2016-06-30
Excerpted with permission from U.S. Catholic magazine.

For Bridget Carter of Boston, planning to be married in a Catholic ceremony seemed completely natural. Although her fiancé is not religious, Carter, 29, is a devoted Catholic and works for the church. (She asked that her real name not be used.) What's more, her fiancé supported her desire to have a Catholic wedding. And so, it seemed nothing should stand in the way.

More on Catholic Weddings

But as the couple encountered obstacle after obstacle, Carter began to doubt that her wedding would be all she had hoped. Several months before the October 2000 ceremony, they considered abandoning their plan for a Catholic wedding altogether.

"My faith is a huge part of my life. I could hardly imagine not having my wedding in a church," says Carter. "But it was so stressful and difficult that we had to ask ourselves whether it was really worth it."

The headaches ranged, she says, from the inability to have an outdoor wedding, to endless logistical issues related to their choice of church and celebrant, to the process of obtaining the "disparity of cult" dispensation required when a Catholic marries an unbaptized person. According to Carter, it was the latter issue that nearly became a deal breaker.

To hear young Catholics and some who work with them tell it, stories like Carter's are increasingly common. While the couple ultimately followed through on plans to marry in the church, there are signs that hurdles like the ones they encountered are starting to take a toll: New research indicates that fewer young Catholics than ever before are marrying in the church.

Not necessarily going to the chapel
Like other Americans, Catholics today are less likely to marry at all. This change alone goes a long way toward explaining why the number of Catholic marriages in recent years has not kept pace with the number of Catholic Americans. But it does not account for statistics uncovered by Purdue University sociologist James Davidson.

According to Davidson's findings, only about 40 percent of young Catholics involved in interfaith marriages are married in the church. That's a decrease of nearly 10 percent over previous generations. Even more striking, however, are Davidson's findings with respect to intrafaith marriages--those in which both parties identify themselves as Catholic.

"Among pre-Vatican-II Catholics, only 6 percent of those involved in intrafaith marriages were married outside the church," says Davidson. "For young Catholics today, though, our research shows that that number has risen to 28 percent."

It is difficult to say precisely what these findings mean. And it is at least as difficult to assess the myriad factors--both societal and uniquely Catholic--that lead young couples to choose non-Catholic ceremonies. A look beneath the surface, however, reveals some of the challenges.

A different kind of Catholic
Today's brides and grooms are closer in age to 30 than 20, and, more often than not, they have complicated lives and demanding work schedules. Many are transient or living far from home, and few have strong ties to a religious community. These factors can make a logistical headache of planning any wedding. A Catholic ceremony, with its time-consuming paperwork, planning, and mandatory preparation, often becomes a nightmare.

Years ago, a Catholic couple might scarcely have considered looking outside the church, no matter what obstacles they encountered. So what has changed?

In part, say observers, there is a decreased tendency among young Catholics to regard a church wedding as the only feasible option. To anyone who's tuned in to recent discourse about young adult Catholics, this should come as little surprise: Today's Generation X Catholics were reared in a culture that encourages them to rely on a personal spirituality rather than organized religion. As a result, many young adults feel that God will be with them no matter what church they marry in--even if they marry on a hillside or in a courthouse.

In addition, today's brides and grooms are older and more independent than in the past; they generally feel little obligation to cater their wedding ceremonies to family members' expectations. All of these factors have combined to do away with much of the stigma once associated with marrying outside the church, and to lead many to feel that they can still be Catholic without being married in the church.

"Some people who didn't bother with the Catholic ceremony still attend Mass," says Chuck Lamar, a deacon at the Light of the World Parish in Littleton, Colorado, who has 20 years' experience helping couples prepare for marriage.

Frequently, however, that is not the case. "Once people marry outside the church, it becomes harder and harder to get them back," says Father Robert Ruhnke, a Redemptorist in San Antonio, Texas, who has been involved in marriage preparation programs for over 30 years.

In part because of the implications for the future, where young Catholics marry is of growing significance to the church. And it's a dilemma that cuts to the very heart of a much-debated question: how to strengthen the bond between the institutional church and a generation that seems inclined to disregard it.

Putting out a welcome mat
Not all the news is gloomy. Despite an apparently growing willingness to do otherwise, most young Catholics still want to be married in Catholic ceremonies. As long as their most basic requirements are met, they seem willing to endure the frustrations and extra effort a Catholic wedding can entail.

What are those requirements? Two things, above all others, are important to young Catholics as they plan their weddings: They want to feel welcomed and accepted by their parish community, and they want the freedom to plan a ceremony that reflects them as individuals and as a couple. When they perceive that these two pieces are in place, couples seem far less likely to be dissuaded by the policies and procedures so many regard as a hassle.

Making young couples feel at home begins the moment an engaged couple walks through the door, and it's not as easy as it used to be. The majority of today's young adult Catholics disagree with church teachings on issues like cohabitation, premarital sex, and contraception. For parish staff administering marriage preparation programs where these topics come up, it's something of a catch-22--how can you discuss these issues from a Catholic perspective without alienating couples.

In many parishes, cohabitation before marriage has become a particularly thorny subject. Although the church opposes it, living together before marriage is increasingly common: According to a report by the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, "the number of cohabitating unmarried couples rose by nearly 1000 percent" in the United States between 1960 and 1998. And Catholic couples are clearly no exception.

Church leaders like to quote statistics illustrating the dangers of cohabitation for the long-term health of a relationship, and some parishes have instituted formal or de facto policies to dissuade couples from living together or to induce them to separate during their engagement. But young Catholics, grown adults who feel their decisions about living arrangements and sexuality are made maturely and in good conscience, often bristle at these tactics.

"Being asked to go to Confession because we had been living together was a little like being asked to say I'm sorry for the choice I made," says Keriann McSweeney, 27, who was married in August 2000. "I still believe in that choice. I don't regret it--only that the church sees it as wrong."

Some parishes have learned that lesson the hard way--by watching the numbers of couples seeking marriage drop as word spreads of a hard-line stance against cohabitation.

"You get priests who say, 'Oh, you're living together--don't come around here,'" says Ruhnke. "I suppose that sounds good and very Catholic, but it usually has a very negative pastoral result."

Sensitive issues
In the heat of it all, many parishes are struggling to find common ground and to develop marriage preparation programs that young Catholics will embrace. That requires a sensitive touch--particularly where the prenuptial investigation and testing parts of the process are concerned. Many young Catholics view these elements as outdated, inappropriately personal, or even as clever attempts by the church to get them to admit to living together or having had sex.

"It felt sort of like an interrogation," says Sean McSweeney. "It's a little draconian."

What kind of program balances all these difficult issues most successfully? To hear young Catholics tell it, it's the sort that guides without judging, that fosters communication without delivering lectures--that listens, perhaps, more than it speaks.

Positive marriage prep
Some marriage preparation programs have won rave reviews from young couples and parish officials alike. The use of sponsor couples or incorporating talks with married couples into marriage preparation are consistently cited by couples as the most memorable and useful parts of the process.


Of course, often these programs demand staff and resources many parishes lack. But treating marriage preparation as the unique pastoral opportunity that it is--not as a service that gets performed over and over, week in and week out--is one challenge the church must face if it hopes to continue to attract engaged couples.

Ministering to engaged couples gets especially difficult--and especially critical--with interfaith marriages. Changes in canon law have loosened restrictions on interfaith marriage considerably since mid-century, making it far easier for today's Catholics to marry non-Catholics in church-sanctioned ceremonies, and for non-Catholic partners to preserve their own spiritual identities. But good communication between parishes and engaged couples is still the key.

Like many couples, Dianna and David Steinbach of Milwaukee were concerned about what a Catholic ceremony would mean for David, who is not Catholic. Largely because her parish did an effective job of communicating church rules and expectations without making the couple feel uneasy, Dianna reports that her October 1999 ceremony went far more smoothly than she and David had anticipated.

"Our priest and the pre-marriage retreat we went on made David feel like a part of the process and like he was welcome--not an outsider just because he wasn't Catholic," says Dianna, 25.

But too often interfaith couples report that parish staffs are not helpful, that they feel they have to fend for themselves in locating and filling out the proper paperwork, and that church policies feel anything but welcoming.

"The process of getting disparity of cult and dispensation to get married was the biggest struggle," says Bridget Carter of Boston. "Just the fact that it's called 'disparity of cult' feels very loaded and negative."

"A marriage is a critical moment in a young Catholic's life and it's a unique kind of opportunity for outreach," says Ruhnke. "Parishes need to realize that every time they miss it, that chance may not come again."


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