On Jan. 1 new marriage preparation guidelines went into effect in the Diocese of Phoenix. The guidelines are intended to address the problems facing marriage and to reverse “the tide of marital breakdown” by teaching the “Good News” of the Catholic understanding of matrimony.

The guidelines were released in a July 2009 document titled “Covenant of Love.” They aim to respond to the increase in cohabitation and divorce, the decline in marriage role models, and “increasing confusion” over the meaning of Christian marriage.

Couples seeking a church wedding are now required to have nine months of preparation instead of six. Couples are also required to undergo a full course in Natural Family Planning and more comprehensive courses on both the theology of marriage and practical skills.

The preparation will also examine Church teachings about the sanctity of life, divorce and same-sex “marriage.”

The diocese lists problems facing marriage such as the “contraceptive/anti-child mentality,” sexual addiction, and abusive backgrounds. Dual careers, individualism, materialism, a background of divorce, weak faith, and poor catechesis are also discussed.

“Pastoral experience attests that those who are properly evangelized and catechized… those who have encountered Christ personally and who understand, embrace and strive to live the Church’s teaching on marriage, very rarely divorce,” the marriage preparation policy reads.

The policy stresses faith in “the Good News of all that the Catholic Church teaches about marriage” and says a deeper faith will help turn “the tide of marital breakdown.”

Bishop Olmsted’s letter introducing the guidelines said the renewal of marriage and family life was a “critical matter.” He prayed that the policy will “serve to assist all who have the sacred duty of preparing couples for marriage.”

Michael Phelan, head of the diocese’s Office of Marriage and Respect Life, told the Arizona Republic that young people know little about “their call to be married in the Church and to receive the grace of that sacrament.”

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He compared the increased preparation to instruction in the culinary arts.

“If I know little about the difference between eating at a fast-food restaurant and a four-star feast, I won't value the whole experience."

Church weddings are on the decline in the Diocese of Phoenix. The counties of the diocese have averaged 27,000 marriage licenses in the past 15 years despite population growth. The number of church weddings declined from 1,542 in 1993 to 1,389 in 2009. In the 40-year history of the diocese church weddings rarely topped 1,800.

Mark Gray, a researcher at Georgetown University, told the Arizona Republic that Catholic marriages have declined in number from 10 or more per 1,000 Catholics in the 1940s and 1950s to 3.5 per 1,000 today. The rate of Catholic marriages in Phoenix in 2008 was 1.9 per 1,000.

Gray suggested the decline is connected to the rise in divorce and second marriages, the trend to marry later in life, increased numbers of interfaith marriages and a preference for other marriage venues such as resorts or beaches. The last factor is especially increased in Sun Belt states.

The full policy on marriage preparation is at the Diocese of Phoenix website at http://www.diocesephoenix.org/mfrl/documents/CovenantofLovewithPromLetter.pdf.