Premarriage counseling goes wrong
I have always thought that one terrific thing about churches is many of them provide counseling for engaged couples before they marry. The point of this premarital counseling is to help couples get ready for the rigors of "til death do us part." ...
I have always thought that one terrific thing about churches is many of them provide counseling for engaged couples before they marry. The point of this premarital counseling is to help couples get ready for the rigors of "til death do us part." Too many Americans marry for the wrong reasons and that is in evidence in our high divorce rate. So any effort to stem divorce is well spent.
I say I was a fan of church-based premarital counseling. That is, until this weekend when an acquaintance of mine described her own pre-marital weekend retreat at a Catholic campus.
I am not revealing her name nor the campus where the retreat was held nor the name of the priest who ran the weekend meeting. I'm still sure, despite what I'm about to recount, there are pre-marital programs offered by Catholic and other churches that are incredibly beneficial and that strive to prepare young people for long-lasting, loving relationships.
I was expecting to hear the church would offer couples advice on how to resolve money differences or how to raise children in a loving environment, even when parents are not getting along. I hoped to hear about how church officials counseled young lovers to overcome the inevitable stage of marriage where the romance dies, but inspire them that even if it recedes temporarily, it comes back, while a deeper and deeper friendship, companionship and relationship develops.
There was little or none of that. The majority of the weekend retreat was spent telling the young couples they were not to use birth control so they would produce as many children as possible. She described how they were pounded with the multitude of sins they were likely to commit and for which they would go to Hell. In essence she said she and her now-husband were treated more like would-be criminals than hopeful ingenues about to enter a sacred relationship.
In the 2002 book, "Divorce, Annulments, and the Catholic Church" by Richard J. Jenks and Craig A Everett, there is some background on what such retreats are supposed to entail. The authors write that couples preparing for marriage normally have several options:
"The first is a weekend retreat typically headed by two to three married couples and a priest. During the course of this retreat presentations are given about marriage. Practical matters such as finances and effective marital communication along with religious issues are considered...The second option, which also consists of a retreat, is less structured and relies more on reflection and individual initiative. The third option involves Pre-Cana counseling. Here, a group of engaged couples meet with a team of married couples and a priest....A premarital inventory is involved. The inventory measures the compatibility between the two engaged individuals."
My acquaintance must have attended the more free-form retreat, as she was not privy to any of the useful counseling described above. In fairness, she and her now-husband, prior to going to counseling, were fallen-away Catholics. They agreed to marry in the church to satisfy the wishes of an elderly, beloved relative. They hoped the retreat would woo them back into the church's fold. Instead they both left it promising never to set foot inside a church again after the wedding ceremony.
Data shows the Catholic Church is losing followers in the United States and Europe. In this country weekly Mass attendance has declined from about 75 percent in the 1950s to about 34 percent in 2005 -- that according to Mary Gautier of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, Georgetown University.
There are lots of reasons for this -- shortages of priests, the priest sexual abuse scandal, the increased urbanization of the country, just to name a few. But surely the treatment my friend describes is alienating more potential church adherents than it is wooing. The church should perhaps take note that since the Spanish Inquisition, admonition is out and love and acceptance are in.
-- Erbe is a TV host and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service.