What's wrong with this Synod, IV: Unprepared for marriage

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 17, 2014

As the Synod of Bishops continues to focus on troubled marital (and non-marital) relationships, several prominent prelates have speculated that there are probably many Catholics living in marital unions that would, on close inspection, be recognized as invalid.

That suggestion cannot be dismissed as a radical opinion. Several years ago Pope Benedict XVI made the point that since our society has lost its understanding of what marriage really means, it would not be at all surprising to learn that many young Catholics enter into without realizing what they are undertaking.

But if it is true that many marriages are invalid, because the spouses do not understand the vows they are taking, then it is impossible to avoid another conclusion: There has been a spectacular, systematic failure in the Church’s programs of marriage preparation.

During the early sessions of the Synod, one unidentified speaker tacitly acknowledged this failure and said that marriage-preparation programs should be more “rigorous.” If a “rigorous” program in this case means one that actually conveys the essence of the Church’s teaching on sacramental marriage, that would indeed be a step in the right direction. But if “rigor” would only mean lengthening the period of preparation, and insisting that the couples attend more counseling sessions and group retreats, that approach would surely fail.

At least in America today, most marriage-prep programs require that the engage couples attend a certain number of events. If they attend, and go through the prescribed exercises, they will be cleared for marital takeoff. But how many of those programs make a serious effort to discern whether or not the couples intend to make a permanent, faithful commitment? How many shy away from asking whether the couple will welcome children into their new families? In other words, how many parishes actually try to identify potential defects in the young couples’ understanding of sacramental marriage, and thus to spare the young people from the danger of entering into an invalid union?

The faithful have a right to the sacraments, and pastors should not put up obstacles in the way of good Christian couples who are ready to enter a sacramental marriage. But as my colleague Jeff Mirus has observed, we are living in a society that is ignorant of, and even hostile to, the Christian understanding of marriage. So pastors have a legitimate cause for inquiring whether a young man and woman have been infected by the diseases of the day so that they are incapable of making a genuine commitment.

With this is mind, is it prudent for the Synod fathers to devote so much attention to troubled unions, rather than to promoting a better understanding of healthy Christian marriage? Rather than concentrating on the (undoubtedly painful) status of Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried, shouldn’t the Synod highlight the witness of Catholic couples who have proven the depth of their commitment over decades of married life, and passed on to their children a model for marital success?

By concentrating their focus on troubled unions, the Synod fathers are imitating the people in the proverbial story who spend their days fishing drowning babies out of a stream. They may be doing good and useful work. But sooner or later, someone has to move upstream, to find out why all the babies are falling—or being thrown-- into the river. Our leaders need to address the source of the problem, not just the symptoms.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx has told reporters in Rome that in Germany today, roughly half of all Catholic marriages involve one partner who is not baptized. Apparently quite a few young German Catholics are so indifferent to their faith that they don’t care whether or not they are entering a sacramental union. Or perhaps they are so indifferent to their partners that they don’t care whether their future husbands and wives are adopted into the Body of Christ and saved from slavery to sin. Either way, the solution lies in evangelizing those young people, and helping them to grasp the Christian understanding of marriage, rather than in simply making it easier for them to escape the consequences of their imprudent unions.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Oct. 22, 2014 11:06 AM ET USA

    Marriage preparation is vital but people are being prepared for marriage at a very young age. As children we are being programmed as a future spouse. We see our parent(s) or other parent(s). We watch TV and movies that portray a less than ideal image of marriage and same sex marriage is sometimes portrayed as wonderful. Is it any wonder that people are often poor candidates for marriage given our society? The only answer is prayer and God's grace.

  • Posted by: bernie4871 - Oct. 22, 2014 7:06 AM ET USA

    Phil has done his usual masterful job of analysis, He sums it perfectly in one sentence: "Is (was) it prudent for the Synod fathers to devote so much attention to troubled unions, rather than to promoting a better understanding of healthy Christian marriage?" Regrettably, the "Fathers" didn't give evidence that they were solid themselves and able to do it.

  • Posted by: pdhow5802 - Oct. 21, 2014 9:21 PM ET USA

    Excellent points and emphasis. Keep up the good work.

  • Posted by: KC627 - Oct. 21, 2014 11:08 AM ET USA

    I believe St John Paul II provided the Church with an excellent catechetical tool with his teaching of the Theology of the Body (TOB). We include high school and middle school versions of TOB in our parish religious education program. Even at this level, there is extensive teaching for our youth on the understanding of the Sacrament of Matrimony and, in fact, most the issues discussed at this Synod. I pray that TOB with be considered at the concluding 2015 Synod.

  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Oct. 19, 2014 9:27 PM ET USA

    U S marriage preparation programs are fatally deficient. They assume that each person is a committed Catholic and therefore understand something about the faith. Bad assumption. Three weekends and 12 hours later, after learning how to balance a checkbook and "communicate" with one another, they get their ticket punched. This is preparation for a lifelong commitment? Who is responsible for this pathetic state of affairs?

  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 19, 2014 5:50 PM ET USA

    "Either way, the solution lies in evangelizing those young people, and helping them to grasp the Christian understanding of marriage...." The reality is that we must evangelize our own baptized members not simply due to the advance of secularism but largely due to "spectacular, systematic failure" not limited to the sacrament of matrimony. The irony is marvelous; as with the abuse crisis it is striking that many prelates appear not to get it. Thanks Phil for your reality-based perspective.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 18, 2014 10:24 AM ET USA

    As with the filling of seminaries with those who did not have a vocation to the priesthood, we have filled the marriage rosters with those who did not have a vocation to that. We associate quantity with quality, with grave consequences. In future, there will likely be far fewer Catholic marriages - not only because people don't want them - but because few are prepared for them. Same with the priesthood. Perhaps we need this to happen before we move along.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Oct. 18, 2014 9:05 AM ET USA

    "Cardinal Reinhard Marx [said] that in Germany today, roughly half of all Catholic marriages involve one partner who is not baptized." How would stockholders react to this admission by an auto company's manager? "Today roughly half our cars have a steering defect that all but guarantees drivers will lose control someday at speeds above 40 mph." If Marx worked for Mercedes, BMW, or Volkswagen, he would be fired, his crozier broken in two and miter tossed on the ground as he was publicly shamed.