The Pope’s recent comments on marriage, which have raised a few eyebrows, do at least contain one statement with which I wholeheartedly agree. It is this: “Marriage is the most difficult area of pastoral work.”
As for the rest of what the Pope has said, most of this raises a “Yes, but…” response from me.
But one thing has to be underlined: our marriage preparation is not doing its job. There are lots of people who are entering marriage ill-prepared for it and with little understanding of the sacrament.
I myself have known engaged couples who simply should not have got married. I was not, needless to say, presiding at their weddings. If I had been it would have been the cause of a considerable crisis of conscience on my part.
But even if I had been charged with “marrying” them, it would have been next to impossible to have intervened and stopped the wedding. Couples determined to marry may have little self-knowledge; one party may be self-deluded and the other party deluded; but the only way out of those delusions may be the school of bitter experience.
So how do we prepare people for marriage? Here are a few thoughts.
By the time the engaged couple present themselves, saying they want to get married in Church, it is already too late to start preparation. Preparation for marriage needs to start before the couple have met; it needs to start in childhood, or even, to be on the safe side, at birth. After all, whom you marry is the most important decision you will ever make.
Young children need to be educated in such a way that, when they grow up, they will make good choices of future spouses. They need to be educated to spot moral worth in other people, and to have a reasoned, balanced and healthy appreciation of sexuality and a proper understanding of what marriage is about, and, in particular, that it is designed for the raising of children.
Readers do not need to be told that in the world of contemporary Europe and North America all this is very hard, simply because the truth about marriage is being drowned out by the world’s counter-narrative. This insists that sex is just another leisure activity, and has little or nothing to do with procreation.
Moreover, the world insists that women and men are to be desired for the most superficial of reasons, and the ubiquity of pornography reinforces this stereotyping. Again, the world tells us that one partner for life is simply not realistic.
Finally, the triumph of contraception has deformed our understanding of the human person. Men and women nowadays get together for pleasure, not for the long-term project of procreation. Fertility, once considered a blessing, is now a curse, and the world admires thin and undernourished looking women rather than prospective mothers, and men whose qualities do not immediately suggest that they would make good fathers.
In practical terms, the Church has not helped its own cause because our response to marriage preparation has been stymied by what is often perceived as our opposition to sex education. The Church cannot be opposed to sex education, provided it is sex education of the correct type – that is to say, the sort of education that prepares people for marriage.
Moreover, this sex education must start as early as possible. Our children are looking at porn at an increasingly young age. Their education about sexuality needs to start before the poison of porn affects them; afterwards is too late. Our children are sexualised at an increasingly early age: just ask anyone who works in a mobile phone shop and has had to repair a teenager’s mobile, the contents of which can cause grown ups’ hearts to quail.
So we need to start talking to children in Catholic schools about mothers and fathers at the age of five; and parents need to do the same. As for older children and teenagers, large parishes, deaneries or dioceses need to hold summer camps in which the message of the Church about human sexuality (which is, let us remember, an integral part of the Good News) can be explored and learned.
But waiting for the engaged couple to walk thought the door before you begin talking of marriage? No, that is the current approach, and it is not working.