National Pastoral Initiative for Marriage

Consultation with Canonists and Tribunal Officials

 From February to May of 2006, approximately 280 canonists and tribunal officials participated in consultations for the USCCB on marriage and church ministries. The participants were drawn from the Atlanta Province, the Western Regional Canon Law Society, the Texas Catholic Conference of Judicial Vicars, the Midwest Canon Law Society Convention, and the Eastern Regional Conference of Canonists. They discussed their experiences examining marriage cases, their insights about couples’ understanding of marriage, and their ideas about what the Church might do better to minister to engaged, married, and divorced persons.

A consolidated report from these meetings:

  • February 22, 2006: Atlanta Province (approx. 80 participants)
  • March 8, 2006: Western Regional Canon Law Society (approx. 60 participants)
  • March 8, 2006: Texas Catholic Conference of Judicial Vicars (approx. 60 participants)
  • April 26, 2006: Midwest Canon Law Society Convention (approx. 40 participants)
  • May 2, 2006: Eastern Regional Conference of Canonists (approx. 40 participants)

Based upon your experience examining marriage cases, what most influences a couple’s understanding of marriage? For example, do one’s parents and family of origin play a pivotal role in shaping the understanding of marriage? Are there other spheres of influence that are equally formative?

Traditionally, formation for marriage has taken place within the family, which was often rooted in a larger ethnic community. That model has largely disappeared. The influence of parents and family on young people’s understanding of marriage is deteriorating under the pressure exerted by peers and popular media/culture. Popular culture and media help to create an individualistic view of marriage, which is then validated or reinforced by one’s peer group. Marriage is often considered by couples as something which is “our thing,” meaning that it is something which others should simply “stay out of.” Many Catholic young adults also attend college, and that atmosphere tends to be antithetical to Christian marriage since there exists a tendency for relationships to be considered “equal” within many college environments.

Many couples still marry due to societal pressure, or the societal expectation that marriage is what one does to be an adult in society today. Societal pressure is strongest among people in their late 20s and early 30s.

Often the parents of today’s young people do not have enough religious formation to offer a truly Catholic viewpoint. As a result, Church teaching remains a distant voice of conscience. The extensive experience of divorce in this generation of parents likewise works against providing role models for young people of concrete images of stable marriage that are passed down from generation to generation. One’s parents are primary role models, either positively or negatively.

Even newly-arrived immigrants can quickly succumb to dominant cultural values concerning marriage. Some young adults, however, eventually return to the traditions that they learned as children. Among Hispanics, the family of origin remains a strong influence.

There is a lack of support for marriage in African-American communities. This is a subculture that is not usually addressed by the Catholic Church. Church leaders should be more explicit about naming and ministering to this reality.

The Church must continue to promote positive role models of married couples, particularly for Catholic youth (e.g., in CCD, youth ministry, etc.). Popular media does not always show satisfied married couples. If children and young adults do not witness healthy marriages, pastoral documents will be hindered in their appeal and effectiveness.

Church leaders should continue to monitor what youth are learning in both public and private schools about sex, marriage, and family so that prudent and sound complementary resources can be developed.

Church teaching recognizes four distinct “goods” of marriage: The bonum sacramenti, the bonum fidei, the bonum prolis, and the bonum coniugum. In light of your experience examining marriage cases, how do individuals generally understand their commitment to permanence? To fidelity? To openness to children? To partnership

Those who seek marriage in the Church are not always fully conscious of the Church teaching on the goods of marriage. Many Catholics do not generally view marriage in terms of goods, fruits, or ends. Couples are naturally aware of fidelity, they know that marriage most often includes children, and they believe that marriage is meant to be “until death do us part.” However, many couples tend to treat these goods as assumptions prior to marriage, and often do not talk about them prior to their wedding.

Often, the goods of marriage are not understood as being a part of the nature of marriage, i.e., as determined by God, but rather as things that will be determined at some later time. Couples also often see them as “good” as long as they lead to some manner of material or emotional fulfillment. Each good is filtered through the lens of individuality, whereby it is interpreted relativistically, rather than objectively. The goods of marriage are not always perceived as something that may require sacrifice in return for greater benefits. It was observed also that in some instances men and women express different interpretations and expectations of certain marital goods.

  1. Permanence
    In an age that emphasizes the importance of the self, young people often misunderstand the idea of permanence—in marriage or in other spheres of life. With little or no personal experience of permanence, it has little meaning for them. Examples of impermanence abound—frequent mobility within families, parental divorce, transitions in employment, and a consumerist mentality for material goods. “Permanence” for most is often reduced to empty notions of “happiness,” which is immediate and transitory. Generations of young Americans were raised essentially getting “everything they ever wanted” from their parents and, as a result, they are often unable to give of themselves when sacrifice is required. Secular civil divorce laws can also be a stronger influence than Church teaching when it comes to forming one’s understanding of marital permanence.

    Couples often wish for permanence, but they also believe that they have a right to get out of a marriage and to re-marry. If marriage no longer satisfies their immediate happiness, they reason that one should be able to separate themselves from it. In this sense, couples often approach marriage more as a negotiable contract than as a covenant. In addition, for many, the good of permanence is often contingent upon the good of fidelity. In this view, marriage is considered permanent as long as the spouses are faithful to one another. Couples could benefit from a greater formation in an understanding of permanence as a “process,” or as a way of living “unconditionally” mirroring Christ’s unconditional love for His Church.

    Couples almost always say that they intend permanence, but they see this as an ideal that may not be attainable. People “want” or “hope” for permanence, but they are often not committed to making the necessary sacrifices to protect the marriage. The hedonistic mentality in contemporary culture is a persuasive principle that pervades many human relationships.

    Church ministers should not presume that people in long-term marriages understand commitment. They, too, are subject to the influences of peers and the media. More annulment petitions now involve couples married for 20 years or more.

    Finally, there is a popular presumption in the minds of many that annulments are easily granted. This can contribute to the divorce mentality espoused by many Catholics.
  2. Fidelity
    Fidelity is instinctively understood by couples as a fundamental aspect and core value of marriage, and one which is held in especially high regard. Many couples see fidelity as a non-negotiable expectation, but they also regard infidelity as a legitimate reason to seek divorce. Thus, if one or both spouses are unfaithful, couples believe that there is little hope that the marriage will recover. The experience of infidelity in a spouse triggers a feeling that the other cannot be trusted anymore in anything. There is little understanding of the distinction between the objective bond of marriage and the subjective experience of infidelity. A general lack of trust between people within the larger society has resulted in many individuals who have not had formative experiences of persons who have told the truth and then backed that truth up with concrete actions.

    Psychological complications brought into a marriage from previous intimate relationships, e.g., cohabitation, affect greatly a person’s ability to sustain a commitment to marriage and live it faithfully.
  3. Openness to Children
    The prevalence of sexual activity before marriage is accompanied by a concern to avoid pregnancy. All too often couples bring this mentality into the marriage. Thus, the idea of children as a part of marriage is often an afterthought. Engaged couples often do not talk about children—how many, when to have them, how to raise them. Couples have children when they are emotionally and financially “ready,” that is, when it is convenient for them to have a child. Rarely do couples say from the beginning that they will not have children. Rather, this is a decision that happens gradually, over time. But it is a decision that is increasingly seen as distinct from the decision to get married and to remain married. The growing sense of professionalism in the United States, among both men and women, can often place careers above children. Catholic couples are also increasingly influenced by a perception of children as “burdensome” that is prevalent within society.

    If a couple already has children from a previous cohabiting relationship, then a decision to be “open to children” in their marriage can seem like a moot point.

    The number of Catholic couples utilizing assisted reproductive technologies was noted by some as being alarming. While these couples often have good intentions, children increasingly become regarded as commodities, something that can be controlled, and not something that is a gift from God. Whether or not to have children becomes an almost totally self-induced decision.
  4. Partnership
    People tend to be highly individualistic, a characteristic of society, in general. Couples have little sense of how to work together truly as partners. People marry because they believe it will make them happy individually. They do not understand that their spouse’s happiness should be the object of their concern. A common attitude seen in marriage tribunal cases is: “Your task in marriage is to make me happy, and my task is to enjoy happiness.” This is a very difficult attitude to overcome, even though Catholic teaching emphasizes notions of sacrificial love, self-gift, and community. The challenge is to show couples how their commitment to another person (spouse) also fits into this picture. The Church, especially at the parish level, should continue to model in practice community and agapic love.

Given what you see in marriage cases, what might the Church do to better prepare engaged couples for marriage? Support married couples? Minister to couples in troubled marriages? Minister to Catholics who are already divorced?

  1. Engaged Couples
    Preparation for marriage needs to begin well before engagement. Engaged couples lack the courage and maturity to step back, even if they know that they are making a mistake. It is more often the case that couples at this time are focused on their impending wedding, and less on their future marriage. Most engaged couples believe that they are ready for marriage, and thus see marriage preparation as one more hurdle to overcome.

    Teenagers and young adults require continued catechesis on the meaning of “commitment” and “sacrifice.” These should also be frequent topics of preaching on Sundays. There is a strong notion among today’s young people that erotic love and emotional happiness are the only reasons for marrying and staying married. As a result, people often abandon a marriage when they encounter a problem or crisis, e.g., infidelity of a spouse, which they presume to be irremediable.

    Programs for single people considering a decision to marry (e.g., vocational discernment weekends) should be continued. One of the greatest gifts an individual can bring to a marriage is a strong relationship with God and a spirituality of marriage that is rooted in a life of prayer.

    Young people need to be given a holistic understanding of sexuality; one that encompasses emotional attachment in addition to its merely physical aspects. If couples are to deeply live out the beauty and depth of the Church’s teaching on human sexuality and conjugal love, couples need to know why contraception is wrong and how it weakens marriage.

    Continue to affirm and build upon the positive impulses and natural hopes that are present in young people as they approach marriage, keeping in mind that whatever attempts at affirming and building up will eventually fail, if there is no ongoing support and education, particularly in parishes.

    Employ language that couples are most apt to grasp, and which will lead them to an appreciation of the Church’s more traditional terminology of “covenant” and “the goods of marriage.”

    Encourage clergy to welcome couples who approach them to be married in the Church.

    Serial cohabiters should be treated differently from monogamous cohabiters. Parish pastors could likewise be encouraged to extend an invitation to those who are cohabiting to approach the Church to resolve their marital situation, in order to allow the grace of God into their relationship.

    Mixed marriages are common in many regions of the United States. Engaged couples should be encouraged to discuss their religious differences. These differences may not seem important at this stage, but they can become so later on, especially following the birth of a child. The Church’s preference for Catholics to marry other Catholics contains inherent wisdom.

    Priests must have the capacity and the authority to make a moral judgment about a couple’s readiness for marriage. There should be better ways to prevent engaged couples from “shopping around” for a priest to witness their marriage. Priests preparing couples for marriage must educate and challenge them. All those who assist with marriage preparation (clergy and laity) should adhere to clearly spelled out diocesan guidelines for marriage within the Catholic Church.

    Marriage preparation in the United States tends to be “couple oriented” rather than “parish-based.” Current formation programs should be evaluated in light of new realities and existing needs. Some parishes have found pre-marital counseling to be particularly helpful in working with engaged couples since working with couples on a one-to-one basis is often more effective than in larger groups.

    It was observed that couples tend to approach the sacrament of marriage as recipients, rather than as its ministers. As a result, marriage preparation should reflect more of what is required for the preparation of other ministers in the Church.

    Marriage preparation should continue to focus clearly on the sacramental nature of marriage, and the implications of that sacramentality. An emphasis on prayer, faith, and grace is essential, as well as an understanding of marriage as a vocation, and as a religious commitment that should incorporate religious practices integral to the married life.

    Parishes could benefit from better marriage preparation programs for older couples and couples in second marriages. Older couples may have received better formation than younger couples but they, too, may have been influenced by the wider culture.

    In some cases, marriage preparation involves an element of reconciliation, e.g., for cohabiting couples in terms of their relationship with God and with members of their families. Marriage preparation in this context provides an opportunity for healing.

    Engaged couples could benefit greatly from skill-building workshops, e.g., communication, listening, and building community life.

    The Church has at its disposal a variety of excellent materials, programs, and processes for marriage preparation, but they are not universally applied among dioceses and parishes.
  2. Married Couples
    Married couples should continue to receive catechesis about the spirituality of marriage as a covenant of life.

    The Church needs more canonized married couples.

    Dioceses could sponsor workshops on problem-solving skills. Every parish could have a “how to be married” class, similar to parenting classes, for couples in their first five years of marriage. (Nearly half of all marriage tribunal cases involve couples married five years or less.) Parishes can become the sources of support and mentoring that families were in earlier times. Small faith groups are especially needed since couples can get lost in the larger community.

    Preparation for infant baptism is an opportune time to work with couples to help strengthen their marriages. Couples are generally more “settled into their relationship” at this time, and thus are more open to hearing about Church teaching. The Code of Canon Law encourages pastors to bring families together for prayer and visitation prior to infant baptism (c. 851, 2).

    The Christian Family Movement was effective in bringing couples together, but it seems to have disappeared. Could it be re-invigorated? Married couples need to be challenged to help each other to prepare for and sustain their marriages.

    Priests could be encouraged to commit themselves to integrate the topic of marriage and the real-life experiences of married people in their homilies for weekly celebrations of the Eucharist. Married couples could also be invited to give Christian witness talks from the Sunday pulpit.

    Provide models and guided reflections for newly married couple enrichment. Sponsor couples could invite newly married couples back to the parish for an enrichment event.

    There is hope to be found in the number of persons who return to the Church to have their marriages rectified.

    Endorse marriage-related programs and days of observance for married couples and couples celebrating anniversaries.
  3. Couples in Troubled Marriages
    Parishes could provide financial assistance if needed so that couples in trouble can seek counseling. What kind of affordable and professional counseling is available locally to assist people when they first hit the “bumps in the road”?

    The Bishops could consider creating particular law for the United States that would require (potestas coactivae) Catholics to approach the Church prior to initiating a civil divorce. This suggestion is rooted in numerous studies of cohort failure, which strongly suggest that if couples had sought counseling when problems arose, before seeking a civil divorce, a large percentage of the marriages surveyed would not have ended in divorce.
  4. Divorced Catholics
    Divorced Catholics often feel like “second class Catholics.” Many feel disconnected from their parish communities. Many are unsure about their status in the Church. Many petitions for nullity are really petitions to receive Holy Communion.

    Parishes could be encouraged to establish support groups for separated and divorced persons. The experience of civil divorce is immensely hurtful and painful. Church leaders should seize the opportunity to minister to people who have recently suffered a divorce and offer them the healing and closure for which they yearn.

    Several dioceses have developed systems of lay advocates who work in parishes to assist persons in troubled marriages and Catholics who are already divorced. Their ministry helps to put a face of compassion on the work of the marriage tribunal.

    One canonist suggested that the church declare a year of amnesty, in which needed annulments could be granted and persons could begin anew.

    Divorced persons should be properly prepared if they want to enter into marriage again.

Other Comments

There should be a stronger emphasis on remote preparation for marriage through the development of national curricula for elementary, middle, and high schools. Tools to help parents properly form their children for marriage would also be useful. Dioceses might designate the post-Confirmation time for formation for Christian marriage. This would provide an opportunity for youth to remain connected to the Church at a time when they are most intent on developing relationships. In these ways, pre-Cana will be the culmination of preparation and not the only preparation that one receives formally prior to entering into marriage in the Church.

Church leaders are in need of reliable empirical data on young people (including the various influences that have led them to be married in the Church today), as well as longitudinal studies of married persons (i.e., committed Catholics who have remained married for decades). Church leaders could be more intentional about promoting sociological studies which show that what the Church teaches is actually proven empirically (e.g., the percentage of divorce among those who married with the assistance of a clergy member is lower than the general population; and the helpfulness of the pre-Cana process). The Bishops could impress upon people the good things that are happening as a positive support to priests, parish ministers, and married couples.

Church leaders could explore ways to integrate Church teaching on marriage in adult faith formation programs as a way to implement further both the National Pastoral Initiative on Marriage and “Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us.”

Many young people do not understand the importance of marrying “in the Church.” They believe that any marriage ceremony is fine. Some people even go through RCIA, then marry outside the Church.

Equally alarming is the trend in both secular society and in the Church of couples not seeking marriage at all, preferring instead to cohabitate. The Bishops could seek to study the root causes of why persons are not choosing marriage, either civil or canonical, and offer a positive statement of the Church’s ideals (similar to the Beatitudes), while at the same time being honest and realistic about present challenges.

Multiple annulments granted to the same person remain a concern.

Church leaders could be more explicit about enhancing communication between canonists, family life ministers, and pastors. There could be more collaboration among experts in various Church disciplines.

Church leaders should be aware that the Code allows for some flexibility in the implementation of some canons. Canon 1063, for example, provides the pastoral plan for the preparation and sustenance of marriage. What is needed are the proper tools to place in people’s hands to implement it.

Church leaders could look for ways to draw engaged and married couples to the Church to benefit from the many riches of Her spiritual treasury.

Finally, the Bishops could consider hiring a communications firm to better influence the media, including appearances on popular television programs that enjoy wide-ranging audiences.