One of the most difficult challenges for the Church, and indeed for society as a whole, is marriage breakdown. The Catholic Church teaches that marriage is indissoluble, and while Catholic marriages appear to be more successful than the general population, more than a quarter of Catholic spouses will experience divorce during their lifetime. The assault on marriage takes many forms but the first is divorce, particularly the widely accepted notion of no-fault divorce.
Even good marriages have rough spots and few of us who have been married several decades get through without having had moments where we wonder what the heck we were thinking. Those moments generally pass fairly quickly and we get ourselves back on track. Sometimes, however, it takes a lot of effort, prayer and determination to get through – and a spouse who is equally determined. The siren call of our culture tells us that divorce is the way to make the hurt or heartache end and the pull towards separation can be strong.
What is the role of the Church in supporting married couples? It seems to me that the Church is struggling to come to grips with that question and thus far has responded inadequately.
Dioceses generally make some effort at marriage preparation so that couples getting married have a better understanding of sacramental marriage. Unfortunately, at least in my experience, the couples taking part are typically already engaged, and in most cases, they have their wedding date set. Preparations are well underway, deposits have been made, venues booked, dresses are being altered… the horse, as they say, has left the barn. The couple is not discerning whether they ought to marry – they are left to their own resources there –they are taught about the permanence of marriage, communication, and the preference for natural family planning. Okay, that’s all good, but unfortunately, their target audience is… off-target. They are often cohabiting, almost always sexually intimate, and usually contracepting. Most have a sexual “history.” They have, whether consciously or not, already rejected the Church’s teaching on marriage and a weekend crash-course is not going to fix that.
Marriage preparation must be rooted in effective catechesis that begins long before couples are contemplating marriage and hopefully before teens are sexually active. Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is a powerful resource for understanding the Catholic teaching on marriage and much more. Christopher West and Jason Evert are two authors who have made Theology of the Body very accessible to general audiences. Developing an understanding of our inherent dignity, made in the image and likeness of God, is fundamental to making good choices when it comes to dating and, eventually, marriage partners. Without that catechesis, marriage preparation courses are just a box to check off the to-do list of wedding planning.
Once a couple is married, it seems there is little that the Church offers to support them. There are the sacraments and the parish community, of course, but many Catholic couples are only superficially connected. They encounter the parish when their children must be baptized or enrolled in school or catechism, but they do not feel part of a parish family. It is not where they will turn in times of difficulty.
One of the problems with the Church today is that it is very passive. The pastor may work at various things (or not) but many do not get out among the sheep. He is “available” if people seek him out (or not) but may not be actively engaged with the families in his parish. He may not be aware of the stresses and strains in marriages, even among the apparently happy families who populate the pews on Sunday, not to mention those who do not feel at home in their parish. It’s just as well, sometimes, because he may lack the leadership to guide them through their difficulties. Like everyone else, many of the clergy are largely influenced by popular culture and its false assumptions about marriage, and not all will strongly affirm the Church’s teaching on marriage and discourage separation except in very serious circumstances. Their lack of personal experience may intimidate them.
To be continued…