ROME — On the eve of the Synod of Bishops on the family, battle lines have been drawn on hot-button issues such as divorced and remarried Catholics and annulments. Yet little is being said about two reasons that often cause a marriage to fail in the first place: lack of preparation, and forced marriages.
An approved marriage preparation program is one of the four usual requirements to marry in the Church, the others being a six-month notification to the parish priest, Catholic baptism of at least one of the partners, and documentation certifying the freedom to marry of both partners.
Yet according to a preparatory document that will guide discussion for the synod, preparation is often more honored in the breach than the observance.
Programs come in different formats, such as intensive weekends, a series of weekly encounters, on-line formation, and “in-home” mentor couple programs.
They can be offered by priests, experts, and married couples, and the content of the programs varies from one country to another. The one thing they have in common is that they generally require less time than the hours spent by many brides choosing their wedding dresses.
Compared to the lead-in time for the other two sacraments that require mandatory preparation — confirmation and holy orders — eight hours preparing for a lifetime commitment seems a fairly modest requirement. Yet as the synod document notes, it’s often seen “more as an obligation than a freely undertaken opportunity for growth.”
Cardinal Raúl Eduardo Chiriboga of Ecuador certainly sees it that way.
“Preparing for marriage shouldn’t be seen as part of the routine that couples have to go through to finally get married,” he said.
Speaking in March, Chiriboga said the Church “should carefully examine these ‘marriage prep classes,’ so that they give couples a deep formation and take all the time that is necessary.”
“The life of two people is at stake,” Chiriboga said.
The Rev. Héctor Franceschi, one of Rome’s leading church lawyers at the University of the Holy Cross, said the Church needs to rethink the preparation for marriage.
“Many times, it’s reduced to two or three lessons on theoretical issues, with priests not even knowing what the future spouses are being taught,” he said.
Franceschi says the Church actually has rich teaching on family issues, with documents such as Familiaris Consortio, Mulieris Dignitatem, Gratissimam Sane, and Humanae Vitae.
“The problem is that very few pastors and laymen have read them,” he said.
Forced marriages, another common cause of annulments, may sound like an ancient and alien practice to many Western countries, something that might happen in remote corners of Iraq or Pakistan but not in the heart of 21st century America.
The synod’s working document doesn’t even mention forced marriages, another reflection of how remote a problem it may seem.
Franceschi, however, told Crux that constant migration from the developing world to the United States, England, France, and other Western nations is slowly turning the issue of forced marriages into a global concern for the Church.
Because forced marriages are generally treated as a private family matter that remains hidden from public view, statistics are elusive.
According to the Washington, D.C.-based Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit organization that helps immigrant women and girls who have been abused, there were as many as 3,000 confirmed or suspected cases of forced marriage in the US from 2009 to 2011.
In June 2012, the United Kingdom announced it would criminalize forced marriage, following the lead of Norway, Denmark, Austria, Germany, Belgium, Cyprus, and Malta.
In that year alone, the UK Forced Marriage Unit noted 1,485 cases, and in 65 percent of cases in which the age of the victim was known, they ranged from 13 to 21.
According to the Global Justice Initiative, only nine jurisdictions in the United States — California, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma, the Virgin Islands, and Virginia — have legislation that encompasses forced marriage.
Although the statistics show the problem of forced marriages tends to be more acute in Muslim communities, experts say the problem is growing fast in Christian families as well.
Experts distinguish between “forced” and “arranged” marriages, with the latter being especially common in India as well as in many rural parts of China and other Eastern countries.
As the Rev. Dominic Emmanuel of India told Crux, “arranged marriages are quite common in India regardless of religion, economic status, or level of education. Love marriages are exceptions and those exceptions occur in all kinds of settings.”
But arranged marriages only occur with the explicit consent of both spouses.
Editor of a family magazine called “The Word Among Us,” Emmanuel notes that “church personnel won’t simply close their eyes to the fact of someone being forced into marriage. Any marriage entered without the free will of either of the partners is absolutely wrong.”
“I have come across cases, where the parents could not exercise their plan to get their son or daughter married to a person if the person in question did not approve of it,” Emmanuel said.
For church lawyers, this difference is crucial.
“The inalienable principle of marriage is freedom,” Franceschi said. “Regardless of the cultural matrix, the Church considers that a marriage entered unwillingly is invalid.”
He pointed to a ruling of the Roman Rota, the highest appellate tribunal of the Catholic Church, which held that culture cannot suppress freedom of will. In this case, a woman had been forced to marry, and after a few months the marriage fell apart.
“She cried during the ceremony, but at that moment, it was either that or being cast away from her family,” Franceschi said.
The case was taken to Rome, he said, and finally declared null.