IN THE PAST few weeks much publicity has been given to the report, published recently by the Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland, entitled "Preparation for Marriage." Apart from one mention in The Times, what seems to have escaped the notice of most commentators on the report is that it has anticipated in time a similar one due to appear in the Church of England next year.
Last year a Commission on Marriage was established under the chairmanship of the Anglican Bishop of Lichfield to reappraise Christian doctrine on the subject, particularly in view of the Divorce Reform Act of 1969. This latter made the irretrievable breakdown of marriage the sole ground of divorce.
The similarity between the recent efforts of the Canon Law Society and the Anglican Cornmission is shown in one of the Commission's terms of reference.
This is that it should "report on the courses of action open to the Church in seeking to promote in contemporary society the Christian ideal of marriage as a lifelong union between husband and wife."
Why, it may be asked, should either the Catholic Canon Law Society's report or the Anglican Commission's forthcoming findings be matters of significance? The fact is, whereas it may be said that today marriage has never been so popular, neither has divorce. Against a backcloth both of young people tending to marry earlier and the divorce rate continuing to rocket, it has become imperative that the Christian understanding of marriage be made crystal clear and understood.
As yet in this country we have not reached the divorce
rate appertaining in California, where it is one divorce for 3.74 marriages and in some places even higher.
Such figures have compelled the united Methodist Church of America to introduce a religious rite of divorce in an attempt to help divorced people to adjust to their new status. But the figures for England and Wales are nevertheless disquieting.
In 1964 there were over 34,000 divorces. Six years later the number exceeded 58,000. In 1972 they had shot up to 119,000 and two years ago they had risen to 131,000.
Faced with this increase, the Canon Law Society advocated a greater emphasis on instruction and assessment before marriage. Admitting that Catholics were no more immune than others to marital breakdown in the present state of affairs, it stressed that they should at least be aware of what they were doing when they entered the married state, and be in a position to fulfil its requirements.
Since the report was written for the guidance of priests, it perhaps needs to be considered by those of us in parishes how best the document could be implemented, This in itself raises important questions.
It is obvious that priests preparing people for marriage have a definite pastoral responsibility to explain the sacramental nature of marriage. This also includes moral teaching, explanation of the purpose of marriage and why the marriage bond is indissoluble, and study of the commitment entailed in Christian love.
Nevertheless, when it comes to more instruction and assessment, is this enough? The report mentions lack of social
support, inner tensions Of the nuclear age family and the example of marital failure of parents as contributing factors in marriage breakdown.
Should not the clergy therefore — as a matter of course — be assisted by others with knowledge in these fields? What about those members of the laity qualified in the psychological, sexual, social, cultural, legal and even financial aspects of marriage?
It is true that members of the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council already help in the training of future priests at such seminaries as Ushaw in Durham. In-service training for clergy in some dioceses may also include marriage counselling techniques.
And in many parishes courses run by the CMAC are established routine for engaged couples. But are these efforts sufficently widespread and regarded as the norm? Isn't it also possible that such instruction in any case comes too late?
Confronted with the evidence that in 1951 one marriage in five occurred between couples in which the bride was less than 20 years of age and in 1971 the figure had risen to one in three, is there not an argument for instruction in schools as part of an accepted syllabus?
This would seem especially pertinent when one notes the report's remark that the "highrisk zone" for marital breakdown occurs during the first three years of marriage.
Such an argument becomes even weightier when one considers the fact that figures have recently been released suggesting that at least 5,000 schoolgirls become pregnant each year, and 10 out of every 1,000 girls of I I are pregnant before the age of 16. Moreover, six of these ten will then have abortions. Instruction in schools might also render more practicable the Canon Law Society's recommendation as to how priests should counsel young people contemplating marriage.
This says that priests should make a "searching investigation to help the couple to decide, in the light of their own stage of development, their character and maturity, and also in the light of their parents' views whether they should proceed with or defer the marriage".
Unless such mattes -have been discussed considerably earlier than the time when a couple first approach a priest, it is possible that a "searching in_vestigation" from him might be counter-productive, have the reverse effect and alienate young people.
Finally, if Christian marriage is to survive, it may very well prove necessary to take into account much more the changing status of women in our society. The report indeed acknowledges this in a sense by reference to uncertainty of roles in marriage as a cause of marital breakdown.
How much, indeed, do we appreciate that nowadays engaged couples often envisage marriage as a relationship not merely of inter-dependence and equality, but one in which there is a rejection of roleconditioning and economic dependence on either part? In other words, expectations concerning marriage have undergone a radical change in recent times.
If the increasing tide of divorce is to be stemmed in our country, then perhaps it is on matters such as these that all of us — priests and laity alike — need instruction: and not only when adult, but as young people on the path to maturity, before it is too late.
Fr David Forrester