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Rethinking Marriage Preparation

Dialogue is important in using prenuptial investigations to their fullest potential

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The ability to preside over marriages is a privilege enjoyed by Latin-rite Catholic deacons. However, with great privilege comes great responsibility, especially for those assigned to conduct the prenuptial investigation. A common complaint heard in the chancery is the amount of paperwork required for said investigations. To answer that complaint, we first must look at the canonical purpose of the prenuptial investigation and then look at the pastoral opportunity it provides.

Canon 213 establishes that Catholics have a right to the sacraments, especially marriage (Canon 1058). However, balancing that right is a duty imposed upon the pastor and those he deputes to properly form and prepare couples for marriage (Canons 1063-72).

With the significant number of civil divorces occurring in North America and the ease at which one can enter a civil union, the Catholic Church is in a position to form, guide and journey with young couples before their entry into the Sacrament of Matrimony. Through the prenuptial investigation, we have a duty to identify and rectify any impediments (such as prior marriage, disparity of cult (See Canons 1083-94), and defects of consent — such as ignorance of permanence of marriage (Canon 1096) — prior to the marriage being solemnized.

An unfortunate approach that has potential future consequences — for example, a declaration of nullity — is a check-box mentality to the prenuptial investigation. Often we see “yes” or “no” answers to the questions — the result of inadequate effort by the interviewer and poorly designed forms that promote close-ended questions. For example, what response do we anticipate from a young person asked the question, “Are you aware of any impediments to your marriage?” The answer is inevitably “no.” However, knowledge of impediments to marriage — such as a prior marriage bond (Canon 1085) — is not common among the faithful. Additionally, close-ended questions often reveal the answers we expect to hear.

Dialogue is required to establish the presence of impediments and the quality of consent. Through dialogue we develop an understanding of the couple and their understanding of the sacrament. Does the couple understand marriage simply as a contract that can be declared null and void on a whim — the prevailing secular view — or do they truly appreciate the permanence of marriage and its unitive and procreative ends (Canon 1096)?

Unfortunately, declarations of nullity are still granted due to the presence of impediments or defects in consent. To address this problem, some dioceses are now mandating a minimum number of meetings between the couple and the priest (or deacon). This is designed to create a relationship and stimulate dialogue with an understanding of their canonical situation flowing from an understanding of the couple themselves.

Getting to know the couple serves two purposes. First, it addresses the canonical issues (impediments and consent). Second, and just as important, a relationship-based approach to the prenuptial investigation develops just that — a relationship!

This is a wonderful time to establish a bond that will assist the couple in their discernment of marriage. Later, it can support the couple between their marriage and the baptism of their first child, a time in which many young couples drift away from the Church. It can develop a bond that will prompt the couple to seek a spiritual director rather than a divorce attorney during challenging periods in their relationship.

Those couples who approach the Church and request the Sacrament of Matrimony already are going against the grain of mainstream society. They have bypassed the quicker and easier process of civil marriage and have identified the importance of a Church marriage. Let us use the opportunity presented by prenuptial investigations to their fullest potential.

DEACON RYAN SALES is the chancellor for the Diocese of St. Paul in Alberta, Canada

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WHAT DOES THE CATECHISM SAY ABOUT MARRIAGE PREP?

“So that the ‘I do’ of the spouses may be a free and responsible act and so that the marriage covenant may have solid and lasting human and Christian foundations, preparation for marriage is of prime importance. The example and teaching given by parents and families remain the special form of this preparation. The role of pastors and of the Christian community as the ‘family of God’ is indispensable for the transmission of the human and Christian values of marriage and family, and much more so in our era when many young people experience broken homes which no longer sufficiently assure this initiation.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1632

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