To prepare couples for the sacrament and life of matrimony, Roman Catholic canon prescribes sensible requirements for “Pastoral Care and What Must Precede Celebration of Marriage.” According to Canon 1063, “Pastors of souls are obliged to see to it that their own ecclesiastical community furnishes the Christian faithful assistance so that the matrimonial state is maintained in a Christian spirit and makes progress toward perfection. This assistance is especially to be furnished through: Preaching . . . personal preparation . . . a fruitful liturgical celebration of marriage . . . assistance furnished to those already married.” And Canon 1064, “It is up to the local ordinary to make provisions that such assistance is duly organized.”

Throughout the ages, couples have been accustomed to complying with universal theological guidelines as a condition for the sacrament of marriage within the Church. A recommended course of religious study and spiritual counseling with a priest have been the norm in most dioceses for many years. But modern “provisions” made by local ordinaries in many dioceses throughout the United States are a far cry from what the historic Church had in mind for constructive premarital preparation. In these dioceses, “preaching” and “personal preparation” have been transmogrified into a strange hybrid of psychological testing, marriage counseling based on quantified, computerized test scores, and compulsory weekend retreats.

In some parishes, priests unfamiliar to the engaged couples dispense counseling, preaching deteriorates into psychobabble, and sociology displaces theology. Intended couples discover to their amazement that they must shoulder an unwelcome, very modern burden: running a gauntlet of psychosocial prerequisites as a condition for marriage within the Church.

The most common and novel prerequisite for marriage today is personality or compatibility testing, conducted during a couple’s six- to nine-month engagement waiting period. Parishes choose from a variety of investigative devices with names such as “Pre-Marriage Inventory,” “Prenuptial Investigation,” or “Focus Test.” The detailed exams consist of a battery of declaratory statements, with which the examinees agree or disagree by fill-in-the-dots—or a series of interrogatory statements, to which they must give written answers. Each person must take the test separately, and no consultation between the pair is permitted. If the couple refuses to take the inventory or exam, then they are refused marriage within the Church—unless they can find a diocese that does not require testing.

The results are tallied, as one local church official explained, “by an objective machine somewhere.” Usually a graph is compiled showing the percentage of agreement between the couple on each inventory category. If most of the categories show indicators of high agreement—between the 85 to 100 percent marks—then the pair is considered to be “compatible.” After the results are compiled, the priest discusses them at length with the betrothed.

Many of the broad categories listed in the inventories read like something out of a college freshman Psychology 101 textbook: role adjustment, personal adjustment, interpersonal communication, interests and activities, marriage readiness, sexuality, and “critical” items. (The last item is a compendium of the “best” questions flushed out of all the categories—and a low score in this section is considered a dire foreshadowing.)

Here is a sampling of the inventory statements and questions to which the couple is traditionally asked to respond “agree,” “disagree,” or “somewhat”:

I am uncomfortable when I am around some of my future in-laws.


We are comfortable with our choice’s [sic] of political parties.

I am feeling great pressure from someone about our wedding plans.

My future husband/wife is too dependent on his/her parents.

I am sometimes at a loss to know what to do about my future husband’s/wife’s moodiness.

My family and the family of my future husband/wife have quite different socioeconomic standards.

I am worried that we do not have enough insurance.

One of us always has to be right.

I am often bothered by the belittling remarks my future husband/wife makes about me.

We have made plans about where we will live after marriage.

I am at the right age to get married.

I am sure that I will never doubt my love for my future husband/wife.

Pregnancy has affected our marriage plans.

One or both of us feels some concern about educational background causing problems between us.

At times, I am disturbed about my future husband’s/wife’s sense of humor.

Often I am displeased with the appearance of my future husband/wife.

I am worried about the use of tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, or other drugs between us.

I worry that the physical/mental health of one or both of us will cause problems between us.

I have grown up with good feelings about sex.

A good way to work out problems between us will be to have sexual intercourse.

Homosexual tendencies in either one of us has [sic] me worried.

I am fearful that I might be sexually impotent/frigid.

Sex is something I very much want.

I am not afraid to accept the duties of a parent.

We are in agreement with each other about how many children we would like to have.

Do you practice your religion faithfully?

Is any person or circumstance forcing you to enter this marriage against your will? (If answer is yes, consult the Chancery.)

Have you ever been treated in a hospital or by a doctor for mental or nervous illness?

Some couples oppose such testing prerequisites on philosophical grounds: as a further intrusion of positivistic, behavioral scientism into the Church. These couples would have refused to take the test on principle had they been permitted marriage within the Church without it. They resent the compulsory aspect of required participation in psychosocial exercises. “If we had wanted to go to a psychologist, we would have gone to a psychologist,” lamented one newly married couple. They added, “What we wanted from pastoral counseling is what a social worker can’t give—spiritual nurture and guidance.”

Other test-takers report practical reasons for disliking the requirement. They eschew its privacy-invading character. Problems they may want to discuss or confess privately with a priest are exposed to open view, recorded for posterity, and evaluated by some “objective” bean-counter somewhere. Many couples maintain that there is room for disagreement and personal growth on many questions, and that divergent scores do not mean grounds for “incompatibility.” Moreover, they argue, such questions are open to disparate interpretations. For example, one couple answered very differently to the statement, “Pregnancy has affected our marriage plans.” The groom replied affirmatively, since his sister-in-law was pregnant and had wanted to be in the wedding; the bride, thinking the declaration implied a shotgun wedding, responded in the negative. The couple received a low score on compatibility, and their priest strongly advised against marriage.

“People are not predictable machines. Charts, graphs, and averages are not good predictors of a healthy marriage,” commented the couple. “One ‘perfect match’ we know scored high on compatibility and are now divorced. Conversely, we scored terribly on compatibility but we are very happily married.”

In some parishes, the priest merely uses the inventories as a launching pad for fruitful discussions with the betrothed pair, and some couples report finding the questions humorous. But for other couples, the inventories are no laughing matter. In some instances, priests have refused to marry couples who otherwise met universal theological guidelines but scored “poorly” on compatibility. “I was surprised and stunned,” said one bride-to-be who ultimately was not. “When we took the tests, I never anticipated what would happen. About a week after my fiancé and I took the tests, the priest brought in our scores. Based on our scores, he refused to marry us. We had already made wedding plans, and we called them off because we didn’t want to marry outside of the Church.”

Cheat sheets, anyone?

Finally, some couples report that they longed to have closer relationships with their priests so that their pastor could teach and counsel them with personal knowledge of their weaknesses and strengths. Instead, what sometimes occurred was that counseling was dispensed based on social and scientific data by priests whom the couples had never met. Modern methodology had replaced intimate pastoral conversation and fellowship.

Once the hopefully-still-engaged couples pass the requisite tests, they then must agree to meet with married couples for mandatory classes, counseling sessions, or a weekend retreat. Since the married “facilitators” are volunteers, the experiences vary. Many couples find that the “encounters” are very valuable, while others discover that they must brave yet another ordeal.

The idea behind the retreat is an appealing one. The prospective bride and groom can escape from the exigencies of modern life—from the television, the newspapers, the telephone—to a refuge where they can focus on each other and on marriage, learn from a priest and experienced married couples, and reflect on spiritual things. Yet a typical program consists of multiple group sharing sessions. The married leaders make presentations, assign essay questions to the engaged couples, and then sequester each man and woman in separate rooms for the writing of the essays. After 30 to 45 minutes, as one couple described it, a cowbell would be rung to signal the end of the writing session. The couples are then reunited and allowed 30 minutes to discuss their answers in private, after which the cowbell would again be rung and the couples would be herded back to the group; this lecturing, writing, discussing, herding, and dispersing traditionally lasts for three days. Occasionally, the focus of the program becomes obscured. Instead of escaping from modern life, modernity invades again—in the form of quasi-encounter group discussions or psychological and sociological theorizing about common concerns.

One engaged couple attending a retreat was surprised when, in the midst of conducting the sessions, the leaders broke down crying while telling their personal stories:

I think everyone sympathized with the grief or joy the leaders were feeling, but . . . particularly when it got to the sixth time, we could not help but wonder whether such occurrences were not much more cathartic and enlightening and emotionally cleansing for the leaders than helpful to the engaged couples who witnessed them. . . . We could not help but conclude that this emotionalism had the effect of moving the spotlight of the weekend away from the engaged couples and onto the leaders themselves, the very antithesis of the retreat’s purpose.

The attendees found the session on sexuality to be particularly offensive, with its “discussions of orgasms, foreplay, the importance of experimenting with lovemaking positions, the role simultaneous climax has played in this particular couple’s marriage, and news from ‘Tim’ that ‘Missy’ fantasizes about ‘doing it in the hay’ and that ‘Wayne’ has recently been quite successful in bringing ‘Roxie’ to orgasm.” The program, said the couple, “had more in common with a seminar conducted by Dr. Ruth than it did a Church-sponsored retreat for engaged couples.”

When the pair then attempted to leave the retreat, they were told that they must remain in order to receive their diploma. Of course, presentation of the retreat diploma is another compulsory prerequisite for the marriage ceremony. The couple added: “To force everyone to be a party to this sort of information—to strip individuals of the right not to listen to a couple’s bedroom experiences—at a mandatory retreat is both degrading and embarrassing. Clearly, couples who want to discuss such things could do so in private, and in private with their priest.” The groom later asked: “Considering that engaged couples are now required to meet with married couples prior to being wed, are we to conclude that individuals are now required to suffer the degrading experience of listening to a couple’s discourse on foreplay and climax in order to be married in the Catholic Church?”

Indeed. It is time to dispense with requiring intended couples to run the psychosocial gauntlet—and in its place restore prudent, time-tested norms of uplifting preaching, charitable solicitude, and commonsense preparation to help new couples. Yea, verily, what God has joined together let no behavioral scientist put asunder.