Can a church course future-proof your marriage?
The State has cut funding for pre-marriage courses. Do such courses really help couples hoping to tie the knot
Dermot Casey met his now wife Jenifer in college and the couple had been together for almost nine years when they started to plan their wedding. Jenifer had her heart set on tying the knot in a Catholic church, so the pair went to meet the parish priest about marrying there. When he insisted that the couple do a pre-marriage course first, Dermot balked.
"I just politely declined and explained my reasons," says McDermott, a successful entrepreneur. "The idea that I would have to go into a room with a pile of strangers for a day-and-a-half and that I would suddenly find out lots and lots of things about Jenifer that I had never known was ridiculous. It's only afterwards I realised how unusual it was to refuse." Dermot and Jenifer were lucky that they could still get married within the Catholic Church after his refusal.
Completing a marriage preparation course is mandatory in most dioceses for couples who want to exchange vows in a Catholic church. Accord, the church's provider of pre-marriage courses, said this week that this service is now being undermined after the State cut funding for the courses.
While most would-be spouses nowadays are fair-weather Catholics who rarely attend mass and go against church rules by living together before marriage, they are obliged to take time out of their hectic wedding planning to attend a marriage preparation course in a parish hall or hotel function room if they want a nice church as the backdrop for their ceremony.
Naoise McNally, who runs wedding website OneFabDay, says that the couples she meets are usually unwilling participants.
"I've yet to hear of someone looking forward to it - most people are quite surprised in the first place that they have to do it and don't really understand why," she says.
Naoise didn't have to attend a course before marrying economist Ronan Lyons in 2012 because they had a humanist ceremony. But she objects to the compulsory nature of the practice for those who do want a church wedding. "I would agree that it's a good idea to take time out before a wedding and take stock of what marriage will mean."
"The whole point of these courses is to tease out issues before making a life-long commitment. They probably made more sense years ago when couples never lived together before marriage. Now, people are just going through the motions because they have to do these courses."
Priests are obliged under canon law to ensure each couple they marry is adequately prepared for the sacrament of marriage and married life. A handful prefer to give couples marriage preparation guidance themselves, but as the number of priests dwindle, most outsource the role to professional pre-marriage counselling providers, mostly to Accord, which was set up by the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference in 1962.
The service, which also offers counselling for married couples, received €1.9m in funding last year from Tulsa, the State's child and family agency, and has 55 centres across the island of Ireland. It charges between €120 and €200 per course, depending on the venue.
The pre-marriage counselling is important as it encourages couples to focus on their life as a married couple rather than merely "planning for the big day," according to Anne Coleman, a specialist in marriage education with Accord.
"The better people are prepared for marriage, the better the outcome will be. Rather than having people turn up to our marriage counselling service at a later stage, these courses head off the problems before they occur."
About 90pc of Accord's pre-marriage courses are conducted by married people, most of whom are volunteers. However, because some priests have completed Accord's year-and-a-half long training programme, they may also act as facilitators of the courses, Anne says.
She rejected criticism of the concept of celibate clergy doling out advice on marriage.
"These days, priests are very involved in their community and with families," she says. "They are aware of relationships - you don't have to be married to understand married relationships."
A typical Accord course takes nine hours and is held over a weekend, with an average of 20 couples in the room at one time, Anne says.
Each would-be bride and groom gets a workbook and fills out a questionnaire separately. They are asked about issues such as whether they want to have children, how they think they would parent, and how they would handle conflict, and then compare the results together.
There is also a section on "fertility awareness", though the facilitators only discuss natural methods of family planning, in line with church teaching, Anne says.
"A friend of mine has been training for a triathlon this summer for six months, even though the triathlon itself only takes one day," she says.
"Couples planning to spend the rest of their lives together only spend nine hours preparing for marriage."
Accord is not the only option for couples required to take part in pre-marriage counselling before walking down the aisle. Avalon RC is a private provider that charges €120 for one-day pre-marriage group sessions or for an online course that comes with a DVD.
Married couples run a residential weekend course at a retreat centre in Esker, Co Galway, owned by the Redemptorists, a religious congregration, mostly comprising priests.
The centre describes its course as "the premiership of marriage preparation".
Rachel Fehily, a mediator for couples going through marital breakdown, is familiar with the type of "disparaging remarks" made about Accord's courses. But she believes everyone should do some form of marriage preparation to defuse potential flashpoints in their future relationship before they make a life-long commitment to each other.
"A lot of people who get married have personal problems and they bring those personal problems into their marriage without resolving them and that affects the marriage," says Rachel, who wrote Split: True Stories of Relationship Breakdown in Ireland.
"People get married with certain expectations. One woman might say 'I presumed he was going to work in his law firm till he was 65 and he's taken up pottery instead. I wanted a house in Dublin 4, and now I'm in Spiddal watching him throw pots around'.
"I think anyone getting married should consider some sort of course or structured discussion beforehand - it doesn't have to be by the church. You need a forum for people to discuss issues such as 'what will happen if you lose your job or you get very sick?' It's a really good idea to sit down and hypothesise these things."