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Pre-Cana and the Future of Marriage Prep

Marriage always seems to be in the news. We are enamored with celebrity marriages. We smile when we hear about a couple who is celebrating their sixtieth or seventieth wedding anniversary. And our culture is now debating the very meaning of marriage. As one who cares deeply about the health of my own marriage—and about marriage in general—the topic is usually at the top of my reading list.

 An article in U.S. Catholic this past week caught my attention. It raises the question of whether Catholic Pre-Cana (marriage preparation) programs in the United States need to be overhauled. Marriage preparation is an issue I have spent much time with since 2004, when my publishing apostolate, Ascension Press, released our own marriage preparation program. Over the past twelve years, I have experienced much this area, and I wanted to take some time to share my response to this article.

In “Does Pre-Cana Need an Overhaul?”, author Annarose F. Steinke chronicles her recent mixed experience with Pre-Cana at her parish. Steinke makes some sound points about the changing demographic of engaged couples and how our marriage prep content needs to address the needs of today’s Catholics. Mostly, though, she correctly describes the deficiencies of the content of her parish’s program, as well as the parish’s marriage prep ministry.

If you had asked me about improving Pre-Cana programs ten years ago, I would have said that the content of most programs indeed needed such an overhaul. Content, though, has improved substantially in more than half of the ten prominent marriage preparation programs across the country, largely due to the impact of St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. The actual administering of programs at the parish level, however, has generally not improved—in fact, in many cases, it is seriously limping. Why? Because our pastors and priests are stretched too thin, and because the vibrancy of faith among many seems to be diminishing. I believe this diminishment is because the Faith has not been effectively passed on to recent generations. As a result, very few are available or interested in taking the mantel of leading marriage preparation at the parish level. (This raises the question as to why we need to dramatically increase our adult faith formation efforts. We need more adults who strongly believe and are also skilled to deliver content.)

Below I have listed and explained several observations gleaned from my twelve years of working closely in marriage preparation. Some of these observations I would consider well- established trends, while others identify what could potentially become trends.

  • The clear and alarming trend is that the number of Catholic marriages over the past twenty-five years has dropped dramatically. In 1990, 326,079 U.S. Catholic marriages took place. In 2015, only 148,134 couples were married in the Church. The sense among the many family life directors with whom I work is that the number has likely reached its low point, and I hope that they are right.  These numbers give evidence of a cultural shift in views towards marriage and highlight the need for Catholic marriages to succeed. Since parents are the primary transmitters of the Faith to their children, the family unit, rooted in Christian marriage, is vital to the Church.
  • The content of Pre-Cana courses has grown steadily more “orthodox” and catechetical in light of the influence of the Theology of the Body. Historically, marriage prep programs were light on theology and heavy on both “witness” and “life skills” (i.e., communication, conflict resolution, etc.). While these elements thankfully remain, at the request of many bishops across the country, more theology is also being infused into programs, thus increasing the number of hours engaged couples spend in these courses.
  • We are also just now starting to see programs that include clear explanations about the Church’s teachings on cohabitation and pornography. Some programs also touch on relevant topics such as how social media and today’s constant connectivity can potentially fuel marital tensions.
  • I am seeing early signs of the concept of “intentional discipleship”—the emphasis on deliberately living one’s life based on a personal relationship with Christ—enter into marriage preparation programs. If intentional discipleship is the launching-pad and context for a marriage preparation course, the program’s marriage-specific content will have greater meaning in the lives of the engaged couples.
  • In light of the current generation’s desire for more subjective and fulfilling experiences, programs are heading in the direction of “relational ministry,” in which an engaged couple is offered content through a mentor couple.
  • I have also speculated that a publisher needs to produce a rich and lengthy marriage formation program, one that mirrors the RCIA model. Given the lack of formation that many Catholics receive, a longer-term, immersive experience into the Catholic worldview will likely be more spiritually and personally transformative than a brief weekend course. No doubt, many pastors or priests would not ask their couples to go through such an elongated marriage formation process, but some will—and their engaged couples will be better off. This idea has also generated some conversation in the past year due to the Synod on the Family and Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia, and it is certainly possible that we’ll see at least one program like this surface in the next several years.
  • And speaking of Amoris Laetitia, we will surely see programs include some of the gifts from this document.

As the Church is the primary voice of Christ in this age, as in all ages over the past 2,000 years, it is forever relevant and provocative. The issue of marriage and marriage preparation will continue to dominate much of our Church’s discussions. Let’s continue to stay tuned so we can leverage what we receive from the Church—and from the insight and experiences of those who work in this area of pastoral ministry—to better reach our engaged couples with the life-giving message of Christ.

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  1. […] rather than doctrine. While creative approaches to marriage preparation and adult faith formation are an ongoing trend in the Church, Bishop Thomas’s decision is unusual. My speculation is that, after a period of discernment and […]

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