Priests and Marriage Preparation
COMMENTARY: Rather than being an insurmountable handicap, my priesthood is actually an asset.
One of the duties of parish priests is to prepare couples for the sacrament of matrimony. Many priests love this work. Others admit they find parts of it taxing. But almost all parish priests do it, dedicate quite a lot of time to doing it, and, like other aspects of priestly work, try to do it well.
That’s why it came as quite a shock earlier this month when Cardinal Kevin Farrell, the prefect for the Vatican’s Dicastery of Laity, Family and Life, which is in charge of the Church’s universal care for the family, declared that priests are basically incompetent to do this work.
In an interview printed in the July/August edition of Intercom magazine, published by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Farrell made headlines when he said, “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.”
This was not the first time he has alleged universal priestly ineptitude with regard to marriage preparation. Last September, at a conference in Belfast, he emphasized that priests have “no credibility in this area” because they have “no credibility when it comes to living the reality of marriage.” What is needed, he said, is accompaniment by other married couples “who have walked in [married couples’] shoes.”
He implied that his comprehensive assertions might be partly autobiographical extrapolations because, he said, he didn’t “have a clue” when his own nieces and nephews asked him some questions about marital difficulties. “I have no experience of that, and the majority of priests don’t have that experience,” he said.
But in the Intercom interview he also contended that priests’ lack of competence and credibility is matched by a lack of commitment. Basing himself on his previous experience as the bishop of Dallas, he said, priests, with all of their duties, “are not going to be interested in organizing marriage meetings.”
Priests who are in fact interested in organizing meetings with couples to help them get ready for the sacrament of marriage found his comments disheartening and disturbing. Many married couples likewise found them bewildering.
Earlier this month I was in Lubbock, Texas, giving four talks at the “Diocesan Family Camp” on how marital love is free, full, faithful and fruitful. Several of the married couples present, in the wake of Cardinal Farrell’s comments, sent me emails thanking me once again for my work and saying that they found my talks, and Bishop Robert Coerver’s opening keynote, credible, helpful and attuned to the realities of marriage and family life. I similarly got emails from various couples I’ve prepared for marriage over the last 19 years, saying how grateful they were for what they received from the hours we spent together.
It’s one thing to make the obvious point that effective marriage preparation involves not just parish priests but well-trained married couples, something that happens in most parish, diocesan and online marriage-preparation courses in the United States. Cardinal Farrell’s regrettable emphasis, however, was not to encourage lay involvement, but to undermine priests’ involvement and credibility — as if, because they’ve never been married, priests have nothing to contribute. This led Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin humorously to tweet, “It seems fair to ask, then, if a celibate cleric has sufficient ‘credibility’ to lead a dicastery devoted to laity, family and life.”
Cardinal Farrell’s comments made me wonder how familiar he is with St. John Paul II’s works on marriage, which take up his objections and persuasively refute them.
In the opening words of the introduction to his book Love and Responsibility, for example, the future pope took up the objection:
“There exists a view that only married people may speak about marriage, and that only persons who experience love between a man and a woman may speak about such love. This view demands personal and direct experience as the basis for speaking in a given field. Thus, priests, religious and celibate persons cannot have anything to say on matters of love and marriage.”
Then he responded: “A lack of their own personal experience does not hinder them since they possess a very rich indirect experience proceeding from pastoral work … [where] they encounter precisely these problems so often and in such a variety of ways and situations that another experience is created, experience that is undoubtedly more indirect and ‘foreign,’ but at the same time much more extensive.”
Even though priests don’t have firsthand experience of marital life, St. John Paul underlined, they have a far more extensive secondhand experience than almost anyone because of their pastoral work hearing confessions, counseling couples, and sharing the joys and struggles of their married spiritual sons and daughters. They also have their firsthand exposure to the reality of family life from growing up in a family.
His Eminence, however, not only seems to have forgotten John Paul II’s insights, but also seems unaware of what Pope Francis has said about priests and marriage preparation.
Speaking to parish priests in the Vatican Feb. 25, 2017, Pope Francis commented, “In most cases, you are the first people to be approached by young people desiring to form a new family and marry in the sacrament of matrimony. And it is again you to whom married couples turn in crisis as a result of serious relationship problems, with a need to rekindle their faith and rediscover the grace of the sacrament. … No one better than you knows and is in touch with the reality of the social fabric of the territory and experiences the various complexities: unions celebrated in Christ, de facto unions, civil unions, failed unions, happy and unhappy families and young people.”
“With each person and in each situation,” the Pope continued, “you are called to be traveling companions who can offer witness and support. May your primary concern be to bear witness to the grace of the sacrament of matrimony and the primordial good of the family, vital cell of the Church and of society, by announcing that marriage between a man and a woman is a symbol of the spousal union between Christ and the Church. Such witness is put into practice concretely when you prepare engaged couples for marriage, making them aware of the profound meaning of the step which they are about to take, and when you journey with young couples with attentiveness, helping them experience the divine strength and the beauty of their marriage through light and shadow, through joyful and difficult times.”
He went on to say that he wanted marriage preparation to be a “true catechumenate” that could accompany engaged couples similar to the way the Church for months accompanies adults preparing for the sacrament of baptism.
“This catechumenate,” he said, “is principally entrusted to you, parish priests. … I encourage you to implement it despite any difficulties you may encounter.”
Those are not the words of someone with a low estimation of the credibility, competence and commitment of priests with regard to the sacrament of matrimony.
I have had the joy to do clergy workshops on marriage preparation in various dioceses in the U.S. and Canada and to speak throughout the U.S. and beyond on John Paul II’s theology of the body. I have also had the chance to prepare several hundred couples for marriage.
I normally meet with couples cumulatively for about 10 hours because I’m convinced that in a culture that doesn’t support marriage as the lifelong, faithful and fruitful union of one man and one woman, this time is indispensable to help them build their marriage on the rock of faith.
In addition to Marriage Encounter or other pre-Cana programs I have them take, I give them 12 short essays to write, so that I can better meet them where they’re at and help bring them to where the Church hopes they’ll be on their wedding day. I give them videos to watch and websites to visit. I administer FOCCUS tests (a pre-marriage inventory) to them and review with them their responses.
Over the course of our conversations, we discuss their family backgrounds, how they met, how they determined the other was the “right one,” how the proposal happened, what marriage means, why Christian marriage is a sacrament, what role God plays in their relationship, what is distinctive about marital love, what they love about the other and how the other has shown love to them, what their desires are for children, how to grow in prayer and faith as a couple, how to forgive, and what marriage experts say are best practices on communication, finances and relations with in-laws.
We go over in depth the necessary intentions for a valid marriage. We cover the what and why of the Church’s teachings about natural family planning, adoption, infertility, cohabitation, contraception, in vitro fertilization and pornography. We even tackle what to do if they happen to fall in love with someone else.
In all of this, rather than being an insurmountable handicap, my priesthood is actually an asset.
My chaste celibacy allows me to be more objective in talking about human sexuality in God’s plan than someone whose experiences are marked too much by personal experience.
My seminary training is likewise a plus. So many generous Catholic couples who volunteer to lead marriage-preparation courses, like my parents, certainly can talk effectively and eloquently about various practical realities of living a Catholic marriage, but, in general, they cannot speak to the theology and sacramentality of marriage the way priests can and couples deserve. Not even most permanent deacons can address the “tough issues” with regard to the Church’s moral teaching with the same clarity and confidence as priests. These priestly contributions are an indispensable service to couples, who are often beguiled by our secular age to look at marriage in a desacralized way.
Most helpful of all, however, I think, is simply a priest’s presence and prioritized concern for the couple. Many young people, including Catholics, don’t know priests personally, because they see them only in chasubles. Many come to marriage preparation not practicing the faith, in one way or many, and have lots of unanswered questions and misconceptions that will impact their marriage and spiritual life overall if left unaddressed.
Over the course of the hours we have together, those questions can come up. Trust can build. The practice of the faith can return. Doubts about “credibility” can be overcome. Real evangelization or re-evangelization can take place.
When a priest shows how much he cares in making the time to get to know and form them, and then brings the fruit of that burgeoning friendship to their rehearsal, wedding homily, reception, future baptisms and more, it can have a favorable long-term influence on their relationship with all priests and with the Church.
I hope that the intense reaction that Cardinal Farrell’s unintentionally offensive remarks have provoked among priests and the faithful might lead him to reassess his conclusions.
I also hope that it will help him, and the dicastery he directs, to better support priests in the trenches in their important labor — together with married laypeople — in preparing couples not just for marriage, but for the sacrament of matrimony in its fullness.
The future of the Church depends on that crucial and ongoing work.
Father Roger Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts.