When a baptized couple gets married, they assume a common commitment: to help one another to become saints. That is the goal of Christian life, given at baptism — and solidified in a particular way in the sacrament of matrimony. In this sense, spouses must develop a concrete spirituality, one through which they can relate to God and invite him to be a fundamental part of their marital relationship. Tertullian says in his Letter to the Bride that Christian marriage "is truly two in one flesh, and where the flesh is one, one is the spirit. Together they pray, prostrate and fast, each pointing to, supporting and honoring the other."
Catholics have some of the most beautiful writings on marriage in existence, but they aren’t always accessible in ways the faithful can use them to fortify their own marriages, let alone marriages around them. The following are intended to be some practical tools to aid in creating marriage-centered communities:
Power of Parish Priests
In a recent survey, "What Catholic Women Think About Faith, Conscience and Contraception," 72% of women reported that homilies given by the priest during Sunday Mass are their main source of knowledge about the faith. However, only 15% reported fully accepting Church teachings on contraception. These findings underscore two realities: the tremendous power of the priest to influence Catholics from every walk of life and the necessity of careful study and adherence to the magisterium of the Church by parish priests. This is perhaps most urgent regarding matters of sexuality, about which the faithful need (and long) to hear straightforward, practical advice on how to live out their Catholic faith.
The vocation to the priesthood, after all, is not unrelated to that of married life. Priests have a vested interest in educating the faithful not only on the beauty of marriage and the sacredness of marital intimacy, but also on the destruction that comes from the abandonment of one’s wedding vows and from living together outside those vows. Priests have seen this destruction firsthand in their parishes. They can speak to the devastation caused by spousal abandonment and cohabitation with authority and credibility.
Father Puigbó currently gets an average of five to six phone calls a week from spouses asking for help for their marriages, and he is not alone. Every Sunday, parish priests have a new opportunity to address in prudent yet plainspoken ways the threats to marriage today: pornography, cohabitation, the "hook-up" culture that characterizes many of our high schools and colleges, unchecked social media and workplace friendships with those of the opposite gender, an inability to communicate, lack of commitment, etc. These issues can no longer be relegated to "marriage therapists" — the need is too vast and the risk of ill-informed advice too great.
Father Puigbó celebrated 39 marriages in our parish last year. Only one of those couples was not cohabiting. When asked why they wanted to get married in the Church, the majority responded, "Because we want to do things the right way." It didn’t matter whether they lived together for five months or for 20 years — they all had the same answer.
Cohabiting couples, engaged couples, married couples and some percentage of singles in the pews are ready and waiting to hear the unadorned truth from their spiritual shepherds about what it means to get married and what it takes to stay married.
Catholics pray for so many important and necessary things in the Mass — for an end to abortion, for our military families, for peace in the world, for the poor and the sick. But very rarely do we pray for faithful and permanent marriages. Rarely do we hear prayers for an end to what Pope John Paul II called the "scourge of divorce."
When we pray the Prayers of the Faithful, we show our belief in the power of intercessory prayer. We also show where our values lie as a Church. What if we began to pray publicly and consistently for faithfulness in marriages and an end to spousal abandonment? Imagine the impact it might have on both individual marriages and on our culture’s perception of marriage over time.
The permanent union of man and woman is vulnerable to a vast array of temptations, which is one reason Christ raised it to a sacrament. The sacrament gives spouses the necessary grace to achieve the fidelity they promised to each other on their wedding day. Widespread, serious struggles in marriage are bound to occur in a society where traditional values are on the decline, "conservative" political leaders carry on with their mistresses without consequence to their careers and a radical individualism justifies the disordered desires of man. This is why spouses must pray together. To live out their vow of fidelity, they must let God into their lives and entrust themselves continuously to him. They must always be honest with each other and utilize the sacraments, especially confession and the Eucharist.
There are practical, concrete ways to build a spiritual fortress of protection around a marriage: to make the Sign of the Cross on each other’s foreheads when waking up and before going to sleep; to pray aloud to God for the needs of their marriage and for their children; to practice lectio divina with scriptural texts that refer to marriage; to teach children to pray for their parents and for all the marriages in the world; and to make sacrifices as a family for marriages.
If there is one threat to marriage that stands out among many today, it is this one. For this reason, pornography use should be addressed explicitly and regularly at the parish level. An addiction to pornography, when unchecked (and particularly when begun in adolescence), is enough to overpower all the faith, goodwill and hard work either spouse brings to a marriage.
Pornography use increases the risk of separation and divorce. It glamorizes casual, perverse sex and increases the risk of infidelity. It decreases the desire for normal, healthy sex: Married men who use porn feel less satisfied with sex with their wives and feel less emotional attachment to them.
Pornography use causes marital discord: People who report being happy in their marriages are much less likely to report using porn than those who are unhappy. Women report that they see their husbands’ regular use of porn as a form of infidelity, which causes them to feel depressed and betrayed.
Pornography use discourages the formation of normal values regarding intimate relationships: Young men who use pornography regularly view sex before marriage, casual sex and extramarital sex as acceptable. They also have a higher number of sexual partners over their lifetime.
Regular viewers of pornography are more likely to view premarital courtship as unnecessary and deviant sexual practices and promiscuous behavior (e.g., masturbation, multiple partners) as more commonly occurring than they really are. (For a complete reference list of the above findings, contact the authors at: firstname.lastname@example.org.) The good news is that if you, your spouse or someone you care about is addicted to pornography, there is hope.
Being surrounded by friends and family who are unconditionally supportive of a couple’s marriage is a significant predictor of both marital stability and proneness to divorce. But there are many couples today who are geographically and socially isolated. They live far from family (or are estranged from them) and are unconnected in their parishes. Some are adult children of divorce and are, therefore, at higher risk of divorce themselves.
When one or both spouses experience struggles in their marriage, their perception may be that they are alone and that the best option is to end the marriage. Where immediate and extended family might have reassured such couples of their normalcy and provided support to improve and sustain the marriage in the past, all too often, the availability of a mentor is lacking for such couples today.
In a recent Pew Research Center survey, 52% of young adults said that being a good parent is "one of the most important things" in life. Just 30% said the same about having a successful marriage. What these young adults need but are lacking is context: a realistic expectation of marriage and family life through the example of mature, committed married couples. They need to see with their own eyes that the best gift one can give his or her children isn’t a great athletic ability, a laptop or the latest XBox or iPhone. And it certainly isn’t an attempt at good "co-parenting" following a divorce. It is the gift of a permanent, faithful marriage. Further, our young people need to hear that marriage is not simply a response to the need to satisfy sexual-emotional desires, nor is it an "out" for those who do not want to remain single. A couple should not marry just because they want to have children. Marriage is a commitment without conditions that encompasses all of the above and does not exclude the fundamental: the sanctification of the spouses.
This is where marriage mentoring comes in. The idea is that more experienced, mature couples make themselves available to couples who are struggling. Everyone benefits — parish priests who are overwhelmed with struggling couples, couples in need and mentor couples whose own marriages are strengthened as a result of helping others. Even the children of both sets of couples benefit, as they see firsthand the real work involved in keeping a marriage healthy and strong. This is "marriage prep" in its most natural and effective form. At our parish in northern Virginia, All Saints Catholic Church, we are building a marriage-mentoring program based on Greg and Julie Alexander’s very successful Covenant of Love ministry. Consider approaching your pastor about the possibility of starting one in your parish.
The time is right to act decisively to strengthen and protect marriages. Let’s work toward a day when Catholic communities around the country, including clergy and an army of strong, committed married couples, form a safety net for marriages that so desperately need our support.
Copyright © 2013 Circle Media, Inc., National Catholic Register
Father Juan Puigbó holds a sacred theology licentiate in systematic theology from The Catholic University of America and a master’s degree in marriage and family from the Universidad de Navarra, Spain. He is currently a parochial vicar at All Saints parish in Manassas, Virginia.
Hilary Towers is a developmental psychologist and mother of five children. Towers conducted her doctoral research at George Washington University’s Center for Family Research in Washington and has been published in multiple academic journals and books. Towers currently writes on the subjects of marriage and spousal abandonment, especially as those issues are treated within the Catholic Church.
For Further Study
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Articles Part One