My husband and I completely understood why our first marriage prep session went awry: The gentleman in charge wasn’t prepared to conduct the activities without his wife, whose flight had been delayed, so he panicked and gave us all a New Testament word search that he had used earlier that day during his high school theology class.
The following week, as we sat with the second presenters, who were supposed to talk about communication, it was obvious that they were in the midst of a marital spat themselves. The third session, focusing on finances, was led by a lovely yet overwhelmed couple who implored us to trust that God would provide, and I couldn’t help but wonder if she was trying to convince herself of this.
When I called the facilitators of the fourth session, a natural family planning tutorial, and the woman couldn’t properly communicate directions to her home because her children were in the background screaming and crying, I offered up a white lie, claiming that I was under the weather and couldn’t make it. We never rescheduled.
The process was a bonding experience due to the comedy of it all rather than a practical and instructive preparation for marriage. While we were fortunate not to encounter many issues within our first years of marriage that couldn’t be overcome by our commitment to each other, there were challenges for which we could have been better prepared.
Others have not been so fortunate. Preparation for Catholic marriage in the United States follows no streamlined process, so many couples feel their marriage preparation is lacking in practical advice. This has led to difficulties or even marital problems for many.
Marriage preparation, named Pre-Cana because of the biblical story where Jesus turned water into wine during a wedding, is not a centralized process in the church. According to Claudio Mora, director of Catholic programs for The Marriage Group, an online Catholic marriage preparation course promoted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the church provides general guidelines but no universal standard. Mora says, “What is commonly covered in marriage preparation is marriage as a sacrament (we call it theology and spirituality), family of origin, conflict resolution, finances, and an introduction to natural family planning (NFP).” According to Mora, the basic requirements are pretty much the same for all Catholic dioceses. However, several married people who have undergone marriage preparation programs across the United States report wildly varying experiences.
The USCCB sponsors a website called “For Your Marriage,” which offers the only requirements for couples seeking a Catholic marriage, but even these are vague parameters. They include: contacting your parish priest as soon as you are engaged, taking six months to intensely prepare for your marriage—meaning, you are required to be engaged for at least six months—and attending an approved marriage preparation program. A link provides a list of some two dozen approved programs; however, couples are also encouraged to contact their local diocesan family life office for local options.
In addition to these requirements, the “For Your Marriage” site states that many dioceses require engaged couples to complete a marriage inventory such as the FOCCUS inventory. FOCCUS stands for Facilitating Open Couple Communication, Understanding, and Study and is administered by a trained facilitator in order to start conversations about compatibility. The FOCCUS inventory consists of 180 questions that each engaged person answers independently. The inventory is then electronically scored and a generated report informs the couple what areas might require additional discussion. Although there is no passing or failing the FOCCUS inventory, many couples feel pressured into getting a “good grade.”
Packing for the wrong trip
When Justina Kopp and her husband, Matt, were preparing for marriage eight years ago, they completed the FOCCUS inventory. Kopp found it intense and impractical. “It was 180 questions, and I wish I had the knowledge I do now. Because when I took the test, I had no idea. I didn’t know what I was getting into. They weren’t practical at the time,” Kopp says.
Kopp also felt the way the inventory was designed wasn’t conducive to starting conversations. “It felt like trying to have the conversations on paper and some of them even felt like ‘gotcha’ moments, because the same question was asked in many different ways,” she says. “I shouldn’t be having a gotcha moment, I thought. I’m in it now!”
In addition to the FOCCUS inventory, Kopp and her husband attended a marriage preparation retreat that their archdiocese, St. Paul and Minneapolis, offered every few months. “I enjoyed getting to do a retreat with my fiancé. That was a fun thing. We got to get excited about marriage, and this was a sign that we were one step closer,” Kopp says.
Kopp felt that the retreat was heavy-handed on the spirituality surrounding marriage. “The presenters made a lot of assumptions about what this was going to be like, what the sacrifices would be for each person,” she says. “I don’t think it prepared me in the right ways, and I remember saying to Matt that it was like I packed for the wrong trip.” Kopp says she was given good information, but it wasn’t the information she needed. “I think some of that comes with the assumptions that come along with privilege.”
The retreat presenters, Kopp says, were a mixture of older couples who had been married for 35 years and couples who had been married very briefly with little in-between. Kopp and her husband longed to hear from couples who were in the midst of the difficult parts of their marriage instead of from those who were over the hard parts or those so freshly married they had yet to hit many challenges. “I wanted to hear more of the grittiness and not the ‘it’s going to be OK,’ because obviously I want it to be OK, which is why I was there,” she says.
Ultimately, Kopp says she missed hearing what the “yes” of marriage really is.
Maria Solis and her husband, Ruben, completed their marriage preparation in the Diocese of Austin, Texas. Their meetings were held on Saturday mornings, and Ruben commuted three hours from medical school to attend. Their marriage preparation was in a group setting, and out of the 10 couples, only three were first marriages, which made the sessions somewhat inapplicable to the Solis’ lives. According to Solis, the rest of the couples in their marriage preparation group were convalidating their marriages and were already living together, many with children. “It was more like, this is a sacrament. Pray together,” she says.
The Solises had a difficult first year of marriage and felt ill-prepared for handling conflicts, particularly surrounding their families of origin and finances.
If she ever taught a marriage class, Solis says she would really focus on how to handle conflict. “I would ask, ‘How did you fight with your parents? Are you direct? Passive aggressive? Avoidant?’ Because that is the practical stuff. Like Ruben says when we’re fighting, ‘We aren’t fighting each other. We’re on the same team.’ It reframes the argument,” Solis says.
Solis was also frustrated by how much of the preparation focused on theology rather than marriage preparation. “It felt more like a catechism class, and at the time I was working at a parish,” she says. “My office was literally down the hall, yet I was being taught basic faith information.”
Like the Solises, Andrew Uttaro felt that his marriage preparation with his spouse was more a sales pitch at times. In discussions with other couples who were married during the same time period, Uttaro says many of his friends felt the priests marrying them viewed marriage preparation as a time to recruit new parishioners. Uttaro feels that anyone getting married in a Catholic church is doing so because they value the sacrament. He says, “It’s an act of faith, and you don’t need to bludgeon them with that.”
Overall, Uttaro enjoyed the process he and his wife experienced in the Diocese of Rochester, New York, which involved meeting with a deacon. They worked through several sessions using a workbook called “Fully Engaged,” which had 10 sections that were the basis for each meeting. “A few times we had unexpectedly heated conversations heading into those sessions, but we knew that marriage was our goal,” he says.
A disconnect from reality
For Sarah Watts, who is now divorced, the experience of marriage preparation was generally positive. Watts says, “I think the diocese did a good job stressing how important marriage is. It wasn’t something they let us enter lightly, which I appreciated.” According to Watts, she and her then-husband had a lot of coaching and education on why Catholics marry from a variety of angles, and she felt like this was a job she was preparing to do seriously.
Watts wishes, however, that the preparation had been more practical when it came to surviving trials such as infidelity, infertility, loss, or addiction, which she believes can be a death knell to a relationship. “The prep relied on a lot of gender stereotypes during the engaged encounter weekend,” she says. “For instance, during the engaged encounter I liked that they stressed that married couples were bound to have conflict at some point, but they used superficial and sexist tropes to get their point across: Women like to go shopping and guys just like to watch the ‘big game.’ It felt very silly and superficial.”
Another woman who prefers to be identified only by her initials, MC, said that there was a disconnect between her marriage preparation weekend in the Diocese of Steubenville, Ohio, and the priest who was supposed to marry her and her former husband. “The priest would never meet with me, he would only do spiritual direction with my now ex-husband,” MC says. “In fact, last minute, he decided he would not marry us, and since he refused to speak with me, I assumed he just had a problem with me, when it was actually a problem with my ex.”
A personalized approach
Father Stephen Hook is the pastor of two parishes in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. A priest for the past 20 years, Hook has seen some changes in how the church handles marriage preparation, but none as significant as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. “For the past three years, I’ve been focusing on online programs since we were unable to gather in large groups,” Hook says. “But now we are trying to get back to a more personalized approach with in-person meetings.”
Hook recognizes the power of personalized programs and meets with each couple one-on-one for three to four sessions. According to Hook, communication is the most important aspect of marriage preparation. “Couples need to understand where they are each coming from. What do you believe? How do you feel? How do you want to live your lives?” Hook says. “And it’s important to be honest with each other about if you want to have children, how you are practicing your faith, and how you get along with your future in-laws, for example.”
While Hook recognizes that marriage preparation is a time to reach otherwise nonpracticing Catholics, he says that balance is key. “You have to gauge each couple’s individual needs,” he says, “But any opportunity for us to engage with these couples is hopefully a chance to build the faith among younger generations.”
While not all the subjects interviewed were required to take an NFP course, many marriage preparation programs include NFP. Kopp was struck by the gatekeeping of Catholicism when it came to knowing your body and how she was only allowed the information once she became engaged. “It felt like this information was behind a paywall,” she says. “Women getting to know about their bodies and men learning how women’s bodies work—in order to get that information, you have to be engaged.” Kopp now knows that she has polycystic ovarian syndrome and endometriosis but says that having that information years prior to marriage would have been better.
Speaking on the Catholic culture when it comes to sexuality, Kopp said she wishes there had been more discussion of how women are gatekeepers when it comes to sex in a marriage. She feels that the church is asking more from women than from men and, because of that, she spent many years of her marriage feeling as though something was wrong with her. “Someone needs to say explicitly that you’re asking them to carry this cross and that this cross is not equally shared,” she says.
Kopp said she was unable to find support in her local community and parish, especially when dealing with postpartum fertility. Locally, she was met with responses such as “offer it up,” or “this is a wonderfully beautiful sacrifice,” and others saying that any other interventions would mean that she was using her spouse. “I could go online and find people who would say, ‘Hey, this sucks,’ but no one at my parish was saying, ‘This isn’t the fairy tale that was talked about.’”
Kopp says that NFP was presented as a walk through a field of wildflowers, and she laments that no one in her marriage preparation was honest about the difficulties involved. “It’s super unfair and dishonest to present it as such, like a magic divorce-proofing tonic.” Kopp says that practicing NFP forced a separation of her body, mind, and spirit. “It was asking me to shut part of myself down,” she says.
Solis had a similar experience to Kopp’s, although infertility was not her issue. When the Solises went through NFP, they were given a choice of which method to learn and chose Creighton. The Creighton model relies on documenting changes in the woman’s cervical mucus as a means of predicting periods of fertility and claims a 97.9 percent success rate for avoiding pregnancy.
“My husband is a man of science, and I paid strict attention to the presenter,” Solis says. “But the way you learn your body, the cycle checking, it’s all theoretical, because ideally you’re not supposed to be having sex until you are married.”
“I thought, oh sure, I’ll just check mucus, and I did,” Solis says. “But we got married on December 19 and found out we were expecting on January 1.” Solis had three babies in the first three years of marriage before switching to the Marquette method, another NFP method that involves further documentation, including the use of a fertility monitor on a daily basis in order to avoid pregnancy.
Solis says that while she has been able to successfully practice NFP while risking pregnancy, she knows that she is privileged. “I don’t have a life-threatening illness. My mental health is at risk, but I also have options for treatment,” she says. “I can be okay with these huge margins of error, but others cannot, and I do not judge them for that.”
Looking toward the future
Hook does not believe there will ever be a universal standard for marriage preparation in the U.S. church. “We don’t even have one for confirmation,” he says. But perhaps an approach could be implemented that would help streamline standards for better outcomes. Instead of one’s Pre-Cana experience depending on geography, a more specific package of requirements could ensure better pastoral care for couples seeking marriage.
Prompted by her own mixed experiences during Pre-Cana, Justina Kopp was motivated to become certified as a facilitator in Prepare/Enrich, a more holistic approach to marriage preparation. “It’s a different form of marriage prep,” Kopp says. “It is meant to be a conversation starter.”
Prepare/Enrich picks up where other Pre-Cana programs leave off, offering an evidence-based program designed to foster communication. Their processes are continuously evaluated and adapted as new research is completed. While this is currently one choice for marriage prep in many dioceses, the comprehensive nature of Prepare/Enrich makes it an attractive option for a universal program.
What Kopp loves about this program is that it can be tailored to help any couple. “We can identify an area where you can have the conversation you’re not having and bring some things to light,” she says. While there is a Catholic version of Prepare/Enrich, there are other versions for other faith traditions as well as a secular version. In addition to working with the facilitator, couples receive a printout as they walk through their differences and conflicts together.
“I’m now that married person in the thick of it,” Kopp says. “And I want to be there for others the way I needed someone to be there for me.”
This article also appears in the August 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 8, pages 26-30). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Unsplash/Tyler Nix