What if, similar to the minimum requirements for men studying for the priesthood, prospective spouses were subject to 4+ years of intensive study and training on the nitty gritty of their potential vocations? (note: I’m not advocating for 4 actual years of formation, just trying to draw a comparison between the immense disparity between preparation for receiving holy orders and preparation for receiving holy matrimony. Obviously marriage prep begins at home, and honestly? At birth.)
Instead of a spirituality year and a philosophy semester there would be courses like “conflict management 101” and “debt, debit cards, and divorce,” and “differing sexual appetites: a gender study,” and maybe a really great little Maymester class called “postpartum NFP: WTF.” (That one you’d defer and then take, like, 3 years into marriage. Babysitting provided.)
Think of how drastically improved the vocational retention rates for Christian marriages would be, if lovestruck candidates were first put through a rigorous spiritual, practical, and emotional education on the nature and meaning of the married vocation, and were then accompanied throughout their married life by additional support and available resources to continue growing in said vocation.
I’m not talking here about simply overhauling marriage prep. There are varying degrees of effective programs already out there, some of them good. But this is not merely a call for yet another program. We have lots of programs in the Church. Some of them better than others.
But what we do not seem to have is a particularly well-formed theology of marriage which is accessible to the average Catholic spouses.
But we have Theology of the Body. And we have some really incredible treatises on human love from the previous two pontificates in particular. And yet, they remain largely incomprehensible to the average layperson, because of a lack of formation and primary catechesis, yes (here’s looking at you, parents) but also because for all intents and purposes, neither the Church nor married couples themselves seem completely convinced of the necessity to do more for marriages beyond the quarterly offering of a reconciliation retreat for couples who are, you know, really in trouble.
Put more simply, many of us see marriage as just something most people can do, without any further assistance beyond some pre Cana counseling and a handy list of no-no’s to get them through the next 50 years.
I’m not suggesting this is entirely the fault of the institutional Church, any more than the general decline of morality in the culture at large is. But I am suggesting that perhaps there has been a loss of collective wisdom, shared experience and learned behaviors regarding marriage, what it means, and what it’s for. And that it’s kind of a big problem, both for the Church and for the culture.
How many marriages fail today because neither spouse was properly catechized to begin with?
How many marriages suffer and falter because one or both spouses came from broken homes themselves, and they haven’t seen a couple live through tough times and come out on the other side?
How many marriages crumble incrementally, over decades of contraceptive use until a pair of forty-something strangers wake up in the same bed and wonder what they ever saw in the other person to begin with?
What if something could be done for these couples? Not just another program that will be ignored or under attended but a real, radical overhaul of how we “do” marriage, institutionally?
Here’s what I’m thinking, and it’s not an original thought. This piece in the National Catholic Register makes reference to a kind of “marriage catechumenate” which would require a prolonged period of careful instruction and discernment before marriage, just as we ask of those who are discerning the priesthood or religious life. And not for the sake of deterring marriage, but in order to adequately prepare a couple who wish to enter into a sacramental marriage.
The culture and the Church parted ways on marriage a long time ago. It’s just that they’ve looked kind of similar up until fairly recently.
If we’re calling people to live a countercultural reality of marriage, then we ought to be able to provide countercultural resources to help them along the way.
So a marriage catechumenate, yes. And how about an assigned spiritual director or pastoral advisor of some kind (who practices faithfully and receives ongoing formation themselves – think of a Catholic educator required to sign that oath of fidelity and accrue CEUs) who works with that couple as they ease into their first year or 3 of marriage?
And what about required annual retreats for married couples, with childcare and wine and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and a relaxing dinner at the end where they can talk about their insights and impressions from the day?
And maybe a small group of other families from your parish, matched to roughly the same ages as your own kids, to meet with monthly or bi-monthly for potluck dinners and Bible study?
Basically I’m advocating for a much more intense pre-marital instruction and discernment period coupled with almost exactly what my home parish offers on the tail end of the vows. And yeah, it depends upon people taking the Church up on her offer, for sure. But let’s at least make sure it’s available.
If marriage is truly a vocation, and one to which most Christians are called, we need to start providing resources and an incredible amount of support to keep our numbers up. So that the Church looks good, right?
No. So the Church can raise saints.
Nearly every saint in history came about as the result of a Christian marriage. It’s time we start taking that to heart. We need more saints for our times, and we need heroic spouses willing to live out the vocation to marriage with a Church ready and willing to walk alongside them.