“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 Dr. 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 twenty 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.”
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“We very sadly have a 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 Farrell served as bishop from 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, CSC, 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.