When I first heard it last September, I didn’t pay it much heed. It’s always possible that something puzzling is reported that may have had a different meaning in the original context. Now Cardinal Kevin Farrell has said it again, and the puzzlement endures in the repetition.
“Priests are not the best people to train others for marriage,” he told Intercom, the magazine of the Irish bishops. “They have no credibility; they have never lived the experience; they may know moral theology, dogmatic theology in theory, but to go from there to putting it into practice every day … they don’t have that experience.”
Many priests devote enormous time and heroic energy to marriage preparation, often in the face of significant difficulties. They might not be the “best people” to do it, but certainly they would be deflated to hear Cardinal Farrell pronounce that, having “no credibility”, they are consequently wasting their time.
About 18 months ago Pope Francis – who himself offers all sorts of homely, affectionate and practical advice to married couples – took a rather different view when addressing parish priests, telling them that “no one better than you knows” the situations that couples face.
“May your primary concern be to bear witness to the grace of the Sacrament of Matrimony,” Pope Francis said. “Such witness is put into practice concretely when you prepare engaged couples for marriage, making them aware of the profound meaning of the step which they are about to take.”
So if it were a matter of authority alone, Cardinal Farrell’s comments could be ignored in light of the Holy Father taking a contrary view. Yet if Cardinal Farrell is right, it doesn’t matter that Pope Francis disagrees with him. But is he right? Is it true that priests have “no credibility” in preparing couples for marriage, because they have not been married themselves?
Many times I have told a husband or wife something of great practical value, something that he or she did not know despite being married. My experience is not unique. How do we priests know such things?
I learn about deeply personal matters from conversations with married people, protected by the confidentiality of the confessional and spiritual direction. I acquire the benefit of their experience.
I hand on not what I have experienced, but what I have learned – much like a family doctor, a psychologist, a counsellor, a judge, a detective, a parole officer, a novelist, a composer, a painter, a coach, a trainer, a stockbroker, a financial adviser, an estate agent, an undertaker, an architect, a professor, an advertising agent, a chef or a curator might do. Barbers and hairdressers often know more about their clients than their own families do.
People commonly hand on useful information and advice from what they have learned in their professional work. The principle of no credibility without direct experience would exclude far more than celibate priests from marital advice. Even happily married couples would lack credibility for couples in distress. How could the former counsel the latter about, say, overcoming adultery or coping with financial distress if they had always been faithful and prosperous?
The principle also obscures what parish marriage preparation is for. It is not about how to decide where to spend family holidays or how to resolve squabbles. The “primary concern” of the priest, to quote Pope Francis again, is “to bear witness to the grace of the Sacrament of Matrimony”.
Catholic marriage is a particular way of living the life of discipleship; the marital vocation is one way of living the mission received in baptism. Priests ought to be involved in marriage preparation because it is about following Christ, serving the communion of the Church and participating in her evangelical mission.
There is no priest I know who would not refer an engaged couple to another married couple for advice and support regarding, for example, natural family planning. All marriage courses I know include the testimony of married couples.
Yet there are questions that a priest is uniquely, but not exclusively, positioned to ask: do you pray together? If not, why not? Do you understand that your primary mission as a husband or wife is to get your spouse to heaven? Do you know that you will fail at that if you do not call upon the sacramental grace you will receive? Do you know what sacramental grace is? Do you know that it can enable to you to be far more than you imagine?
Those are matters upon which priests ought to have some credibility. If they don’t, we have much graver problems than marriage preparation.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca
This article first appeared in the July 13 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here