The other day, Kevin Card. Farrell, formerly of Dallas and now of Rome, made a disparaging remark about pretty much every priest in the world when it comes to marriage prep. He said: “[Priests] 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 the experience.” If that is the case, one might wonder with a measure of irony if he, a priest, is credible as the head of the Dicastery for the Laity, Family, and Life.
My good friend Fr. Gerald Murray comments on the Cardinal’s remarks at The Catholic Thing.
The Priest’s Role in Marriage Preparation
Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Dicastery for the Laity, Family, and Life, made some provocative remarks about priests and marriage preparation in an interview that appeared recently in the Irish Catholic magazine Intercom. He said: “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 the experience.”
He also spoke about the priests of the Diocese of Dallas where he served as bishop for nine years: “We have a million and a half Catholics and 75 priests, with a 45 to 50 percent rate of (Mass) attendance. Those 75 priests are not going to be interested in organizing marriage meetings.”
Do priests really lack credibility and interest in preparing couples for the sacrament of marriage? That has not been my experience. Most priests, and more specifically, most parish priests take a lively interest in marriage preparation.
Couples almost always appreciate their efforts as they prepare for marriage. Fr. Roger Landry has described the reality on the ground in most parishes in a recent column. Most priests are credible witnesses to the Church’s teaching on marriage, and they speak with insight – and often wisdom – from their extensive experience dealing with engaged couples, families, and children. [Oddly enough, priests come from families. Hmmm….]
What’s most troubling here are the premises underlying Cardinal Farrell’s remarks. He implies that the primary purpose of marriage instruction is to communicate experiential advice on how husbands and wives can live so as to produce marital happiness and familial harmony. To attain this goal, what couples need is to hear is practical advice from married people who, from their own experiences, will share “best practices” with engaged couples. He also claims that overworked priests would rather not take time from their busy schedules to meet with and instruct couples seeking to be married in the Church.
Marriage preparation programs should include advice on marital life from couples who are serious Catholics and have years of valuable experience in living out the demands of Christian marriage. And many priests are overworked. Yet should we promote the notion that priests should avoid working with engaged couples and are not really suited to this task?
Is it really better for them, instead, to dedicate time to other, relatively less important tasks such as building management and office work, which are in fact unavoidable and time-consuming tasks for most parish priests? Isn’t sacramental preparation a vital part of the spiritual paternity of the men ordained to celebrate the sacraments? [I think, perhaps…. yes?]
I had plenty of instruction in the seminary about Christian marriage, and none about building maintenance and parish office management. The seminary’s priorities were correct.
The number of Catholics seeking to be married in the Church has declined significantly. One reason is the ignorance of many Catholics about the sacramental nature of marriage and their obligations as Catholics. [Perhaps more important on the list of things that priests should pass along than “best practices”.] When a couple comes to the rectory seeking to be married in the Church we should view this as an opportunity to give doctrinal and spiritual formation to these obviously good willed, believing people. Who knows? They may tell their friends what a good experience it was to learn from a priest about the state in which they plan to spend the rest of their lives.
Poorly catechized Catholics need to understand Church teaching about the nature and purpose of marriage. Priests spend years in the seminary acquiring a deep understanding of that teaching, and how to explain its truth and value to the people of our times. They are meant to share that doctrinal formation with the laity.
I’ll cut it off there, only because I want you to go over there and read the rest. It is very good.
Also, Fr. Raymond de Souza has a piece at the UK’s best Catholic weekly about the same topic. He wrote:
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?
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.
Indeed. Perhaps we do have graver problems.