9 Months For Marriage Prep?!?!?!

Over at Father Zuhlsdorf’s blog WDTPRS, there is an interesting discussion over Bishop Olmsted deciding the Diocese of Phoenix will require 9 months of marriage prep.  As one who married outside the church, I just have to say this is insane.  Additionally, a full NFP course will be on the menu.  Nothing says I love you more than asking the woman you love to get married, so that you can have sex and avoid pregnancy. 

I was married at 21.  My wife and I dated 3 months, give or take, and were engaged for 5 months.  We will be celebrating our 10th anniversary this year.  I’m not sure – although I’m pretty sure I haven’t – been to a Catholic wedding with a bride and groom under 23, maybe even 25.  Instead of NFP instruction, parishes might consider soliciting advertising from the local IVF clinics if they are going to have these requirements.  While I know a lot of happy couples that married young (and outside the church) and are doing fine, I know a lot older couples (late twenties/early thirties) that are having very significant difficulties achieving pregnancy.  (I know, that’s why they are giving the NFP training, to help couples get pregnant.  Yeah right.)

What bothers me most about this though is the continued clinicalization of marriage (and most other social problems.)  The idea is prevalent out there that divorce is principally a personal failure.  As such the prescriptions are the usual better catechesis, more maturity etc.   Concomitant with this is the romantic notion that our grandparents and great-grandparents were better catechized and more mature.  This is of course nonsense.  People are getting married almost a decade later than they were 5 generations ago.  (Please don’t reference the WWII generation as it was aberrational due to WWII taking place.)   And while I would love to claim an extraordinary piety existed in the older generations, the saying that all babies take 9 months except the first has deep roots.  Some are called to marriage, and, with others, marriage calls them.  A church will throw a baby shower for a poor and unwed mother, but the church will make that mother wait 9 months and learn NFP if she deigns to ask it to marry her.  After all, we need to preserve the sanctity of marriage.  (And yes, I know exceptions are made all the time.)

To get back to the prevalent idea of marriages failing being a personal trouble, I’m convinced that the reason marriages are failing have a lot to do with external causes.  I might as well add some controversy here and start with the surprising number of marriages ending with more than 5 children.  Part of it I think is the LHOTP (Little House on the Prairie) mindset that claims isolation is a good thing.  All of the sudden women pop out and decide they want a life, or at least not LHOTP, and the marriages fall apart.  Then there is the all too common phenomenon of great social instability leading people to change careers 12 times in their lives.  This is the second time I’ve experienced significant unemployment in my marriage.   It isn’t fun, and it hasn’t been fun with the marriage.  Then there is the whole trying to raise a family on one income.  While the entry point to being able to do this is lower than what many accept, living at the edge of poverty isn’t all that fun and that free market ain’t doing too well supporting households headed by people making under 150% of the median income (roughly $65,000 for those scoring at home).  Not everyone can work in Catholic media and apologetics after all.  That’s not all though.  With the instability, you have the added bonus that many folks no longer live near family and have lost that support system.  Additionally, with modern development your stay-at-home mom might be the only one in the neighborhood between the hours of 9 and 5.  Now obviously no one wants divorce, but these programs are not a panacea for these problems.

Finally there is this whole notion that discernment equals time.  Certainly discernment takes time, but after that it is called procrastination.  It is not a sign of virtue for a man to look into a woman’s eyes after five years and say, “I’m not sure we are ready for marriage yet.”  If I were a priest, which I’m sure many are thankful that I’m not, and a bride came up to me and asked when is the first date I can be married in the exclusive chapel in May when the lilacs are blossoming, well I’m not sure what I would do.  I certainly wouldn’t take her willingness to wait a couple years for the date to be available as a sign of virtue.  In plain truth, the folks attracted to these types of things are the same folks that are more interested in a marriage ceremony than being married.  We were married for under $5000 (might have been under $3000; more than what I cared to do, but it’s never too early to compromise with one’s mother-in-law).  I haven’t seen a single expensive wedding among the folks that married “young” like myself.  We simply couldn’t afford it.  Some folks I know went the courthouse route, because they wanted to be married.  If the Church wants to be in the wedding business, that is her choice in the end.  I think she should be helping to make marriages.

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  • http://roadgoeseveron.wordpress.com Henry Karlson

    MZ

    I think many places already have a year of preparation required. I myself can understand why the Church might want people, in today’s selfish world, to have the right understanding of marriage; but I think it can be and should be easily dispensed if the couple proves they know the expectations in advance.

  • Brian

    Can’t say I agree with everything here, but I do agree with your last paragraph. The extravagance of modern weddings is way out of hand. I saw somewhere that the average wedding (this was probably for before the recession…) cost something like $20,000-$25,000. I’m sorry, maybe this is because I’m a guy, but that just seems like an extraordinary waste of money.

    And so little of it on the Mass / ceremony itself. The reception, the band/dj, the food, etc. As a society, we spend so much time and energy focused on the wedding day and not enough on the thousands of days to come after that.

  • http://arturovasquez.wordpress.com Arturo Vasquez

    Good essay. It kind of reminds me again on why marriage is NOT a vocation strictly speaking. I chose to get married, I am chosing to have kids, not the Church. And it will happen anyway whether the Church likes it or not. The Church is just going to have to deal with the complicated realities of our new social situation, and not conclude that “more preparation” is going to fix everything. My grandparents have been married for almost sixty years now, but they were married in rural Mexico where, more often than not, people stayed together because they had to (and having eight kids helped). And to tell the truth, many Mexicans, though Catholic, on both sides of the border don’t marry in the Church for the reasons cited above. My parents never married in the Church, though they are now separated.

    The Church has to learn that milking more time (and money) out of people will not necessarily make them better Christians. Looking back at my own six months of marriage preparation, I have to admit that all of that could have been compressed into a couple of months. I don’t think the four extra months helped us at all.

  • http://www.dymphnaswell.blogspot.com Dymphna

    What concerns me is that the Church gets all these “requirements” on the table, asks the perspective bride and groom a laundry list of questions to make sure that it is a valid marriage and then, years later, when the aforementioned stresses come into play and one party abandons the other with a number of small children, the marriage can not be annulled because they “understood” all the requirements due to such wonderfully detailed marriage prep.

    Also, this 9 month to one year waiting period is going to mean many fewer couples marrying in the Church anyway…which might actually take care of my above concern!

  • Fr. J. Patrick Mullen

    I have been surprised, over and over again, by what couples, who are very apparently mature, at least in years, have not discussed with each other before arranging to marry: Who is going to do what in the household; how are finances going to be managed; how many children they’re going to have together. In that latter regard, I’ve had to ask a number of men who was going to bring their additional three of five children to term, because it sounds like the woman they were marrying was only having two of them. Time for contemplation and communication, for people who are infatuated, is not a bad thing. I am not arguing for nine months over any other set time. But I have found that a calm, caring guided process, with the necessary time to actually settle into things, has been richly helpful to couples I have married.

  • http://kylecupp.com Kyle R. Cupp

    I think as a general rule, the six month timeframe makes sense for marriage preparation. Extending it beyond that risks incentivizing couples to forgo a sacramental marriage, though I suppose in time couples may come to expect and accept a timeframe of nine months or more.

    Learning NFP has helped numerous couples achieve and sustain pregnancy and even helped women diagnose health problems. I certainly believe it should be offered. Whether or not it should be required I’ll leave aside.

  • Steve

    The extravagance of modern weddings is way out of hand.

    About 20 years ago, a relative of mine was offered a choice of wedding gifts by the bride’s father: A paid-for home of their choice – no mortgage, or a very extravagant wedding, on the order of $100,000. They chose the wedding.

    Yep. They’re divorced.

  • Steve

    I have been surprised, over and over again, by what couples, who are very apparently mature, at least in years, have not discussed with each other before arranging to marry.

    Father, out of curiosity, are there a significant number of couples who decide not to get married after they discover the potential spouses’ expectations?

  • Steve

    One more side note… I used to do some photography on the side, and as such I worked many, many weddings. I have to say that, by far, the best weddings – those where there seemed to be more “authentic” (for a lack of a better word,) morre joy and just plain more fun were those operated on a shoestring – pot luck in a big tent with a keg & horse shoes in the local park or someone’s back yard.

  • Pinky

    I’ve known a few couples who shouldn’t have been married. In half those cases, a little extra time and counselling may have made them realize that the marriage wouldn’t work. In the other half, only one of the partners was fully committed to a Catholic marriage. No amount of time would have convinced Partner #2 to accept a proper understanding of marriage. There were old wounds, personality flaws, or lack of interest in a lifelong, fertile relationship.

    I think a longer engagement may have had benefits for the iffier marriages. The train wrecks were going to be bad no matter what.

  • David Nickol

    There is a concept known as “the medicalization of every day life,” and requiring nine months of preparation for marriage strikes me as something akin to that. People have been getting married for thousands of years without taking courses. I don’t have statistics, but enormous numbers of marriages in the past were entirely arranged by the families of the bride and groom, or at least partly arranged. It does not seem strange to me to require people to go through some preparation for marriage — but nine months? What goes on during that time? What are the total number of hours devoted to marriage preparation during the nine-month period? Are there any studies that demonstrate this kind of preparation has significant benefits?

  • Fr. J. Patrick Mullen

    (Steve:)”Father, out of curiosity, are there a significant number of couples who decide not to get married after they discover the potential spouses’ expectations?”

    I’m not sure that I can answer that with certainty. I most certainly have had couples withdraw from their intent to marry, but I haven’t always been informed of the reason. I can only suspect that for some of them, more in-depth communication led to an awareness of incompatibility. I am certain, though, that almost all couples have had surprises that they were able to iron out, once given the prompting by Church ministers, myself and others in the process. The invitation to develop a practice of discussing things maturely, openly and thoroughly is one of the best gifts I have to offer in the sacramental moment.

  • http://www.catholicanarchy.org Michael J. Iafrate

    Arturo, I’m puzzled by this comment:

    It kind of reminds me again on why marriage is NOT a vocation strictly speaking. I chose to get married, I am chosing to have kids, not the Church.

    The second sentence is confusing. Why do you think marriage is not a vocation? Because there is a “choice” involved on our part? Must not priests and religious “choose” to cooperate with their vocations?

  • http://the-american-catholic.com DarwinCatholic

    For whatever reason (perhaps because they can’t think of anything else) there seems to be an excessive faith on the part of diocesan and parish administrative types that making people sit through classes for long periods of time will assure that they are better formed for something or other. One sees this not only with marriage prep, but with all sorts of other more minor prep classes. For example, each time we have a child baptised my wife and I are required to take baptism classes — again. Because the certification that one has received enough formation to have a child baptised only lasts one year. (And I guess you never know if the sacrament has changed in the last year, so we need to stay current!)

    I certainly think one is justified in thinking that many of those Catholics who enter into marriage are not ready to do so (modern culture seems to do that to one), but I see no reason to believe that attending marriage prep classes will, in most cases, make any difference in that.

  • Kyle R. Cupp

    …there seems to be an excessive faith on the part of diocesan and parish administrative types that making people sit through classes for long periods of time will assure that they are better formed for something or other.

    Well, we have to justify our existence, somehow, Darwin. 😉

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  • Dan

    “I myself can understand why the Church might want people, in today’s selfish world, to have the right understanding of marriage;”

    I agree. There are a lot of material pressures in the world around us (including the Big Show weddings), so an effort by the church to attempt to teach and enlighten couples should be encouraged as marriage is clearly a call, a vocation provided by our Creator. (In learning about NFP, I found it informative and opened my eyes towards how to look at my body, my wife’s body and to life.)

    And after marriage, the church needs to continue its teaching efforts to support couples consumed with all the stress and things around us. Our material comforts easily distract and tempt us, bringing out selfish tendencies.

    Personally, I always thought I was a patient individual, then I married and had children. I learned a lot in having my weaknesses exposed and challenged.

    So an effort by the church to get folks to focus on the “other” needs to be encouraged, and we should ask our bishops and priests to continue promoting such a view well after marriage. Society would be better off if we learn to focus more on the other, be it spouse, child, neighbor, stranger.

    Thanks for bringing up this topic.

  • Dan

    For perspective…I would guess the total time spent in marriage prep over nine months is far less than the amount of time the couple would spent surfing the web (for example, reading blogs, watching Youtube) or watching TV.

    A little substance about marriage might help break through the mind-candy distractions around us.