Priests, theologians and lay pastoral workers have responded to recent comments from a senior Vatican official that suggested that priests lack the necessary experience to offer marriage preparation programs for engaged couples.
In a recent interview with the Irish Catholic magazine Intercom, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, said that “priests are not the best people to train others for marriage.”
“They have no credibility; they have never lived the experience; they may know moral theology, dogmatic theology in theory, but to go from there to putting it into practice every day ... they don’t have the experience,” the cardinal added.
The comments echoed remarks the cardinal made in September 2017, when he said that priests had “no credibility when it comes to living the reality of marriage.”
Edmund Adamus served for nearly 15 years as the director for marriage and family life for the Archdiocese of Westminster in England before becoming schools’ commissioner for the English Diocese of Portsmouth. Adamus told CNA that Cardinal Farrell’s remarks do not reflect his experience in marriage preparation.
“In a career spanning 30 years of ministry and family-life apostolate in the Church, I have always found the contribution of the priest to be invaluable in the task of both preparing couples for marriage as well as supporting and sustaining couples through difficult times,” he said.
Adamus continued: “To imply that the priest has no credibility with the engaged or married couple because he has no direct experience of married life ... negates the vision of that great model of priestly service to married life and love, St. John Paul II.”
“It is because of and thanks to his inspirational theology of the body,” Adamus said, “that we have a hermeneutic in which priest and spouses can truly explore together what Familiaris Consortio called ‘supernatural fecundity.’”
These sentiments were echoed by Dominican Father Thomas Petri, vice president and academic dean of the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.
“I can only assume there’s more to Cardinal Farrell’s point than what’s being reported, since on the face of it the assertion that priests have no credibility with regard to marriage is utterly confounding” Father Petri said.
“If we’re going to insist that priests have no credibility with regard to marriage, then we not only wash away the dogmatic and moral theology of the sacrament, but we also must, therefore, insist that the faithful should not approach priests for counsel on marriage.”
“Are we, then, also to tell them that Karol Wojtyla’s great book Love and Responsibility has no credibility? Or that his work as St. John Paul II — the theology of the body — is not credible? How, then, should the faithful regard our Holy Father’s Amoris Laetitia, which is the longest ecclesial document in history on marriage?” Father Petri asked.
“Is the experience St. John Paul II had with many families trying to live married life faithfully worth nothing? Is Pope Francis’ experience with such families worth nothing? Is mine?”
Adamus and Father Petri agreed that the best forms of marriage preparation involve priests and married couples working together.
“One of the best forms of collaborative ministry between lay and ordained in the Church is supporting engaged and married couples. I have seen ... many highly successful programs that beautifully incorporate the gifts and charisms of the celibate priesthood with the talents, faith and generosity of faithful Catholic spouses, especially in mentoring the engaged under the pastoral supervision and prayerful guidance of the priest,” Adamus said.
“Most priests I know agree that married couples who are living their faith in marriage and struggling for holiness by God’s grace should not only be involved with preparing new couples for marriage, but are, in fact, shining examples that Our Lord’s teaching on marriage is not some unattainable ideal but is, rather, the path to true happiness and freedom,” Petri added.
The benefit to cooperation between priests and married couples was also emphasized by John Grabowski, associate professor of moral theology and ethics at The Catholic University of America.
Grabowski, who served as an expert auditor at the 2015 Synod on the Family in Rome, told CNA that Cardinal Farrell’s remarks point to the importance of involving married couples in marriage-preparation programs.
“Cardinal Farrell’s statement reminded me a little of the style of Pope Francis; he’s very forthright in making his point. In this case, maybe he was being a little hyperbolic, but I do think there is a valid point here about the importance of increased involvement by married couples in marital formation, both before and after the wedding.”
Married couples, Grabowski said, “have things they bring, in terms of their lived experience, which have real value. Veritatis Splendor speaks of ‘experiential moral knowledge,’ and this has a key role to play in offering couples, engaged and married, the best formation and support the Church has to offer.”
Grabowski emphasized that both priests and lay couples bring unique perspectives to marriage formation and that the combination of the two is essential.
“Good marriage formation draws on both priests and married couples working together. Just as married people have a direct lived experience, priests bring a unique insight of their own. In addition to offering the necessary formation in the theology of marriage, they can also act as a sort of wide-angle lens, giving a broader perspective on the joys and hardships of married life formed through years of accompanying different couples,” he said.
“My wife and I have been forming and preparing couples for marriage for more than 20 years, and we have been helping to offer support and ongoing formation to couples after marriage,” Grabowski added.
“We recently published a program for marriage formation, and in it, we explicitly recommend that it be used with the involvement of a priest for just this reason.”
Grabowski also stressed that vocations to both marriage and celibacy rely on each other.
“It is not a question,” said Grabowski, “of one experience being valid and another not; this is a false contradiction. The distinct vocations of marriage and celibacy are rightly understood as complementary and mutually supportive, not contradictory. Both are about the bodily gift of self in loving service of God and the other, and, properly articulated and valued, they affirm each other.”
“We, very sadly, have seen a shortage of vocations to the priesthood in the United States in recent years, and I think this is related to a crisis in marriage and the family. Without a proper understanding of the dignity of marriage and married love, celibacy, too, loses its value. Married couples and priests working together is mutually supportive and sustaining for them both, and doubly enriching for those they care for,” he added.
Some priests told CNA that Farrell’s apparent remarks have perpetuated misconceptions about the priesthood.
A priest serving in the Diocese of Dallas, where Cardinal Farell served as bishop 2007-2016, told CNA that “comments like this break your heart.”
The priest lamented that Farrell’s comments led to confusion, saying that in his experience the cardinal “gets excited about something and says things in ways that are maybe stronger than the thoughts behind them.”
Father William Dailey, director of the Notre Dame-Newman Centre for Faith and Reason in Dublin, told CNA that, “taken at face value,” the cardinal’s comments undermine “the dedicated efforts of some many priests working with love and dedication to form couples across the Church.”
“A good priest knows, values and champions the vocation of married couples and what they offer the world and the Church. He knows this because he needs it himself, because the world needs it. Obviously, marriage preparation should include more than just celibate voices. But the priest can offer pastoral wisdom from his experience, spiritual guidance about, for example, the life of prayer and how to incorporate it into a relationship,” he said.
“In charity, let’s hope the cardinal misspoke or was misquoted and that he can either enlarge his remarks, so as to make a different point, or retract what he said as not being what he actually thinks.”
Ed Condon is the Washington, D.C., editor for Catholic News Agency.