The celebration of World Marriage Day yesterday and St. Valentine’s Day today are obvious, fitting occasions to think about the blessings of romantic love and marriage. They’re also particularly challenging days for the growing number whose personal experience of love has fallen far short of love’s aspirations and ideals. The personal suffering caused by broken hearts, relationships, marriages and families often causes people, both the young and the old, to become cynical about the possibility of true and enduring love and to waver in making a total commitment of themselves to another, without which genuine and lasting love won’t have a chance.
Pope Benedict spoke about these realities on January 22 in a provocative address to the members of the Roman Rota, the Vatican tribunal that, among other duties, handles the finals appeals regarding petitions for the investigation of the nullity of marriages. Over the past several years, Pope Benedict has been using his annual address to the Rota to call the attention of the members of that supreme tribunal — as well as canon lawyers, bishops and the Church as a whole — to the fact that there are simply too many declarations of nullity being granted each year throughout the world. He has sought in these addresses to identify the problem’s various contributing causes, centering mainly on misunderstanding and misapplication of the canons referring to what constitutes valid matrimonial consent.
This year, however, Pope Benedict addressed a much larger issue: the lack of adequate marriage preparation in parishes and dioceses around the world that often fails to help young couples recognize what marriage really is and consent to it. The reason why many marriages are eventually determined to have been null from the beginning, the Pope suggested, is because those involved in marriage preparation did not do not enough to assist well-meaning young couples to know with adequate precision that to which they were consenting.
Pope Benedict called on pastors and all those involved in preparation of couples for marriage throughout the world — out of reverence for the sacrament of marriage and pastoral concern for those who will be affected by a marital breakup and the process of seeking a declaration of nullity — to be more committed to and demanding of engaged couples to ensure they are truly intending to embrace what God intends for Christian marriage. Specifically, he called them to beef up the “juridical dimension that is inherent in the pastoral activity of preparation and admission to marriage.” He said that in many parts of the Church, marriage preparation courses give a “rather modest, if not insignificant, place” to canonical issues. Many pastors, he indicated, think that “the future spouses have little interest” in these issues and therefore resign themselves to going through the pre-marital paperwork as a formality rather than as a crucial means of discernment.
One reason why pastors and others involved in the Church’s marital preparation efforts may not be engaging couples in this type of discernment, Pope Benedict suggested, is because they believe erroneously that young Catholic couples have a right to marry in the Church. Pope Benedict said emphatically that there’s no such right. “The right to marry,” he declared, “is not a subjective claim that pastors must fulfill through a merely formal recognition independent of the effective content of the union. The right to contract marriage presupposes that the person can and intends to celebrate it truly, that is, in the truth of its essence as the Church teaches it. No one can claim the right to a nuptial ceremony.” The right to marry, he added, “refers to the right to celebrate an authentic marriage” and “would not, therefore, be denied where it was evident that the fundamental requirements for its exercise were lacking, namely, if the required capacity for marriage were patently lacking or the person intended to choose something which was incompatible with the natural reality of marriage.” The pastors, he said, have an obligation to determine whether the couple really intends to enter into a marriage as the Church understands it, not as they may understand it.
To illustrate what Pope Benedict is saying about a couple’s intending to choose something incompatible with marriage, we can look at what the couple must affirm under oath about their intentions, which they do in writing before the priest preparing them as well as publicly during their wedding ceremony immediately before the exchange of vows. The couple declares that they are freely and without reservation intending upon giving themselves to each other in marriage; that they are committing themselves to love and honor each other as husband and wife for the rest of their lives; and that they will accept children lovingly from God and raise them according to the law of Christ and the Church. These are commitments that many young brides and grooms readily say yes to on the surface, but often, underneath, their understanding of what they’re committing to and their consent to it are weak or altogether lacking.
For example, all couples preparing for marriage in the Diocese of Fall River need to take a FOCCUS (Facilitating Open Couple Communication, Understanding and Study) inventory, a series of 150-200 statements with which they individually say they agree or disagree. One of the statements is: “I could not under any condition remain married to my spouse if he/she were ever unfaithful to me.” It’s the experience of many pastors in the Diocese that the vast majority of their engaged couples have one or both of the fiancés affirm their agreement with that statement. Such an affirmation is totally contrary to their stated intention to marry the other “for better or worse” until death.
Likewise, it’s hard for couples honestly to affirm that they’re going to keep a promise to accept and raise kids according to the law of Christ and his Church if they themselves are not already living according to the law of Christ and the Church. For example, if a couple has not been in the habit of coming to Mass and, despite the encouragement of the priest preparing to return, continues to put other things in life before keeping holy the Lord’s day, it’s unlikely that they’ll keep the commitment to take children to Mass later; or if the couple is living in violation of the sixth commandment and continue to persevere in that lifestyle during an engagement after conversation with the priest about it, it would call into question whether they’re going to pass on to their children in a credible way the law of true love of God and others.
Pope Benedict called this premarital examination of the couple “a unique pastoral opportunity — one to be made the most of with the full seriousness and attention that it requires — in which, through a dialogue full of respect and cordiality, the pastor seeks to help [each fiancé] to face seriously the truth about himself or herself and about his or her own human and Christian vocation for marriage.” Through these means of “careful preparation and verification, an effective pastoral action can be developed that seeks to prevent the nullity of marriage” and “avoid situations where impulsive decisions or superficial reasons lead two young people to take on responsibilities that they are then incapable of honoring.” Even though “not all the causes of an eventual declaration of nullity can be identified or expressed in the preparation for marriage,” he said, “the good that the Church and society as a whole expect from marriage and from the family founded upon marriage is so great as to call for full pastoral commitment to this particular area.” He specifically called on those “entrusted with the care of souls” — bishops and pastors — to an “even more incisive awareness” of their responsibilities in this area.
A fuller an more incisive pastoral commitment to marriage preparation will result not only in fewer invalid (null) marriages, but also stronger valid marriages, capable of fulfilling the lofty mission Christ gives to each sacramentally married couple.
As we celebrate the feast of St. Valentine, who prepared, facilitated and celebrated the marriages of so many Christian couples during a time of persecution, let us ask him to intercede for all those in the Church today that we may make, and call young couples to, a similar commitment