Introduction to the Focus Group Reports

By Archbishop Joseph Kurtz

Chairman, USCCB Committee on Marriage and Family (2005-2007)

In November 2004 the Catholic Bishops of the United States unanimously voted to launch a National Pastoral Initiative on Marriage. The Initiative is a collaborative, broadly-based effort that aims to make marriage a priority for both the Church and society. Its centerpiece will be a bishops’ pastoral letter on marriage.

As part of the process of developing the pastoral letter, the Committee on Marriage and Family wanted to consult with couples at various stages of marriage. The Committee decided to accomplish this through the use of focus groups. Focus groups are a qualitative research method used to identify and explore—not explain—particular issues. Usually, more than one focus group is convened on the same topic. This enables a researcher to conclude that a particular issue is of concern to a majority of focus group participants.

A caveat is in order. While focus groups are a helpful tool, they have limitations. Because participants are not drawn through random sampling, generalizations to a larger population are not made. The Committee cautions against drawing conclusions such as “Most divorced persons believe…” or “Few young adults say…”.

In 2005 the Committee invited all U.S. dioceses to sponsor focus groups with newly married, middle years, and older couples; Spanish-speaking couples; and remarried couples. We also asked dioceses to conduct focus groups with single young adults who are open to marriage, and divorced and separated persons. Sixty-four dioceses and one eparchy conducted nearly 200 groups that involved over 1,500 participants. These dioceses, spread across 29 states and the District of Columbia, comprise one-third of the total number of U.S. dioceses

The Committee provided a template with questions that clustered around three areas: (1) the couples’ positive and negative experiences of marriage; (2) church teaching on marriage as a support and a challenge; and (3) diocesan and parish support for married couples. Single young adults were asked about their perceptions of marriage and how the church can help them to prepare for marriage. Divorced and separated persons offered ideas for helping troubled marriages. They also shared their experiences with the annulment process.

The Committee reviewed the results of the focus groups at our February 2006 meeting. Much that we heard was positive. We are gratified that marriage remains a unique source of joy and satisfaction for couples at all stages. We are inspired by stories of personal and spiritual growth and persistence in the face of illness, job loss, and financial difficulties. We appreciate that church teaching on permanence and fidelity provides the foundation for a happy and enduring marriage. We are pleased that dioceses and parishes support marriage through marriage preparation programs and enrichment activities such as anniversary Masses and married couples retreats.

We heard some things that troubled us. While some couples expressed gratitude for church teaching on sexuality and Natural Family Planning, others do not understand it or find it hard to accept. As pastors, we need to find fresh, bold ways to explain this rich teaching. Some people lacked accurate information about the annulment process or encountered difficulties as they went through it. Others chose not even to begin the process, which can bring healing and closure to people who have divorced. Some people spoke about a lack of support for marriage in their dioceses and parishes, especially when they sought information and referrals for marital difficulties.

While we cannot agree with all the views that were expressed in the focus groups, we appreciate the honesty with which people shared their experiences and concerns. The Committee takes these concerns seriously and intends to address them as we develop the pastoral letter. In the meantime, the Committee makes these summary reports available as a resource for diocesan family life offices, pastors and pastoral staff, marriage and family organizations, and others who share the Committee’s commitment to marriage ministry. We invite you to join us as we reflect, prayerfully, on what we have heard.