I think most thoughtful Catholics would say “Yes.” And some bishops at the Synod seem to agree.
Could marriage preparation by itself become a thing of the past for couples approaching the wedding altar? The idea of a “marriage catechumenate” — a period of formation for marriage that would cover a period of time both before and after the wedding day — has been part of the discussion at the ongoing synod of the family taking place in Rome. “At least 10 times, the topic of a ‘catechumenate for marriage’ came up,” Vatican spokesman Father Thomas Rosica revealed at an Oct. 6 media briefing, describing it as “preparation for marriage, a longer process for marriage, as well as a preparation that takes place in the years right after the [wedding]; it continues.” Overall, Catholics have a lower rate of divorce than the general population in the United States. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University reports close to one out of three (or 28%) of Catholic marriages end in divorce. But the rate jumps to nearly one out of two marriages ending in divorce for Catholics in “mixed marriages” with Protestant or non-religious spouses. CARA’s surveys also show that weekly Mass attendance and church involvement correlate strongly with better family outcomes, such as spending time together as a family, eating dinner or playing games as a family, or even praying together. But just one out of five Catholic parents with children at home go to Mass weekly; and just under half of Catholic parents go to Mass once a month or more. The other half of parents go rarely or not at all. One of the proponents of a “marriage catechumenate” type of formation is Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who proposed the idea in a book called The Mystery and Sacrament of Love, first published in 2007, but updated later to coincide with the synod discussions. The cardinal noted that, with so many couples poorly formed in marriage, the Church might instead offer them a “prolonged catechumenate” for marriage “if they wish to celebrate their marriage covenant in a Christian way.” “Marriage catechumenate” is not a technical term. The “catechumenate” is technically a period of formation in the Christian faith for those approaching baptism. But the concept of a post-baptismal catechumen experience of ongoing catechesis is a reality lived by Catholics who belong to the Neocatechumenal Way.
This makes a lot of sense, frankly. It takes a year, sometimes longer, for someone to become Catholic through RCIA; it takes at least five years for a man to be ordained a priest or deacon. Shouldn’t we devote more than a few hours on a weekend to a vocation that will affect two lives—and probably many more—for 50 or 60 years?
Modern times, I think, demand it. Again and again when people come to me to discuss annulments, I find that the original marriage often has one of two distinct characteristics:
1. The couple was too young and inexperienced to begin with; frequently, they never dated anyone else and married this particular person because they were afraid they would never do any better.
2. At least one spouse came from a family that was, in some way, seriously dysfunctional or even damaged. This has been an eye-opener for me. Repeatedly, when you dig into the backgrounds of broken marriages, you find they come from families with divorce, alcoholism, drug use, or physical or verbal abuse. The extended family often wasn’t much better. As a result, the bride or groom (or both) didn’t know what a good, healthy, faith-filled marriage is supposed to look like. It was never modeled for them. Too often, getting married was supposed to be an escape from a bad family life. But of course, it wasn’t. They were unequipped to deal with what married life would entail—on any level.
A little time and effort and prayer—crafting “marriage formation” before and after the wedding—can’t hurt. And it just might make a world of difference.
Getting couples on board with this, however, might be a challenge…