An Analysis of Diocesan Marriage Preparation Policies

In November 2004 the U.S. Bishops launched the National Pastoral Initiative on Marriage, a multi-year collaborative effort to promote, preserve, and protect marriage, understood as both a sacramental reality and a human institution. The bishops directed their Committee on Marriage and Family to develop a pastoral letter on marriage as the centerpiece of the Initiative. As one of the first steps in this process, the Committee asked the Secretariat for Family, Laity, Women, and Youth, which staffs the Committee, to collect and analyze diocesan marriage preparation policies. The purpose was twofold: (1) To provide an important source of information and ideas as the Committee began to develop the pastoral letter and (2) To provide a helpful resource to dioceses as they continue to review and revise their policies.

This analysis looks at the marriage policies of 119 Latin-rite dioceses. It identifies common practices, significant differences, and current trends that are evolving, such as cultural adaptations, an emphasis on the total life cycle of the marriage, and liturgical rituals. It references specific diocesan policies that are especially well-developed on particular topics. It also suggests sources for additional information and explanations.

This analysis was completed in the fall of 2005. The Committee recognizes that dioceses continue to revise their marriage policies in response to changing circumstances in society and in the Church. As the Committee receives copies of these new policies, it will make every effort to keep this analysis up-to-date so that it remains a useful resource.

Diocesan Marriage Preparation Policies


Of the 119 policies, a few were in revision, and eight were over 15 years old. Eight states had joint policies (Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, Texas, and Wisconsin) although sometimes dioceses had their own supplemental or updated policies. Generally, policies allowed parishes to add further specifics, as long as they did not conflict with the diocesan policy, i.e. times of weddings, fees, liturgical decor, and so forth. Dioceses looking for sample standard practices might start with neighboring dioceses, then look at state policies, since they are the product of several dioceses.


Most policies are directed primarily to the parish priest, deacon, or lay minister who coordinates the couple's immediate marriage preparation. Others involved in marriage preparation, including sponsor couples, Engaged Encounter leaders, natural family planning teachers, and Pre-Cana speakers, are not the direct audience, although policies usually outline the kinds of programs that are accepted and the general content of those programs. Although the policies do not usually address the engaged couple directly, many dioceses offer a brochure that welcomes the couple and summarizes the important points of the policy that couples need to know.

Style of Policies

Policies range from brochure-length to over 160 pages. The average comprehensive policy is about 75 pages. The discrepancy in length is often due to appendices that cover canon law, church documents, details regarding mixed marriages and second marriages, description of programmatic content, and liturgical guidelines. Thus the core of each diocesan policy is usually about ten pages.

Some policies state the policy and then add documentation such as canon law and pastoral tips. Others simply state the policy, provide a brief explanation, and put related information into an appendix. Some policies chronologically walk the priest/deacon through each step of the preparation process, with suggested discussion questions along the way. Others focus on canon law and impediments to a valid sacramental marriage.


Policies draw on Scripture, canon law, church documents, and the lived experience of generations of faithful Catholic married couples and their priests.

Sources that are foundational for marriage preparation ministry in the U.S. and are quoted throughout this document are:

  • Familiaris Consortio (Pope John Paul II, 1981)
  • Faithful to Each Other Forever: A Catholic Handbook of Pastoral Help for Marriage Preparation (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1988)
  • Marriage Preparation in the Catholic Church: Getting it Right (Center for Marriage and Family, Creighton University, 1995)
  • Follow the Way of Love (USCCB, 1993)
  • Marriage Preparation and Cohabiting Couples (a resource paper prepared by the USCCB Committee on Marriage and Family, 1999).

Almost all policies include these elements:

  1. Letter from the bishop promulgating the policy
  2. Overview of the purpose and goals of the policy
  3. A brief reference to the remote and proximate stages of marriage preparation
  4. Description and timing of the initial interview with the engaged couple
  5. Explanation of special circumstances that might need attention:
    • Readiness issues
    • Faith issues (ecumenical, interfaith, non-practicing Catholics)
    • Previous marriage (divorce, annulments, death, convalidation, children from a previous marriage)
    • Moral issues (cohabitation, choosing not to have children, abortion)
    • Cultural considerations (cross-cultural, interracial marriages)
    • Miscellaneous (unwillingness to participate in a program, non-registered couples, long-distance preparation, persons with disabilities, infertility, impotence, communicable diseases, citizenship status, prenuptial agreements, sexual identity)
    • Premarital inventories
    • Description of diocesan and parish formational programs
    • Follow-up pastoral sessions
    • Wedding liturgy policies
    • Support after marriage
    • Readiness issues (abuse, addictions, age, pregnancy, mental illnesses, immaturity, brief courtship, marriage on the rebound or as rebellion, lack of financial support)
    • Additional resources

A Typical Policy Expanded

1. Letter from the Bishop Promulgating the Policy

The promulgation letter from the bishop or archbishop is a personal touch. It is brief, with a tone of welcome and pastoral care.

2. Overview of the Purpose and Goals of the Policy

Under canon law, the purpose of a marriage preparation policy is to make sure that people are free to marry and have the capacity to marry. More broadly, the policy aims to strengthen marriage in the Catholic Church through effective formation, pastoral care, and celebration. Many dioceses also take this opportunity to give background on the theology of marriage and the Church's pastoral concern that couples make this commitment with as much wisdom and church support as possible. This section is unique to each diocese as it lays out particular needs and emphasis.

3. Remote and Proximate Stages of Marriage Preparation

Although Pope John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio (Part Four, #66) exhorts the Church to see marriage catechesis as a life long process, the primary focus of all marriage policies remains on immediate marriage preparation, i.e. the period of a formal engagement. Many policies do point out that remote preparation begins at birth, e.g., Los Angeles: 

It includes all family and environmental factors that influence the person in positive and negative ways regarding marriage. It is through the "family of origin" that the role models, values, traditions, communication styles, attitudes, etc., consciously and unconsciously, play a major part in a person's formation. Remote marriage preparation has a profound effect on the couples that are being prepared for marriage, especially in today's society when not all of them are coming from families that have left them with positive experiences of marriage and family life. The church's support of family life during the formative years is critical to building strong families in which children can grow and learn.i

These policies describe how parents sow the seeds for healthy and mature future relationships, for example, by showing affection to each other and to their children and by teaching their children about the goodness and healthy use of one's sexual powers.

Proximate marriage preparation is usually defined as the time from puberty to a formal engagement.

Proximate marriage preparation involves, through appropriate catechesis, more specific preparation for and rediscovery of the sacraments. It is the responsibility of parents, along with pastoral ministers, to provide integration here of the religious formation of young people with their preparation for life as a couple (canon 1063). It is also critical to address the role of media and the importance of media education during this stage. So often the role models, values, expectations, etc., that were at one time taught in the home are now profoundly being impacted by TV, movies, and music of today's young people (Los Angeles).

Although parents continue to be instrumental in the formation of healthy relational skills and attitudes during this period, many policies refer to the value of classroom instruction in marriage and family life during junior high, high school, and college. The Archdiocese of Louisville aptly phrases one of its sections on proximate preparation as "Learning about Weddings in the Eighth Grade." A couple of policies define the early engagement period as "proximate preparation" but that does not appear to be the usual use of the term.

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati's policy, Marriage Preparation Guidelines Throughout the Lifecycle, gives extensive treatment to the remote and proximate stages of marriage. This policy divides remote and proximate preparation into six developmental stages and includes developmental needs, formation goals, suggestions for parents/caregivers, suggestions for the parish, a sample outline for a parent meeting, and resources for each stage. The Provincial Guidelines for Marriage Preparation for Michigan deals with remote and proximate preparation more concisely but also includes family components and pastoral applications. Faithful to Each Other Forever provides the standard foundation for total marriage ministry throughout the life cycle.

4. Initial Interview

Length of preparation

All dioceses require couples to spend a significant amount of time preparing for the sacrament of marriage. Most often couples are required to have an initial, face to face meeting with the priest or deacon at least six months before their wedding (over 70 dioceses). A handful of dioceses require either less (four months) or more (nine to twelve months). A growing trend is to ask couples to complete their marriage preparation programs at least six weeks before their wedding. This allows the final phase to be spent in more direct spiritual preparation, i.e. pastoral sessions with the priest or deacon, planning their wedding liturgy, and prayer.

Tone and Content

In no case should the initial interview take place over the phone or be done by the parish receptionist/secretary ( Faithful to Each Other Forever, p. 59). The priest or deacon welcomes the couple, gets to know them a little, and does a preliminary assessment of possible impediments to the marriage. If there are no obvious impediments the couple continues the process. If this is a second marriage, one partner is not Catholic, or other special circumstances exist, the discussion may continue in a second interview. If a delay is necessary to deal with impediments, the couple is advised on how to proceed. (See Section 5, Special Circumstances, below.)

Setting the Date

When the initial interview does not indicate any impediments, most dioceses allow the date the wedding to be set. If an annulment is not final, or there is another impediment, a date cannot be set until the impediment is removed. Some dioceses ask that only a tentative date be set even for couples without obvious impediments. The wedding date is then confirmed after the couple participates in a marriage preparation program.

Beyond the Priest

Marriage Preparation in the Catholic Church: Getting it Right says: "Marriage preparation is perceived as most valuable when it is administered by a team." That team should always include a member of the clergy, for couples consistently judge the presence of clergy valuable and their absence detrimental. It should also always include lay couples, for a recurring complaint was that "priests who don't marry just don't know what it is like." All policies assume that the formational sessions will be led by trained married couples, many times with a priest as a member of that team also.

When there are no known impediments or issues that might delay a wedding, some policies offer suggestions to reinforce the couple's connection with the parish. For example, bulletins can announce upcoming wedding(s) and ask parishioners to pray for the couple(s). Petitions can be added to the General Intercessions, the priest may publicly recognize engaged couples at the beginning of Mass, or photos of engaged couples can be put in the vestibule or a parish newsletter.

5. Special Circumstances

"Part of what a successful marriage requires of a couple is to be mature, responsible, and free. Christian marriage requires that the dimension of faith also be present in a couple's relationship. Since each couple is unique, there is no single, objective standard by which one can judge a couple's readiness to marry, nor guarantee the success of their marriage. However, specific, identifiable special circumstances may be present which indicate a need for further assessment and growth before the final decision is made to proceed with the marriage" (Chicago).

Some impediments (such as mixed religion) are resolved simply by obtaining the proper dispensation from the local ordinary. Other impediments, such as a previous marriage, may take months or years to resolve. The following list of special circumstances is drawn from various diocesan policies. Most dioceses mention most of these. No diocese lists all of them. Typical commentaries are listed under each category with special attention to mixed religion and previous marriages since these are the more complicated and sensitive issues.

Many policies ground their discussion of special circumstances in the 1983 Code of Canon Law that states "all persons not prohibited by law can contract marriage" (c. 1058) and "before marriage is celebrated it must be evident that nothing stands in the ways of its valid and licit celebration" (c.1066). It does, however, empower the local ordinary to "prohibit marriage, but only for a time or a serious cause and as long as that cause exist[s]" (c 1077). In addition to canonical requirements, the policies usually emphasize the increased pastoral care and attention the Church desires to give the couple so that their marriage will be as strong as possible. Most policies make provision for appeal to the bishop if a couple disputes a decision to delay or deny a marriage.

Readiness Issues

(abuse, addictions, age, pregnancy, mental illnesses, immaturity, brief courtship, marriage on the rebound or as rebellion, lack of financial support)

As serious as all of the above issues are, the resolution is similar for all of them. The priest refers the couple to a professional for assessment and treatment if necessary. The professional's role is to advise the couple and the priest, not to make a final decision on whether the marriage should be delayed. The burden of that decision rests solely with church authority.

Age usually refers to young couples where at least one partner is a teenager. State laws vary as to the legal age for marriage, but for the Church's purposes, most policies simply refer to teens.  Maturity varies with the individual and many couples past their teens are not ready to take on the commitment and responsibilities of marriage and would benefit from similar extra attention. In addition to professional assessment, discussion facilitated by a premarital inventory can help such couples to recognize their need for more time. Many policies include parents in this discernment process. The policies of St. Petersburg and Wisconsin have extensive resources for meeting with parents.

Age, however, can also apply to older couples. Despite the tendency to believe they need less preparation because of their presumed maturity, many policies note the special issues that are unique to older couples that merit discussion, i.e., previous relationships (especially for divorced or widowed men and women), finances, the transition from a single lifestyle to a marriage partnership, and obligations to family members (Cincinnati).

Pregnancy is always treated as a caution to marriage as opposed to a reason to speed up a wedding, since it may interfere with a person's free consent. If the couple only started to discuss marriage following the pregnancy, then the issue of undue pressure to marry needs to be explored. On the positive side, "In light of our Church's consistent witness to the sanctity of human life, the couple's choice to embrace the pregnancy should be affirmed by the pastoral minister" (New Jersey).

Faith Issues

(ecumenical, interfaith, non-practicing Catholics)

Policies differ on what terms to use for what the Code of Canon Law calls "mixed marriages." Most policies no longer use the term "mixed marriage" but instead use:

  • Ecumenical (or interchurch):  marriage between a Catholic and a baptized Christian
  • Interfaith: marriage between a Catholic and a non-Christian
  • Interreligious: a more generic term that includes ecumenical, interfaith, and marriage with someone of no religious belief. The Church recognizes all duly performed marriages and recognizes ecumenical marriages as a sacrament.

Pastoral Approach
The confusion over terms is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to interreligious marriages, with over 15 different combinations of "Catholic and 'other.'" Despite the complexity of combinations, canon law and liturgical rites are specific about what dispensations and rites are needed. Policies range from one to over 40 pages. Many policies put the details for interreligious marriage in an appendix. (Cincinnati, Chicago, Kansas City-St. Joseph, and Harrisburg treat these details extensively.) What is common to the policies is the admonition to acknowledge the issue. Partners are also urged to learn about their future spouse's faith; not for the purpose of conversion but for understanding and family harmony.

The Promise
Historically, perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of interreligious marriage has been the promise that Catholic partners must make to raise their children in the Catholic faith (canon 1125). The promise is made in the following or similar words:

I reaffirm my faith in Jesus Christ and, with God's help, intend to continue living that faith in the Catholic Church. I promise to do all in my power to share the faith I have received with our children by having them baptized and reared as Catholics.iv

This promise can be made orally or in writing. The non-Catholic partner is to be informed of the promise so that he or she is aware of the promise and obligation the Catholic partner has made. The non-Catholic partner no longer has to make a promise or sign a statement.

The Decree on Ecumenism, no. 3 clarifies that "to do all in one's power" recognizes the religious convictions of the non-Catholic party and implies that a decision is reached that respects those beliefs. It does not mean an absolute promise at the risk of jeopardizing the marriage itself.

As the Michigan policy states, "The possibility also exists that, despite their best efforts, Catholics will be in a situation where some or all of the children are brought up in the religious tradition of their spouses. In such circumstances, the obligation of Catholics to share the Catholic faith with their children does not cease, but should take the form of prayer, good example, witness to the faith in word and deed, and maintaining a Christian or religious atmosphere in the home."

The Church recognizes that the non-Catholic party may feel a similar obligation to his or her religious commitment.v Despite the challenges of ecumenical and interfaith marriages, they do provide extra motivation for couples to nurture prayer in the home in a form that is common to both spouses.

The Wedding Liturgy
While it is standard for Catholic/Catholic weddings to use the Rite of Christian Marriage Within a Mass and for ecumenical weddings to use the Rite of Christian Marriage Outside a Mass, policies differ as to whether exceptions can be made. See Wedding Liturgy Policies for more detail on wedding liturgies.

Non-practicing Catholic
To address this perplexing issue, many policies quote Pope John Paul II: "The faith of the person seeking marriage in the Church can exist in varying degrees. It is the primary duty of pastors to facilitate a rediscovery of this faith, nourishing it and bringing it to maturity. But pastors must also understand the reasons that lead the Church to admit to the celebration of marriage, those who are imperfectly disposed" (Familiaris Consortio, 68).

While some evidence of faith is required for the reception of the Sacrament of Matrimony, the level of faith is not the question. Engaged couples must be accepted and instructed at their actual level. "As for wishing to lay down further criteria for admission to the ecclesial celebration of marriage, criteria that would concern the level of faith of those to be married, this would above all involve grave risks" (Familiaris Consortio, 68).

Non-practice is different from a direct rejection of the Catholic faith. Several policies offer helpful sections on assessing and fostering the faith of the Catholic. The Archdiocese of San Francisco states: "We do not start with the premise that the couple must prove their faith. Rather, we are looking to find ways to help them express what faith may actually be present." Is there a willingness to participate in catechesis, share the faith with children, share in some worship, and share moral values"  Is there some basic agreement on the part of the couple with Christian values".  For example, do they share any common ground with us and our desires for social justice, peace, racial equality, support of human life"? Several dioceses refer to John Westerhoff's four stages of faith (Will Our Children Have Faith, Seabury Press, 1976) as a basis for exploring faith with the couple. Michigan has a well-developed "Faith Inventory."  Wisconsin and Allentown have developed curricula for use with non-practicing Catholics.

Place of marriage
Policies follow canon law in saying that, with the proper permission, weddings may be held in the place of worship of the non-Catholic partner (canon 1118). Similarly, a minister of another church may witness the vows, or be present at the Catholic Church. In the latter case, only the Catholic minister received the vows in the name of the church.

Previous Marriage

(divorce, annulment, death, convalidation, children from a previous marriage)

Pastoral approach
The complexities of interreligious marriage are probably surpassed only by those of couples who seek to marry after a divorce. Yet one of the first steps in marriage preparation, after hospitality, is to determine the couple's freedom to marry so that the process can continue. Most dioceses have special programs for couples marrying after an annulment. A few have programs for widowed couples and still fewer have special programs for validations. For those dioceses that do not have the numbers to justify a group program, often a mentor couple approach is recommended. In this situation, a few trained lead couples make themselves available to mentor others who share a similar marriage history.

All policies make the point, however, that couples entering a second marriage need special attention to help them understand how the dynamics of a previous marriage will impact their new marriage. Due to the increased risk of divorce, more rather than less preparation is beneficial. If a special program for second marriages does not exist and the couple is older or has children, Marriage Encounter is often recommended as a supplement. In addition to the standard marriage preparation issues, marriage ministers should address the resolution of grief from the previous relationships, freedom to marry, role shifts and step-parenting, and establishing new traditions.

Divorce and annulment
For pastoral and practical reasons, all policies emphasize that no wedding date, even a tentative one, should be set for couples if one or both parties are still going through the annulment process. The use of a premarital inventory that addresses remarriage issues is often recommended. In order to discourage marrying on the rebound or without having understood how the partner contributed to the difficulties of the previous marriage, some dioceses recommend that three to five years be taken to work through these issues, although a specific length is always left to pastoral discretion. Some policies remind the priest to check whether there is a vetitum (prohibition) or monitum (warning) attached to an annulment which might require further counseling prior to entering into a marriage in the church.

Historically, priests often accepted abbreviated preparation for couples who had happy marriages and were marrying after the death of a spouse. That is no longer the case, although the form of marriage preparation should be adapted to the age and circumstances of the couple. Mentor couples can help the engaged discern where they are in the grief process and how they will deal with issues such as merged finances and obligations to children from the previous marriage.

Convalidation (sometimes referred to as validation) can be performed in instances in which a couple who was civilly married acknowledges that they are not in a valid marriage and seeks to regularize their union within the Church. A convalidation is not simply a renewal of the previous intention to marry but the creation of a valid marriage in the sight of the Christian community. (See the Chicago, Dallas, Ft. Worth, Galveston-Houston, Omaha, and Springfield-Cape Girardeau policies for specialized convalidation programs.)

Children from a previous marriage
Even though children from a previous marriage do not become illegitimate after an annulment, this is usually reaffirmed in policies lest this fear is an obstacle to a person seeking an annulment (canon 1137). The primary concern is that the parent recognizes his or her responsibility to support children from a previous relationship both financially and emotionally. Becoming an instant step-parent, whether custodial or non-custodial, also strains a new marriage; thus specialized marriage preparation is especially important. Thirty-seven dioceses note that they have a program specifically designed for second marriages.

Moral Issues

(cohabitation, choosing not to have children, abortion)

All policies emphasize the delicate balance that the Church must strike on the issue of cohabitation. Policies urge the priest or deacon to be welcoming and to see this as an opportunity for evangelization; at the same time, he must uphold the Church's teaching on the nature of the sexual commitment made in marriage. Faithful to Each Other Forever warns against two extremes: (1) immediately confronting the couple and condemning their behavior and (2) ignoring the cohabitation.

Many policies quote John Paul II, "Pastors and the ecclesial community should take care to become acquainted with such situations and their actual causes, case by case. They should make tactful and respectful contact with the couples concerned and enlighten them patiently, correct them charitably and show them the witness of Christian family life in such a way as to smooth the path for them to regularize their situation" ( Familiaris Consortio, #81).

Cincinnati observes: "The pastoral challenge for the minister is to invite the engaged couple to consider living separately and chastely."

Most policies suggest these steps for dealing with cohabiting couples:

  1. Approach the couple with sensitivity and welcome.
  2. Explore with them the reason that they are now approaching the Church for marriage (as with pregnancy, the risk of divorce is lessened if the decision to marry was made prior to the cohabitation)
  3. Help the couple to understand the wisdom behind the Church's teaching on sexual intimacy within the sacrament of marriage.
  4. Encourage the couple to live separately and chastely before their marriage as a spiritual preparation for marriage (exceptions are made for those with children).

Many policies end with the statement, "Since cohabitation is not in itself a canonical impediment to marriage, the couple may not be refused marriage solely on the basis of cohabitation" ( Marriage Preparation and Cohabiting Couples).

Below are core questions and responses given in Marriage Preparation and Cohabiting Couples.

  1. If a couple is cohabiting, can marriage be denied or delayed?
    Cohabitation and/or premarital sex are not canonical impediments to marriage. A couple may not be denied a wedding for these reasons alone, although additional time might be needed to address the issues raised by cohabitation such as the impact of cohabitation on the couple's freedom to marry and their understanding of the Church's teachings on marriage and sexuality. Absolute moral rectitude is not demanded for sacraments to be celebrated.
  2. Should cohabiting couples be encouraged to separate prior to the wedding?
    Yes, but the couple is not to be refused marriage if they fail to separate.
  3. Is a simple wedding ceremony most appropriate for cohabiting couples?
    Not necessarily. Canon law gives no special consideration for marriages of cohabiting couples but states that couples should have a "fruitful liturgical celebration of marriage" (c.1063).

The Wilmington policy cites these research findings:

  1. Serial cohabitation is more harmful than single instance
  2. Those who cohabit at least a year before marrying are more likely to divorce than those who cohabit less than a year.vii 

Some policies include discussion questions to guide the pastoral minister in exploring this area with the couple. Wisconsin, the Province of Michigan, and Bismarck have extensive discussion guides. Many policies include the USCCB statement, Marriage Preparation and Cohabiting Couples, as an appendix.

Choosing not to have children
A decision by the couple or one party to permanently exclude children invalidates a marriage. New Jersey gives ideas for a pastoral response to this issue.

Although few policies address the issue of abortion directly, those that do explain that having had an abortion requires special pastoral care. Referral to Project Rachel is recommended. Chicago and Cincinnati offer pastoral guidance for discussing abortion during the preparation sessions.

Cultural Considerations

Cross-Cultural/Interracial Marriages
A few policies advise the priest or deacon to help couples identify cultural assumptions that may not be apparent to their partner. Rapid City and Chicago offer more background than most policies and include discussion questions.

Marriage preparation for couples not from the dominant U.S. culture
Marriage preparation policies remain the same but need to be adapted to the couple's cultural background. When possible, programs should be offered in the native language of the couple and led by couples who share their racial or ethnic heritage. Many policies note that care should be taken when interpreting the various marriage preparation inventories in light of the culture of the respondents. Ten dioceses said that they offer marriage preparation programs in Spanish and one diocese (Chicago) offers a program specifically for African Americans. Brownsville and Miami have their policies in English and Spanish. Cultural adaptations for the wedding itself are treated in Wedding Liturgy Policies.


(unwillingness to participate in a program, long-distance preparation, non-registered Catholic, persons with disabilities, infertility, impotence, communicable diseases, citizenship status, prenuptial agreements, sexual identity)

Unwillingness to participate in a program
Policies consider unwillingness to participate in a marriage preparation program as a sign of lack of commitment to marry in the Church. Dioceses have a responsibility to provide adequate and varied options so there is no reasonable obstacle to participation.

Long-distance preparation
Long-distance preparation, though not ideal, is sometimes necessary due to military service or other factors. Couples may reside in separate cities or at a distance from the place where they will be married. Military or college chaplains can often provide independent preparation but the presiding minister needs to coordinate the process. Inventories can be done independently, then discussed when the couple is together or via phone, letters, or e-mail. The couple should meet with the priest or deacon who will preside at their wedding even if most of the preparation will be done long distance. Separation is a challenge but not a reason to omit marriage preparation programs.

Non-registered Catholic
Canon law does not make parish registration a pre-requisite for marriage in the Catholic Church (canon 1115). Although a few policies require parish registration, most do not. They take the approach that since marriage takes place within a community of faith, it would be reasonable for the parish to suggest some commitment on the part of the couple who wish to be married in that community. Each situation has to be handled separately and delicately. The presumption of the Church is that people have a natural right to marry. The Church, therefore, is to provide a welcoming presence regardless of whether or not the couple is registered parishioners.

Persons with disabilities
"Realizing the unique gifts handicapped individuals have to offer the Church, we wish to address their need for their fuller integration into the Christian community and their fuller participation in its life" (Pastoral Statement of U.S. Catholic Bishops on Persons with Disabilities). Disabilities may be physical or mental. As with questions of readiness, the priest should utilize the counsel of professionals knowledgeable about the particular disability. Except for antecedent impotency, physical disability is not an impediment to marriage. Catholics who are deaf should be offered the opportunity to express their matrimonial consent in sign language. With mental disabilities, the priest needs to assess the couple's ability to give consent and to assume the essential obligations of marriage. The policies of Sioux City, Kansas City-St. Joseph, Rapid City, and Chicago treat this topic in more depth. See also Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities, USCCB, 1995.

Infertility and impotence
While infertility is not an impediment to marriage, it should be discussed with openness and candor if known in advance. Permanent inability to have intercourse nullifies marriage but where there is doubt, the marriage must not be impeded (c.1084). "Continuing medical advances make permanent impotence difficult to confirm and increase the possibility of the impotence being temporary" (Rapid City).

Sexually transmitted diseases
Policies generally treat this topic as one of self-disclosure. Pastoral counseling can be helpful. The Church understands Christian marriage to be a covenantal relationship based on openness and honesty. Both people entering marriage have a right to information that has major ramifications for their marriage. Policies that treat this subject indicate that it is the responsibility of the diocese to have a list of competent counselors/spiritual advisors to offer couples who are in this situation.

Citizenship status
Situations that may affect a couple's ability to contract a marriage include: (1) marrying in order to remain in the U.S. or to gain citizenship, which impacts consent, and (2) couples who freely want to marry but one or both are in the U.S. illegally. Policies usually urge the priest to consult with the Chancery or Tribunal for legal clarification.

Prenuptial Agreements
A prenuptial agreement is not automatically a cause of invalid marital consent but an evaluation of the agreement is necessary to determine if there are any conditions limiting consent. A sacramental marriage is based on enduring committed love and partnership of the whole of life which implies a comprehensive sharing of both spiritual and temporal goods. (Dallas and Cincinnati treat this issue in more depth.)

Sexual Identity
For a sacramental marriage, the presumption is that "a man and a woman asking to marry understand themselves as a heterosexual man and a heterosexual woman. When either person expresses doubt or conflict about sexual identity or sexual orientation, careful attention must be given to both parties. If the couple has not dealt with this topic, further assistance by a counseling professional is strongly recommended" (Cincinnati).

Premarital Inventories

The majority of diocesan policies recommend, and many require, that the engaged couple take a premarital inventory as part of their marriage preparation process. Almost all of these policies use FOCCUS while many also accept Prepare and the PMI. Cleveland has its own inventory called the Cleveland Diocesan Evaluation of Marriage (CDEM) and Providence uses a personality tool called Dialogue and Discovery. Although some policies do not specify the use of an inventory, many priests and marriage ministers in that diocese may still regularly use them. For further background on the use of inventories consult Faithful to Each Other Forever.

Contact information for the most widely used premarital inventories noted in polices:

FOCCUS (Facilitating Open Couple Communication, Understanding, and Study)
Family Life Office
3214 N. 60th St., Omaha, NE 68104
(402) 551-9003

PMI (The Premarriage Inventory)
Intercommunications Publishing, Inc. (Formerly BESS Associates)
52A Dogwood Acres Dr., Chapel Hill, NC 27516
(919) 968-0680 or (800) 999-0680

P.O. Box 190, Minneapolis, MN 55440
(612) 635-0511

To Trust Again Inventory (Remarriage)
ACTA Publications
4848 N. Clark St., Chicago, IL 60640
(800) 397-2282

When should the inventory be administered?
Most policies recommend giving the inventory soon after the initial meeting with the priest, with follow-up discussion shortly thereafter. Some policies, however, recommend that the follow-up discussion not occur until after the couple has attended the diocesan marriage preparation program. This allows the couple to become more engaged in the diocesan program. It also gives them more material to bring to their discussion with the priest or marriage minister.

Who administers the inventory?
Most policies do not specify who should administer the inventory. Some priests do it routinely at the end of their initial session; others turn it over to a trained married couple in the parish. Most important, the inventory should not precede getting to know the couple and establishing a rapport with them.

Discussion based on the inventory
Most inventories are used to supplement the marriage preparation process and are not meant to substitute for attendance at a marriage preparation program. Some policies, however, allow for the inventory to take the place of marriage preparation when the couple is not able to attend a traditional program. In these cases, additional sessions are usually required (beyond the two or three usual follow-up meetings). Some priests lead all the inventory discussions themselves to help them know the couple better. More often, however, discussions on the inventory are led by a trained married couple.

Inventories are not tests. They are not used to determine whether or not a couple should marry. Policies usually emphasize that these are tools to help the couple explore with each other and the marriage minister all aspects of the future marriage. Priests are cautioned not to keep the inventory on file for possible use in a future annulment case. Confidentiality is important when discussing the results with the couple; however, when someone other than the priest responsible for the couple's marriage preparation facilitates the discussion, a summary is usually shared with the priest.

Formational Programs

All policies include a formational program in addition to meeting with the priest for pastoral sessions and planning the liturgy. The Catholic Church is blessed with excellent national, diocesan, and parish-based marriage preparation programs. Programs range from six to twenty hours, from one-on-one sessions with a mentor couple,viii to large group sessions of up to 300 couples, and from one-day events to 10 session series.ix All policies offer a choice of programs since engaged couples have different schedules and different needs, i.e., age, second marriage, and so forth.

Content of Programs
Many policies stipulate what content must be covered in a formational program along with other desirable topics.

Required topics are: Communication (includes conflict resolution, problem-solving); Sacramental Marriage (a permanent, covenantal, exclusive, unconditional, life-giving, commitment that unites the couple as a sign of Christ's love); Sexuality (includes Natural Family Planning, intimacy); and Spirituality (includes faith, moral decision making, values, prayer).

Recommended topics are: Self-awareness (includes personality inventories, roles); Parenthood (includes family of origin and extended family issues); and Finances (includes stewardship, lifestyle, and career issues)

Natural Family Planning (NFP)
All policies require that formational programs include an overview of NFP and urge couples to attend NFP instructional classes. Five policies require couples to attend a separate NFP introductory class. A few dioceses have moved towards requiring a full course of instruction in Natural Family Planning. Norwich states: "Couples preparing for marriage should be introduced to Natural Family Planning (NFP). Workshops are held on a regular basis and ordinarily, couples should be obliged to attend one series." The Denver Archdiocese requires "adequate instruction in NFP as part of all marriage preparation programs. Thus, as far as practical realities permit, a course of NFP should be a regular part of proximate marriage preparation." Fargo requires couples to receive an introduction to Pope John Paul II's theology of the body and complete a full course of instruction on an approved method of natural family planning as part of their marriage preparation program.

National Movements and Published Programs
Engaged Encounter is the primary national movement that provides marriage preparation. Of the 80 dioceses that specify which marriage preparation programs they use, 72 include Engaged Encounter. In addition to Engaged Encounter, the following published programs are most commonly noted in policies: A Decision to Love, A Marriage in the Lord, Before I Do, Engaged Enrichment, Evenings for Engaged, For Better and Forever (often referred to as Sponsor Couple Program), Only Love Can Make It Easy, Perspectives on Marriage, To Trust Again, Unitas, and When Families Marry.

Diocesan Programs
Most dioceses have their own large group programs. Traditionally these have been called Pre-Cana but many dioceses have given their programs a distinctive name.x Dioceses may also use Engaged Encounter, Evenings for Engaged, or a Mentor Couple program as one of the diocesan programs. Over half of the dioceses that specify their programs offer a specialized Second Marriage Preparation Program. Ten dioceses note that they had programs in Spanish and six dioceses have specialized programs for couples seeking convalidations.

Parish Programs
Many parishes use one of the published programs listed above and some have developed their own program based on the content areas described above. Many of the parish programs are a variation on the mentor couple approach in which a trained mentor couple discusses one of the premarital inventories with the engaged couple. Such an inventory-based program does not usually substitute for a formal formational program unless there are two or more additional sessions for a total of at least five sessions. Increasingly, there is more parish-based preparation for couples marrying in their parish. This has the added benefits of linking the engaged couple more closely to the parish through a mentor couple while strengthening the marriages of the mentors. This causes a ripple of marriage enrichment in the whole parish. No policy relied solely on parish-based programs for the obvious reason that attending a marriage preparation program is a requirement and many parishes do not have the resources, time, or trained leadership to sponsor their own programs.

Follow-Up Pastoral Sessions

After the engaged couple attends a formational program, policies typically state that the priest meets with them for several more sessions. The usual practice is:

  1. Program and Inventory Follow-up Discussion
    This might be completed in one session (especially if a mentor couple has already discussed the inventory at length with the engaged couple) or it could take many sessions if the couple needs to address issues that might delay the marriage. Altoona/Johnstown, Los Angeles, and Louisville give helpful outlines for follow-up sessions. Allentown, Arlington, and Harrisburg give even more extensive notes directing the content of each follow-up session.
  2. Wedding Liturgy Planning
    (See below)
  3. Wedding Rehearsal
    The more expansive policies outline the wedding rehearsal, placing it in a prayerful context. Some policies recommend that the couple receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the beginning or end of the rehearsal if they haven't recently done so. Specific prayers for the rehearsal are included in the policies of Cincinnati and Michigan.

Wedding Liturgy Policies

Wedding liturgy policies range from a simple directive to consult diocesan or national documents to 18-page policies. In the latter case, often the diocesan Worship Office simply excerpts the appropriate section from the diocesan policy. Although policies treat this subject in different degrees of depth and differ from diocese to diocese, the following is a synopsis of the main categories treated and the most common practices:

Date (Liturgical Season)
There are no legal restrictions on when the Rite of Marriage may be celebrated, with the exception of the Triduum, as long as the various guidelines specific to the particular parish are respected. When the Rite of Marriage includes a Mass there are limitations as to dates and readings. Few parishes celebrate weddings on Sundays, but a few policies encourage couples to consider integrating their wedding into the regularly scheduled Sunday Mass to more fully express the support of the parish community (See, for example, Gary, Sioux City, Kansas City-St. Joseph, and Louisville). When a wedding coincides with a major feast the readings for that feast must be respected. Weddings during penitential seasons must respect the church tone and decor appropriate for the season.

The Rite of Marriage ordinarily takes place in the parish church of either the bride or groom. Permission can be sought to have the wedding in another Catholic church or oratory. For pastoral reasons dispensations from the canonical form are given for the wedding to take place in the church of a non-Catholic partner. Although the priest is welcome to attend the Rite of Marriage in a non-Catholic church (and vice-versa) only one of the ministers receives the vows and is the official church witness. Policies prohibit or discourage sacramental marriages in non-liturgical spaces.

Some policies encourage the bride and groom to welcome people as they arrive. "The tradition honoring the special moment when the bride and groom first see each other on their wedding day could be respected by a private time of meeting before guests arrive. During this time the couple, their families, and the wedding party could be together for prayer and whatever leave-taking anyone would want to express" (Michigan).

The Rite of Marriage encourages participation by all in attendance. Ushers, lectors, gift bearers, musicians, leaders of song, Eucharistic ministers, relatives, and friends" indeed, everyone--witnesses the couple's consent and carries the responsibility of supporting their marriage. Worship aids can assist the congregation to participate fully.

The Rite of Marriage envisions a very different entrance procession from the one to which many are accustomed. The priest and those who carry the cross, candles, and lectionary go to the door of the church where they welcome the couple and lead them to their place at the altar. The Rite also recommends that the parents of the bride and groom accompany their daughter and son in the procession. The canonical witnesses (best man and maid of honor) and other attendants precede the bride and groom in the procession. This form of the procession is preferred by most liturgists and is gaining support among couples. Policies generally allow the custom of the father of the bride to escort her to the front of the church where she meets the groom.

Placement of the Bride and Groom
The bride and groom should be given a place of honor in a visible, prominent location. Chairs should be provided for the couple to be seated during the appropriate time. The couple should not have their backs to the assembly.

Exchange of Consent
Because this is the central element in the Rite of Marriage, the couple should move to a prominent place before the assembly and face each other to exchange their vows in a voice audible to the assembly. The form of the vows must be from among those given in the Rite of Marriage. Although memorization, repetition, or responding "I do" are all acceptable forms of consent, some policies favor the above order of preference as it allows a more active role for the couple.

"In those situations where an individual is marrying someone with minor children from a prior union, the recent practice of the new step-parent presenting these minor children with some symbolic representation of his/her love and pledge to care for them, for example, a birthstone ring, is a practice worthy of encouragement." (St. Petersburg).

Choice of Ceremony
When two Catholics marry, the Rite for Celebrating Marriage During Mass is normally used. When a Catholic marries a baptized person from another Christian Church The Rite for Celebrating Marriage Outside Mass is normally used. When a Catholic marries someone who is not Christian The Rite for Celebrating Marriage Between a Catholic and an Unbaptized Person must be used. Mass is prohibited in this situation. (See Gary and Cincinnati for extensive explanations of interreligious policies.)

Holy Communion
Although most policies do not prohibit a Eucharistic liturgy for an ecumenical wedding, it is discouraged because it contradicts the central marital image of unity when one partner receives communion and the other does not.

All music used in the wedding ceremonies must be expressive of Christian faith and liturgically appropriate. While some sung parts of the service may be done by a soloist, the soloist should never dominate, singing all of the music. Copyright regulations must be respected. Some policies specifically prohibit the use of songs such as Lohengrin's "Here Comes the Bride" and "Midsummer Night's Dream" as inconsistent with Christian values.

Decorations should respect the Church's liturgical season. Flowers should never be placed on the altar.

Since the wedding liturgy is a sacred communal prayer, persons taking pictures should always be inconspicuous and discreet. Flash and floodlights are to be avoided.

Additional Symbolic Rituals

  • Unity Candle
    Although lighting a "unity candle" is not part of the Rite of Marriage it has become very popular as an additional ritual. Most policies do not prohibit this custom but many suggest that it be done at the reception since the Rite of Marriage already has abundant symbols of unity. Cincinnati's Celebrating Marriage booklet has a pastoral explanation for this. If the unity candle is used, the couple should light their individual candles from the paschal candle, the individual candles should not be extinguished, and the candle should not be placed on the altar. The Sioux City policy reinterprets the unity candle as the "Christ candle." Liturgists continue to discuss the use and conflicting meanings of the unity candle.xi
  • Placing flowers before a statue of Mary
    "Some couples may wish to dedicate their marriage to the Blessed Mother. Before the dismissal, the couple takes a flower or bouquet to the statue or altar of Mary and places it there. They remain there for a time of prayer and then return to their places." (Sioux City) This custom reflects a personal devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and is not part of the Rite of Marriage. Most policies suggest that couples who have a particular Marian devotion make this gesture at the rehearsal or after the final blessing.
  • Lazo
    Lazo is generally a double looped rosary that rests on the shoulders of the couple as a sign of the unity in the vows they have professed.
  • Exchange of Arras (coins)
    The exchange of arras, or coins, in the Spanish-speaking community expresses mutual sharing.
  • Velo
    The velo or veil is most often used by families of Filipino heritage. The Velo is extended over the shoulders of the bride and groom after the vows have been spoken, and the Lazo holds it in place. For fuller explanations of these last three customs see the Allentown policy.

Support After Marriage

Although marriage preparation policies focus on the immediate preparation phase, Pope John Paul II exhorted pastoral ministers to help the couple "to discover and live their new vocation" This holds true especially for young families, which, finding themselves in a context of new values and responsibilities, are more vulnerable, especially in the first years of marriage. (Familiaris Consortio, #69).

Pope Paul VI encouraged ministers of marriage to "work ardently and incessantly for the safeguarding and the holiness of marriage, that it always be lived in its entire human and Christian fullness. Consider this mission as one of your most urgent responsibilities at the present time" (Humanae Vitae, 30).

Canon Law requires pastors and faith communities to provide assistance to all married people so that "the matrimonial state is preserved in a Christian spirit and advances in perfection" (c. 1063). Canon 1128 specifically requires pastoral care for ecumenical marriages, while canon 1129 deals with the pastoral care of interreligious marriages.

Faithful to Each Other Forever devotes Section IV to pastoral care after marriage.

These documents indicate that marriage enrichment and support is not something optional for dioceses or parishes that proclaim the value of lifelong marriage. Research shows that immediate marriage preparation (the 6-9 months before the wedding) has a limited effect on the life of a marriage. "The perceived value of marriage preparation diminishes with the length of the marriage or the time elapsed since marriage preparation" ( Marriage Preparation in the Catholic Church: Getting it Right).

Those policies that address marriage enrichment emphasize the early years of marriage and usually refer to the following: parish support for marriage through the General Intercessions, bulletin inserts, and homilies; diocesan or parish support programs specifically directed to couples in the first five years of marriage; promotion of standard marriage enrichment programs such as Marriage Encounter, marriage enrichment events, marriage retreats, Arusi (Chicago), and Retrouvaille/Third Option; the celebration of World Marriage Day (weekend closest to Valentine's Day); diocesan or parish 25th and 50th Anniversary Masses; occasional marriage talks or workshops; and referral to pro-marriage counselors.

Print, video, and internet resources include:

  • Foundations, a bi-monthly newsletter for newly married couples (
  • First Years and Forever, a monthly e-newsletter ( )
  • To Seal and Strengthen Love: A Resource Manual for Ministry with Newly Married Couples, published by National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers,

Because Cincinnati has tied its marriage policy to the marriage lifecycle, it has the most developed section for post-marriage support. It divides marriage into the early years, the middle years, and the later years and describes common issues, gives suggestions for the parish, and lists resources for each phase.

Additional Resources

Diocesan policies

Policies often include helpful information that cannot be included here due to length or copyright. For example:

  • Liturgical guidelines: Sioux City has creative discussion prompts to help the priest address sensitive liturgical issues. Louisville has a detailed description of the various liturgical roles.
  • Interreligious guidelines: see especially Galveston/Houston, Cincinnati, and Los Angeles
  • Prayers and Blessings related to marriage: Chicago includes a Prayer for the Engaged, Prayers of the Faithful, and an Anniversary Blessing. Altoona-Johnstown has a Blessing for the Engaged.
  • Other resources include Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers (USCCB, 1988), Book of Blessings (USCCB, 1988), and a Prayerbook for Engaged Couples (Liturgy Training Publications, 1990)

Information on specific issues (Contact the referenced diocese for further information)

  • Comprehensive bibliographies: Michigan, Helena, Wisconsin, Louisville
  • Clear, concise theology of marriage: Kansas City-St. Joseph, Ft. Worth, Galveston/Houston
  • Catholic identity: Chicago's policy starts each section with an overview of "Our Catholic Heritage"
  • Canon Law explanations: Harrisburg, Portland, Rapid City
  • Interreligious discussion guide: Wisconsin
  • Sexual Intimacy and Marital Life: Historical Development and Church Teaching (Galveston-Houston)
  • Teen marriage resources: Galveston-Houston
  • Family of origin resources: Michigan-Genogram, Altoona/Johnstown-family rituals
  • Faith Inventory: Michigan
  • Glossary (Chicago)


i For the sake of brevity, archdioceses, and dioceses are referred to by their see city in this document.

ii Although most policies use the Faithful to Each Other Forever definition of proximate marriage preparation as culminating with the formal engagement, a few dioceses use the Pontifical Council for the Family's definition that concludes with the catechesis of the engaged couple in the last weeks before marriage.

iii Canon law establishes age 14 for a woman and age 16 for a man (canon 1083) to enter a valid marriage. The permission of the local ordinary is needed in the case of minors when the parents are unaware of or reasonably opposed to the marriage (canon 1071).

iv Apostolic Letter on Mixed Marriages no. 7, Statement on the Implementation of the Apostolic Letter on Mixed Marriages, NCCB, 1971.

v Ecumenical Directory, 150.

vi DeMaris & MacDonald, 1993.

vii Thomson & Colella, 1992.

viii The term "mentor couple" and "sponsor couple" are often used interchangeably in the literature. For clarity in this document mentor couple will be used to refer to any one-on-one relationship where a married couple works with one engaged couple. Often this format is used with premarital inventories. Sponsor Couple will be reserved for lead couples facilitating the Sponsor Couple Program.

ix Marriage Preparation in the Catholic Church: Getting it Right, Center for Marriage and Family, Creighton University, 1995.

x The term "Pre-Cana" is now often used as a generic term to refer to any marriage preparation program.

xi The Use of the "Unity Candle" at Weddings (NCCB Committee on the Liturgy Newsletter, July/August 1991).