Breaking up is hard to do.

We all worry about the state of marriage today, especially with the decreased emphasis on its permanency. Divorce is hard. When marriages breakdown and families are fractured, it’s devastating for those directly involved, and heartbreaking for those who love them.

The social impact of divorce ripples through our society and the cumulative impact is substantial – in half a century, we have transformed from a culture where life-long marriage was the norm to one of predominant serial monogamy.

How do we respond to this? We have to worry about the pastoral care of those involved in these painful circumstances but also consider strategic measures to strengthen marriages, prevent breakdown, and empower couples to be leaders in their faith communities.

The longing of the heart

The human heart yearns to love and to be loved. This longing for total, mutual self-donation is embedded in our human nature and ultimately leads us to The Great Lover – the God who created us for intimate relationship with him.

That’s one of the reasons why the Church recognises marriage as a Sacrament – the kind of love that a husband and wife share, is the same kind of love that Jesus has for us: freely given, permanent, total, faithful and fruitful. These are reflected in our marriage vows.

Despite our earnest beginnings, every couple will flounder to some degree in our marriage. As imperfect people, our capacity to understand and accept each other is limited and thus our experience of the permanent, intimate communion for which we long, is flawed.

For some couples, the weight of their challenges overwhelms them, and, lacking the support and resources needed to sustain their relationship, their marriage breaks down permanently. It is always painful and traumatic for the couple, their children if they have any, and their family and friends.

It also impacts the wider community eroding our confidence in the reliability of love: If human love is so fickle, can we trust God’s love?

The vocation crisis

Strong marriages are therefore vitally important for the proclamation of the Gospel. For without a solid witness of married love, God’s love is more difficult to believe and experience.

We’ve often said that the vocation crisis in the Church began in the 60s with marriage. Everyone worries about the declining number of priests and religious, but we forget that these vocations are born and nurtured in families.

When the faith of the couple is underdeveloped, they are unable to fully embrace and live their vocational call to be prophetic leaders in their families and in the Church. They are thus less able to nurture the faith in their children or to guide them in discerning a priestly or religious vocation should one of them have it.

Catholic weddings

Many couples marry at a church rather than in ‘The Church’. The church is really just a venue for the ceremony rather than a critical part of their commitment made in faith – they don’t really embrace their vocational call to live a Catholic married life.

They seek a Catholic wedding for reasons that are not ideal – for example, to appease parents, to fulfil to a childhood dream of a church wedding, to secure a place for their children in a Catholic school, or simply due to force of habit.

A recent Vatican commission explored the issue from an unexpected perspective: what is the appropriate response to baptised non-believers presenting for Catholic marriage? And how does it impact the validity of their marriage should the couple later be in a situation seeking an annulment?

Some couples who marry in the Catholic church do not really understand or embrace Catholic marriage, especially around issues of contraception and raising children in the Catholic faith. Increasingly, couples may also be ambivalent about the expectation of sexual exclusivity and permanency. Should these couples be discouraged from or denied a Catholic wedding?

There are no simple answers but what is apparent, is that formation for the couple, before and after the wedding, can only be a positive.

A marriage catechumenate

Pope Francis has repeatedly called for a ‘marriage catechumenate’ – a framework of formation that begins with children and continues throughout married life into the mature years.

In our work with engaged couples, we see the limits of effective formation during the busy engagement period. In fact, the formation needs to start much earlier, when the couple is dating, or even among single adults before they form romantic attachments.

And it needs to continue after wedding when the challenges of living Catholic marriage sharpen. This is a prime opportunity for we as a community of believers to provide accompaniment for each other as we strive to grow in faith and marital intimacy.

This is certainly of high priority for us at SmartLoving. We are working with digital technology and online learning to create resources that will enable parishes and local communities to provide quality input. It’s a model we have dubbed: centrally enabled – locally delivered.

In an age of corona virus with restricted travel and avoidance of large gatherings, online learning and neighbourhood communities will become even more important. Despite the challenges, we are optimistic about the possibilities for reclaiming the primacy of marriage as a life-long commitment.

Reversing the decline

The number of Catholic weddings has been in decline for the past 25 years. Some people think we need to make it ‘easier’ to marry in the Catholic Church, but we’re not so sure.

Incentivising couples to marry at a church by making the preparation less demanding, reducing the theological and spiritual content or relaxing our expectations of couples may increase the number of Catholic weddings, but it won’t increase the number of couples who sincerely embrace their vocational call.

Neither will it make their marriage more robust, nor ensure its permanence. A marriage catechumenate, on the other hand, can make real inroads in nourishing the faith of couples and in reducing the number of marriages that fail.

Divorce is hard on everyone. Let’s see if we can make it rarer.

This article will also be published in the Catholic Leader, under the title “Breaking up is hard to do” on 22 March 2020.