Friday, June 08, 2012

Intellectualizing Marriage?

The prevalence of divorce within Christian groups as opposed to the divorce rate in the world at large has long been an occasion of discussion. Divorce statistics are tracked by age group, but if you average the divorce rates across different ages groups, we get an average divorce rate of 18.5% for couples under 39 in the United States (source). Unfortunately, it has long been documented that divorce rates among Christians are little better than divorce rates in the world. This is true of all Christian groups; with some, it is higher - non-denominational Christians and baptists have divorce rates that are higher, on average, then their secular counterparts. Catholics are lower on the list, but unfortunately, still not too much different from the world.

A Barna study on this subject found the following rates:

Denominations and Percent Divorced

Non-denominations            34%
Baptists                                  29%
Mainline Protestants           25%
Mormons                                24%
Catholics                                21%
Lutherans                               21%

This poll elicited a lot of anger in the evangelical Protestant world particularly, where it was typically accepted a priori that Christian families were stronger than secular families. Barna had to defend his results in a New York Times article where he reaffirmed that when it came to divorce rates, pollsters "rarely find substantial differences" in the divorce rates of Christians and non-Christians. 

In the Protestant world, I am willing to bet that the ultimate acceptance of divorce and remarriage as permissible has something to do with it. When I was a teenager, my wife and I attended a small non-denominational church where I was stunned to find that almost every single adult couple there had been divorced and remarried.

To be sure, there has been a general trend towards divorce in the modern world that is affecting the Catholic Church as well. But why does the Church's traditional teaching on the indissolubility of marriage not have the force it once did? There are many factors - worldliness of many Catholics would be a big factor - but without denying the influence of these other factors, I'd like specifically to look at the issue of Catholic marriage preparation and the tools that Catholic couples are given going in to marriage.

Since there has been such a creeping of worldliness into the Church in the past several decades, could it be that we are perhaps taking a worldly approach to our marriage preparation as well? Why not? We have adopted secular theories about architecture, secular ideas about the role of the priest, about how Church government should work, about the nature of different sacraments, about music and even secular concepts creeping into our approach to certain dogma. Should we presume that our approach to marriage or marriage preparation is any different?

I must say that I did not have Catholic marriage prep. I was married in a schismatic group that was not bound by any diocesan regulations about marriage preparation. All I know about marriage prep comes from anecdotal stories, and everything I am reporting is anecdotal. But from what I have heard, it seems that, even in our best dioceses, there is a creeping worldliness that has bled into our marriage preparation.

In the first place, I would highlight an over dependence on modern psychological theories about how men and women interact. Some dioceses require compatibility tests that are based on personality analyses; many of these tests are secular and have an unnecessary emphasis on sexuality and ask a lot of sexual questions. In some cases, the results of these personality-compatibility tests are made the central focus of the entire marriage prep process. Advice on how to handle conflict is based on the latest theories of psychologists and secular concepts of how men and women do, or should, interact. Standard secular ideas about "conflict resolution" may be utilized.

Whether you find this problematic depends entirely on how much value you place on modern psychology. Some, like Fr. Chad Ripperger, FSSP, has written a massive three volume series on the science of psychology and how it interacts with the Catholic Faith. His treatment is based on a Thomistic approach and seriously questions the philosophical underpinnings of modern psychology. Others, notably Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR, have enthusiastically adopted the whole edifice of modern psychology without reserve. To what degree is modern psychology a valid means of understanding our Christian faith and preparing one for the sacraments?

To be sure, some aspects of psychology have valid scientific principles behind them, but others are based on a determinist anthropology that sees human behavior as determined by non-rational factors (chemical makeup of the brain, heredity, instinct, subconscious, etc). This, in my opinion, is problematic.

But whether or not any given marriage prep program adopts the modern psychological theories, it seems that too much emphasis on strategies of conflict resolution, personality compatibility and all these other concepts tends to dumb down the role of God's grace in the marriage. If a marriage is successful, it will be because of God's grace, not because we have integrated the latest psychological research into our marriage preparation courses. The marriage does not stand or fall based on knowledge of how men and women's emotional needs are different. It stands or falls based on how effectively a man and a woman can imitate Jesus and Mary and respond positively to God's grace made available through the sacrament.

Can it be that we over intellectualize our approach to marriage, deeming that a marriage can be made successful by knowledge and application of a bunch of secular psychological principles? Do we place too much faith in the studies and theories of psychologists and not enough in the working of God's grace? If the divorce rates within the Catholic Church look a lot like those in the world, might at least part of the problem be that we are using worldly ideas to prepare people for marriage?

Marriage prep programs vary tremendously from parish to parish and diocese to diocese, so I am making no hard statements here, only proposing something that I think merits further discussion. What do you think?


I Laugh Alone said...

I think I'll go with Fr. Ripperger, FSSP, on this, after knowing him from his writings and audio-sermons and -homilies on Sensus Traditionis, thank you very much. Not to mention that, if your premise is correct (which I believe it is), we see the obvious result in the divorce rates, and, especially compared to history, it speaks for itself.

You might say Fr. Ripperger puts the competition... to rest! ... (in peace...) You get it? You get it? RIPperger? Get it now? Ha ha ha ha ha...

David said...

If that is the preparation for marriage in the Us, I pity you. In my prep (that was far from wonderful) we were taught mainly about the marriage as a sacrament and a way for sainthood and how it is supposed to derive its strength from the holy spirit.

My (now) wife was so delighted with the material that she lent it to all her friends that married later. She was not catholic then.(Actually, she becomes catholic today, being confirmed this afternoon.)

There was also one session about sexuality and Humanae Vitae, but I least I could feel that some of the couples present were not taking the issue seriously.

I would have liked a more religious presentation, but the material was excellent. The material was prepared by the diocesis some years back (about 7 now), and a great care had been put into it.

Matthew said...

The preparation for Holy Matrimony my now-bride and I received was as abysmal as you suggested. We married at a typical Novus Ordo parish, and the only - the ONLY - preparation given to us by anyone at the parish was a compatibility profile test that had literally nothing to do with The Church or Holy Matrimony as a Sacrament.

We asked the priest witnessing our Matrimony for more and were ignored. We went to the Diocesan PreCana where they basically assume you are cohabitating and care nothing for the Faith, and so it was more compatibility garbage.

We were also forced to take a diocesan NFP class where the merits of NFP were extolled from a completely secularist mentality - i.e. you should use NFP (as opposed to contraception - simply living as man and wife, full stop, was never even mentioned) because it will make you happier and you will communicate more. Nothing about the laws of God, mortal sin, Church teaching, etc. It is your choice!

We got nothing about the Sacrament, nothing about the proper ends of marriage in their proper order, nothing about indissolubility, nothing really of any substance at all. We might as well have asked a Justice of the Peace what marriage is.

We, by Divine Providence, were able to begin to figure many of these things out on our own, but that the first year of marriage has been difficult is an understatement.
Needless to say, we also go to a TLM-only church now.

Anonymous said...

Concerning tests on "compatibility," I leave the matter to Chesterton: "If Americans can be divorced for 'incompatibility of temper' I cannot conceive why they are not all divorced. I have known many happy marriages, but never a compatible one." (The chapter titles 'The Free Family' in What's Wrong with the World)

And from a letter of J.R.R. Tolkien "Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might be found more suitable mates. But the real soul-mate is the one you are actually married to."

As a matter of fact my wife and I were married before we converted and had been told even by several close friends that we did not work well together. As I have no doubt our friends were correct, I take the present happiness of our marriage after conversion (and particularly after "tradverting" a few years after converting) as reasonable proof that the true faith of Jesus Christ lived and such wholesome practices as the daily rosary and the dinner table are far more important than "compatibility."

Sam Danziger said...

By far the most valuable thing we learned during out marriage preparation class was that we ought to attend a natural family planning (NFP) class. I've honesty forgotten everything else they taught us.

Even though there were things attached to the NFP class that we didn't use (such as the family bed idea), the NFP itself has been enormously helpful. It does a wonderful job of helping us integrate our sexuality into the family enterprise as a whole.

I'm not sure how much compatibility is relevant. After all, both my wife and I are living people who are constantly developing. As we grow together towards God and work together to run our family, things seem to work even better than when we were first married. I would imagine that if we were instead growing in opposite directions, all of the personality compatibility in the world wouldn't help us.