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Fostering Healthy Marriages


Multiyear Effort
Why Now?

Recently an engaged couple told me that they weren’t having a Catholic wedding ceremony because they thought the Catholic Church, with all its requirements, makes it too hard to get married. “I should hope so,” I replied, “because marriage is hard.”

What I didn’t tell them was that I don’t think the Church does such a good job at helping people stay married. My husband, Mark, and I will be married 13 years this August. Before we got married, we took the FOCCUS assessment, met with a married couple in our parish, attended an Engaged Encounter weekend, and met with our parish priest and the priest who was officiating at our wedding. We and the Church put a lot of energy into getting our marriage off to a good start.

But that day in 1995 after we said “I do” and walked back down the aisle was the last time we heard anything from the Church concerning our marriage.

Sure, I know there are programs available such as Marriage Encounter to help couples maintain their relationship. But with three kids, a weekend retreat for Mark and me is just not feasible. Desirable? Yes. Feasible? No.

If the U.S. bishops have their way, though, married couples soon won’t have any excuses for not fostering their marriages. That’s because the bishops are currently right in the middle of an all-out push to help married couples—not just Catholics—strengthen and grow their marriages.


Beginning in November 2004, the U.S. bishops embarked on a multiyear project known as the National Pastoral Initiative for Marriage (NPIM). Its purpose is to communicate “the meaning and value of married life for the Church and society.” In short, the bishops want to bring “Catholic belief into dialogue with contemporary needs.”

The initiative consists of three phases, the first being research and consultation which occurred between 2005 and 2007. In 200 focus groups conducted in 64 dioceses, the bishops consulted married couples in every stage of married life. Summaries of these focus groups are available at

The second phase—from 2007 through 2008—is focused on communication, and will include a pastoral letter which is currently being written. In 2007, a series of TV ads, billboards and the Web site were launched as a means of publicizing the initiative.

And finally, from 2008 to 2011, the bishops will focus on implementation, development of pastoral resources and evaluation of the program.

When he first introduced the initiative to the bishops in November 2004, Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Savannah said, “As leaders of the Catholic Church in the United States, we can help to create a positive climate that places healthy marriages at the heart of strong families, a strong nation, and a strong and holy Church. This is a pastoral moment we should seize upon.”

And seize the moment they have. The initiative is now under the watchful eye of Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, who has headed the bishops’ Committee on Marriage and Family since 2005. Last year he said, “Healthy marriages are the bedrock of our Church and our society. The Church seeks to do all it can to encourage what goes into a solid marriage: prayer, fidelity, commitment and the little things that count.”

To say that the bishops’ initiative is comprehensive is an understatement. But is it too much, too late?

Don’t get me wrong: I think the initiative is a great idea. In fact, when I first checked out the For Your Marriage Web site, I found myself quickly immersed. An hour passed before I realized how long I’d been on the site. It’s loaded with informative articles, daily tips, video clips and even fun little quizzes—with a new one each month— that couples can take together. And for those who think the Church is seriously lacking in the fun category, yes, some of the tips and quizzes—such as how well do you know your spouse’s past—are actually fun.

So I guess my only question would be, what took so long? The divorce rate peaked in 1980. I know the Catholic Church is not known for its expediency on things, but why wasn’t an initiative like this fast-tracked in the face of those numbers?

According to The National Marriage Project: The State of Our Unions 2004, the projected rate of divorce still stands at around 50 percent.

For the past 18 years there’s been a steady decline in the number of divorces, but that has been attributed to a number of factors, especially the fact that people just aren’t getting married and are choosing to live together instead. One thing’s for sure, though: That decline certainly wasn’t because of anything proactive the Church was doing.

Having said that, I don’t want to get caught up in this initiative’s timing. The fact is the bishops are on the ball now and have put quite an effort into this initiative. And in the process they’ve raised some questions, learned some things, started a discussion and posed a very good question that all married couples—from newlyweds to those celebrating 50-plus years—should think about: What have you done for your marriage lately?—S.H.B.

For more information on the bishops’ National Pastoral Initiative for Marriage, visit or

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