With the definition of marriage being challenged nationwide, the Catholic Church in Phoenix has introduced significant changes in its program for couples who want a church wedding, lengthening the preparation time from six to nine months.
Partly in response to efforts promoting gay marriage and a growing trend of unwed couples living together, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix has decided to intensify the church's teaching for people planning a Catholic marriage.
The new rules for pre-marriage preparation include more time and deeper education.
The goal is to strengthen marriages and a couple's Catholic faith at a time when marriage is on the decline in the United States.
Few dispute the value of marriage-preparation programs.
Studies indicate that a solid course of marriage preparation, particularly one based on developing interpersonal skills, succeeds in reducing divorces.
But some in the church fear the changes detailed in the bishop's July pastoral letter, "Covenant of Love," which became mandatory this month, may result in even fewer church weddings.
The letter points to four "concerns" that led to the updated policies, which will include post-wedding marriage classes and ongoing education about marriage. They are:
• Fewer marriage role models and increased cohabitation.
• A high divorce rate.
• A growing number of single-parent families.
• "Increasing confusion" over the meaning of marriage in society because of efforts to legalize gay marriage.
The changes, Olmsted hopes, will help counteract those trends.
"Many young people know little about their call to be married in the church and to receive the grace of that sacrament," said Michael Phelan, a layman who leads the diocese's Office of Marriage and Respect Life.
"It could be compared to a dearth of culinary knowledge. If I know little about the difference between eating at a fast-food restaurant and a four-star feast, I won't value the whole experience."
Among the changes being instituted are:
• Nine months of pre-marriage preparation time instead of six. Several methods of preparation will remain available, including intensive weekend sessions or a series of weeknight meetings, but the time will be lengthened.
• A full course in Natural Family Planning, a type of family planning that does not use artificial forms of birth control. The church opposes use of contraceptives, from condoms to pills.
• More comprehensive courses on practical skills and the theology of marriage, including the reasons for the church's position on gay marriage. The church believes marriage can only be a union between a man and a woman.
Andrew Junker, a reporter for the Catholic Sun diocese newspaper, recently went through the marriage-preparation courses and said he found them worthwhile, even though he was skeptical at first.
"For a lot of people, it seems like a lot of hoops to jump through," he said. "But once we started getting into it, the vast majority was really helpful just on the level of communication."
An increased emphasis on the theological underpinnings of marriage may be helpful to the numerous people seeking Catholic weddings but who are not really practicing the faith, Junker said.
"They presented the theology very positively, not as arcane rules devised to make your life miserable," he said.
Still, he said, most of his friends are not and would not consider a Catholic marriage if they are considering marriage at all. They are part of a nationwide trend of fewer people getting married. Since 1980, marriage rates in the United States have dropped from 11 per thousand people in 1980 to 7.1 per thousand in 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Donald Scott, who was married in 2006 at All Saints Catholic Newman Center at Arizona State University, said he sees the trend of fewer marriages among friends who have been couples for years without tying the knot.
Scott, who did a marriage-prep course four years ago with his wife, Christa, said the course provided "a jumping-off point to discuss things we might not have thought about."
He said he would have had no problem with a longer engagement period, as it stands in the new policy, from six to nine months.
"My opinion is that it is better to have more time in advance to discern your marriage and the potential issues than to have not enough time and have those issues come up later," he said.
Church weddings have been on the decline in the Phoenix Diocese, officials say. The diocese covers Maricopa, Yavapai, Coconino and Mohave counties in Arizona.
Out of an average of 27,000 marriage licenses issued a year in those counties - a number that has held steady for 15 years despite population growth - the number of weddings conducted in a Catholic church has dropped from 1,542 in 1993 to 1,389 last year, according to figures provided by the diocese. The numbers have rarely topped 1,800 in the 40-year history of the diocese.
Even though about 15 percent of diocese residents profess to be Catholic, only 5 percent of marriages take place in church.
The decline has occurred even as the diocese has grown at a rate exceeding the population generally, from an estimated 355,000 members in 1993 to 644,000 today.
Mark Gray of Georgetown University, who has researched Catholic marriage in the United States, says the trend is not restricted to Phoenix.
Overall, he said, the number of Catholic marriages has declined from 10 or more per 1,000 Catholics in the 1940s and '50s to 3.5 today. The number in the Phoenix area for 2008 was 1.9 marriages per 1,000 Catholics.
The reasons, Gray said, may have to do with the rise in divorce and second marriages, which the church may not allow, the trend to getting married later in life, increased numbers of interfaith marriages and a preference for other marriage venues such as resorts or beaches.
The latter trend is especially pronounced in Sun Belt states, he said.
Statistics are hard to come by for other religious traditions. The lack of central organizations among other large denominations means few numbers are available.
Most religious bodies say they promote pre-marriage preparation, but they leave it to individual pastors to determine what is needed.
Steve Bass, head of the Southern Baptist Convention in Arizona, said each church develops its own requirements.
"As a student of those churches, I can tell you the overwhelming majority of our pastors do require a number of pre-marital counseling sessions before they will officiate the wedding ceremony," he said.
The United Methodist Church has a similar practice, said spokesman Steve Hustedt.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has requirements similar to the Catholic Church.
Len Greer of Gilbert, Arizona spokesman for the LDS Church, said Mormons must complete preparation classes to be married in the temple but not to be married elsewhere. He could not provide statistics for Mormon weddings, temple weddings in Arizona or the percentage that get married in the temple.
Not everyone agrees with the new policy for Catholics.
Roberta Meehan, an acknowledged foe of Olmsted's conservative approach who is ordained as part of the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement, said the diocese should offer marriage preparation, but one size does not fit everyone.
"What works for two Ph.D. scientists is not the same for a couple of 19-year-olds just out of high school," she said. "Each couple should be counseled on an individual basis."
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