
I will talk about wedding liturgies themselves in the third post in this stream. But I will lay to rest any rumors or worries as I cannot recall any grim encounters with BRIDEZILLA’s or MOTB’s [Mother of the Bride.] I did have moments when I wanted to throw a groomsman or two out the window, but they were bigger than me.
On My Mind