What is involved in a Catholic wedding couples consultation?
February 26, 2007 7:59 PM   Subscribe

Pre-marriage Catholic priest consultation - what to expect?

I am an atheist. My girlfriend is from a Catholic family. Apparently, Catholic wedding services require (or strongly expect) the couple to visit a priest beforehand and get some kind of approval. This approval takes the form of some signed document. This is a couple months out, but what should I expect from such a meeting? Do I need to hold my tongue with regard to my religious beliefs, or lack thereof?

In general, I am not especially good at asking authority figures for their permission. I do not share what seems to be a fundamental element of some religions; having respect for someone based only on their position or title. Respect, to me, is earned on a personal level. I seem to be in the minority in this regard. Naturally, I expect this might present some problems, since by default I have no more respect for the priest we meet than any other person I would meet during my day.

Privacy-wise, I am not too keen on someone asking me questions along the lines of "How do you plan on raising children?" This question is out of line coming from a stranger, which is what the priest would be to me. However, I expect such a response may be unwelcome.

Lastly, as far as politics go, I am not likely to share much common ground with the priest. It's possible, but unlikely. Therefore, any questions along these lines would also be unwelcome.

Indeed, this is my main problem: I can't think of any questions about my future marriage that I'd like to discuss with a stranger.

Practically: What does such a meeting entail? What questions or subject matters should I expect?

Philosophically: Should I consent to such a meeting? Is it actually required? My girlfriend and her family are intent on having a Catholic service, though not one including a mass. This doesn't bother me. However, a direct questioning that could end badly would put this process into jeopardy.

I am not interested in lying to placate the priest. Any suggestions you have would be very helpful.
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (29 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
From a Catholic friend that went through it, he made it sound like a gentle counseling session with a nice dude that didn't ask too much about religion but actually did good couples therapy type stuff. He made sure they were on the same page about life plans, managing finances (something that breaks up more marriages than almost anything else), and having children. It all seemed like basic deal-breakers and stuff I discussed with my wife before we got married.

From the way he made it sound, I wouldn't have minded going to one at all (and I'm an atheist). Of course, I'm sure the meetings vary with the type of priest dude that does them -- they were in their late 20s/early 30s and the priest guy kept going on about how "old" they were and "independent" they were so he probably cut them some slack.
posted by mathowie at 8:03 PM on February 26, 2007

First off, there is a wide variety in the Catholic church. What you experience in one parish may not be what you would experience in another. Most priests are so incredibly happy to see someone get married they are going to do what Matt describes as "gentle counseling session".

If you want to get married in the Catholic Church you're going to have to fake it a bit. I know you say you're not going lie to placate a priest, but they're not fundamentalist evangelicals. The Catholic Church has aligned itself very much with social justice and happens to keep a lot of conservative things for a wide variety of complex reasons.

As someone who is an atheist and can empathize with you, if you want to get married you should not make this into a Dawkins' crusade. They don't want to marry two people who aren't compatible (obviously as they don't even believe in divorce), so don't come off as antagonistic.

I also have to add that priests hear everything and are bound by their vows to not divulge anything. Even if you are a godless heathen. You are not going to be able to go in there and proclaim your atheism, fold your arms and expect for the priest to go through with it. If it is such against your personal beliefs/ethics to placate, I would strongly suggest you rethink the idea of being married in any church.
posted by geoff. at 8:14 PM on February 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

There's some discussion of it in this thread (along with a lot of information that, judging from your question, you may be interested in).
posted by advil at 8:15 PM on February 26, 2007

Oh and for some facts, check here which goes along with what I learned in my many history of Catholicism classes.

This states it won't happen and I have to agree with it. The closer the religion is to Catholicism the easier time you are having.
posted by geoff. at 8:19 PM on February 26, 2007

Yes, the meeting is required. When we met with the priest, we were asked about our religious beliefs and about raising children in the church. We answered honestly (ie, my now husband is a lapsed Catholic, I am not religious, he doesn't believe in God any more, and we certainly aren't raising children in the church). We mutually decided that the Catholic church was not a place where we wanted to be married. It was a short meeting.

We only had the meeting to please his parents, who wanted us married in the church. My husband, the lapsed Catholic, didn't care about the location. We were married in a Unitarian church instead. (You don't have to believe in God to marry in a Unitarian church - our ceremony was god-free).

It's hard to tell from your question whether your fiancee is still Catholic, and what her motivations are for marrying in the church. If she is a lapsed Catholic and she is doing this solely to please her family, I would reconsider the idea of marrying in the church. Otherwise, have her tell you what to say.

By the way, the Unitarian person that did our ceremony asked us personal questions (why are you getting married, finances, kids, etc) before we tied the knot. We didn't have to lie to her about our religious beliefs. The only way to avoid personal questions from strangers before marriage is to marry before a justice of the peace.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:21 PM on February 26, 2007

Respect, to me, is earned on a personal level.

Your sense of respect in this case should be directed toward your finance and her family for whom this seems important.

It's not about the priest, it's about showing that you're willing to endure a process that you you're not that into for the sake of pleasing her and her family.

Isn't this what a wedding is all about anyway? In a perfect, secular, atheistic world we'd all just sign a piece of paper and be married instantly... its the ceremony, along with all the hassles and expenses that (for many at least) lend weight to the vows.

a direct questioning that could end badly would put this process into jeopardy.

As a recovering militant atheist (still an atheist, but I don't prioritize it like I once did when I lived in the bible belt) I've found that these sorts of encounters only end badly if you behave like a brat. I suspect you'll find this priest as likable and affable of a guy as you're likely to meet anywhere.

I think you're ingrained sense of dread and lack of appreciation for the quaintness of this request will probably do more harm to your relationships with your finance and her family than the actual "questioning" will to you.

Lastly, I'm sure that you're absolutely not the first atheist or non-Catholic this priest has come across so I doubt very seriously he'll be out to convert you.

Unless you come across as a complete frick'n loon I'm sure it'll go smoothly and be both something you can joke about and remember fondly...
posted by wfrgms at 8:41 PM on February 26, 2007

It was a positive thing, in my experience.

Neither my wife nor I are religious. I was raised Catholic, I don't hate Catholicism but I never go to church. My wife was raised Hindu and is a confirmed atheist now. We wanted my uncle, a Catholic priest and a cool dude, to marry us. The meeting was required. The local church here had a standard premarital set of classes that we went to. This was in Seattle, and a fairly young, progressive parish as well. There was no prayer, no discussion of Catholic dogma, birth control, etc. It was really a couples counseling type of thing. We discussed our plans for the future, our observations of our parents' marriages, how we would handle conflicts, finances. etc. Neither me nor my wife really took the actual ceremony of marriage seriously, but the precounseling thing has actually proven to be useful in our married life.

Oh yes, it was not the priest who sat down with us and gave us his elderly celibate male perspective on marriage, it was a lady who worked for the church and who had some type of counseling background.

If you can choose a parish that is not terribly dogmatic (maybe one that has a lot of young people or is near a college campus?) you needn't worry about it. Among Catholics in America, there's this unspoken thing that lies just beneath the surface -- they know that you probably aren't buying everything the Pope says, and really, they're just glad you're there. My experience with Catholic churches (in 3 different cities and without really actively seeking out the progressive parishes) is that they are not really interested in converting you, and they won't put themselves or you in the position of having to tell uncomfortable lies about your spiritual beliefs.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:48 PM on February 26, 2007

20 years ago, here in Southern California, my Catholic betrothed and Agnostic I only had to attend a Catholic Pre-Marriage Class with a bunch of other couples, including a guy I had met two years earlier at a radio station where he was literally being promoted by the station as a PlayBoySuperstud. I thought, 'if HE can do this, I've got no worries'. And the priest holding the class signed everybody's slip after we'd sat and listened to him for 2 hours. But we were not marrying IN a Catholic Church. We did have a private session with the Resident Holy Guy of Unremembered Affiliation at the private chapel we did have the ceremony with, but we were more interviewing him than he was interviewing us. You probably have more options in getting your Official Catholic OK than you think.
posted by wendell at 9:06 PM on February 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

My brothers and several of my friends have all been through this counseling and I second what is said above about it being surprisingly down to earth . Remember, Catholics don't believe in divorce so the focus is on taking a long and realistic look at your plans, and that's about all. The only people I've ever heard of not being endorsed were too immature and had nothing in common, basically a divorce waiting to happen (they got married anyway, then got divorced 8 months later). Heck, a friend of mine who was pregnant was advised by her priest not to rush into marraige just because of the baby. Go figure.
posted by fshgrl at 9:10 PM on February 26, 2007

I've found that these sorts of encounters only end badly if you behave like a brat. I suspect you'll find this priest as likable and affable of a guy as you're likely to meet anywhere.

This is about right. I don't think you need to lie about your faith, but just a little "we want any children to learn about all kinds of religions so they are able to make their own spiritual choices when they are ready" kind of spiel should be fine.

We had our daughter baptized, originally just to please family (I am atheist w/Catholic background, wife is lapsed Catholic). Part of that was a little meeting with the priest who would be doing it. He was a wonderful guy who talked to us about the history of the Church and of the concept of baptism (which included what must be some non-canonical opinions and theories on his part). He suggested that we think of it more as a "community welcoming the child" ceremony than a religious rite, and so we did. Perhaps you could look at your wedding in a similar way.

Oh, and while the priest who married us was a friend of my wife's family (so no real interview with him) we did have to attend the required classes, which were about 98% secular, and more boring than offensive, but I suspect they were useful for many couples who did not have the communication skills we did.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:14 PM on February 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

I also have to add that priests hear everything and are bound by their vows to not divulge anything.

Kind of off-topic, but that's only relevant within the confines of Confession, of which marriage counseling is not.

Otherwise, everyone else's comments echo experiences in the Church.
posted by jmd82 at 9:20 PM on February 26, 2007

My experiences in the Church are very different from what you imagine it to be (I'm an atheist as well who rejected Catholicism). It sounds right now that you are going to stride in there with a shitty attitude. If you do that, a priest may get annoyed (although all the priests I have interacted with have been gentle and patient). And if your comments on not sharing political views with priests meant that you are liberal and priests are not, then you have not met many priests. Some are extremely socially engaged and work tirelessly for social justice causes, doing more good than a gaggle of atheists.

Regardless, as others have said, this is about respect to your future wife, not some juvenile confrontation with ecclesiastic authority. Suck it up and lie as much as you need to please your wife: the philosophy you need to worry about is pragmatism.
posted by Falconetti at 10:12 PM on February 26, 2007

OK, I'm actually Catholic, which puts me in the minority among your respondents so far. Here are a couple of questions to think about:

1) Have you and your fiancee discussed the kinds of questions that you're worried the priest may ask you? If so, do the two of you agree on the answers?
2) Do you really want to marry your fiancee? I'm asking about the traditional definition of marriage here, "for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, as long as you both shall live"?
3) Assuming you plan on children, do you and your fiancee agree on how they should be raised?
4) Have you been honest with her family about who you are?

If you're at peace with your answers to these questions, then you have nothing to worry about from a conversation with a priest.

You're worried that the priest won't "approve" you because you're an athiest. From his point of view, the love of a good woman may be just the thing to bring you home to God. Wouldn't be the first time...
posted by takenRoad at 10:21 PM on February 26, 2007

I'm an Atheist, but not especially militant. My wife is Catholic. I did not want to fake anything, but the ceremony only required me to promise my wife-to-be things, not God. I did have to promise to let future children learn about Jesus, which they would have anyways.

The consultation went very smoothly. The local bishop performed it, as I was a foreigner wanting to get married in his parish (where my wife is from). Basically it was a conversation about the seriousness and responsibilities of marriage. Nothing came up that you guys shouldn't have figured out beforehand.

He did make me promise to read the Cathecism, which I did. It was boring as hell, but at least gave me some more insight into the Catholic faith.
posted by Harald74 at 11:22 PM on February 26, 2007

Someone in my family did this. It was called a marriage course and was quite a few weeks of discussion sessions, a bit like counselling or going through a list of questions that people really should ask each other before they commit to marriage. Why don't you call and ask exactly what their "marriage course" entails, since you aren't a member of their church? They should give you a straight answer.
posted by Listener at 12:10 AM on February 27, 2007

I can't think of any questions about my future marriage that I'd like to discuss with a stranger.

The thing is, when you agree to chat with this person, you are agreeing on accepting different social standards. Of course you're not going to talk with strangers about personal and private matters. But, this will be a situation that has been setup for just this purpose (with relevant expectations of privacy, understanding, etc.).

If it helps, you can think of it like going to the doctor's office for a checkup. I don't talk to strangers on the street about symptoms of STDs (for example) I think I might have, but if I'm in a situation where I can expect privacy, understanding, and some degree of professionalism, then I just might feel comfortable enough to ask the doctor about these sorts of otherwise very personal things.
posted by philomathoholic at 12:35 AM on February 27, 2007

When we did it, we filled out a personality survey during the marriage course and then had a sit down meeting with the priest who conducted the course. He basically went over the differences in our answers and wanted to see if that would cause any problems down the road.

And he was damn good at picking out those differences!! He asked who had a problem communicating with their future in-laws which turned out to be me, mainly due to a slight language barrier.

Generally though it was really just a way to make sure we were ready for actually getting married (not rushing in).
posted by smcniven at 3:00 AM on February 27, 2007

we went through this mainly to please my Catholic parents. My athetist partner was asked if he had any objections to any children being raised in a "Christian tradition". At no time did he have to sign anything.
Other than that specific point it was a very friendly and genial encounter. Despite the current negative image of Catholic priests, the majority of them I have meant are well-meaning practical people who actually do a shitty job, IMO.
The emphasis was definately to see if we had discussed the serious issues like financial problems, long term ill health, etc

If you are having a wedding without a mass in a Catholic church that already says to me it is a pretty liberal parish so I think you should be OK. However, I do get from your question that you may be doing this under duress.
posted by Wilder at 3:25 AM on February 27, 2007

This would depend so much on the priest you go to and the attitudes in the diocese you are getting married to. My friend who studied for 4 years to be a priest said that there is some kind of criteria that states that you can't be considered as a "threat to the faith of your wife or children". So I would expect questions about how children would be raised, and whether you would be supportive of your wife going to church and raising your children as Catholics.

I had a friend who was Catholic who married a Hindu (Hindi?) person, and they ended up getting married in a church run by the Jesuits instead of the diocese where they live. Apparently the Jesuits have a reputation for being kind of open-minded about Catholics and non-Catholics getting married, so this may be an option if your first meeting doesn't go well.
posted by jefeweiss at 4:43 AM on February 27, 2007

from the standpoint of someone who literally grew up in the Catholic church:

It depends on the priest.

If your fiance's family knows a particular priest well, that would be your best bet, and if not, find a younger priest or a progressive parish...they will be much more open, and from what I've seen, will be more apt to focus on making sure you and your fiance are on the same page about marriage, as opposed to whether you're on the same page as the church.

In all honesty, I'd call it a "grin and bare it" situation; the priest is not likely to say you can't get married in the church because of your faith/attitude/feelings...think about it this way; the parish does get money from putting on weddings (if not from the wedding party, from the diocese), so why would they turn one away.
posted by azriel2257 at 6:16 AM on February 27, 2007

jmd82: I'm no lawyer, so this observation surprised me...I would have thought that any time the priest acts as a spiritual advisor it's privileged. A quick google search confirms that you're right, in that the priest-penitent relationship is the source of the privilege - but some jurisdictions have expanded privilege to include other forms of spiritual counseling.
posted by solotoro at 6:18 AM on February 27, 2007

When we did it, we filled out a personality survey during the marriage course and then had a sit down meeting with the priest who conducted the course. He basically went over the differences in our answers and wanted to see if that would cause any problems down the road.

The same for us here and let me say it was a very positive experience for us (although off topic...we're both Catholics and were married by my wife's childhood priest). Don't underestimate the value of the chance to sit down and talk about money, communication, in-laws, kids, etc. Getting this on the table is very important.

Don't think of the priest as this unmarried guy who can't possiblly know anything but rather as a person who has dealt with hundreds or thousands of couples at the best times and frequently the worse times of their lives so he certainly has a potential to offer some good insight into things.
posted by mmascolino at 6:34 AM on February 27, 2007

I remember doing pre-Cana and counseling with a priest, and I was struck by the fact that it was really geared towards couples younger than we were. My wife (then fiance) and I were pushing 30 when we got married, and really didn't need advice on paying bills or cleaning house. The counseling with the priest was fine, he did make note of our differences, but at our age I think it was mostly a chance to get to know members of his parish better.

On another note, why would you get married in a Catholic church if you are an atheist? You shouldn't do it just to please your family. Both of you will be standing up there pretending to be receiving the Sacrament of Marriage. Some Catholics take this stuff very seriously
posted by hilby at 6:48 AM on February 27, 2007

I'm a lapsed Catholic and so is the fiance, but our parents REALLY want us to get married in the church, so we decided to compromise and agree to get married in the church. We probably could have made a stink about it, but we ultimately decided it wasn't worth it.

We still haven't decided on what we're going to do for future children but for now, we are placating our moms. Plus, my great-uncle is a priest and he is going to marry us.

We've been doing the pre-cana (the counseling) in a few sessions and we have one more this weekend. We found a really easygoing priest and all we've had to do so far is chat with him and answer 156 questions and bubble the answers in on a scantron sheet. We're going to discuss the answers on Saturday. We live together and we've already discussed ad infinitum children, finances, etc., and I know we are pretty much on the same page about everything, but I think the Saturday session will be interesting and I am looking forward to it.

If nothing else, the meeting will be good to discuss stuff like children, finances, how you argue, etc. if you haven't already talked about it. Sometimes it helps to have an objective voice. Consider non-religious pre-marriage counseling if you ultimately decide not to do the pre-cana.

The Boston Archdiocese offers evening pre-cana classes and weekend ones, but neither of us really wanted to share any personal information with anyone other than the priest. I was initially wary of discussing stuff with a stranger too, but as my fiance put it, sometimes it is easier to discuss stuff with a stranger than with someone you know well. Now that I think of it, if any of the priests I knew from my childhood asked me deeply personal questions, I'd probably be embarrassed, but with this guy it's not that big of a deal with me.
posted by sutel at 7:38 AM on February 27, 2007

Congratulations, you're in a liminal period. You are loosing one identity (single) and gaining a new one (married). For now, you are in between. Victor Turner did some interesting anthropological work on liminality. It's common throughout cultures to treat liminal members as "nothing" or as "having no identity."

There are a lot of rituals throughout the world that prepare the initiate for the new role. This visit with the priest is one such ritual. You need to think hard about the role you are taking, and you need to be made aware of the new requirements. Some of this is achieved through lots of symbols [rings, books, wedding bells, songs, walking down the aisle (which is so conveniently like being reborn!) etc] that make you think about things out of the context you usually find them in.

Sorry to be so long winded, but this meeting serves a much larger purpose than "just talking to some stranger about your own (lack of) religious beliefs." This is (or used to be) more along the lines of making sure you know what the community expects of you in regard to how you treat your wife and children.

For those interested, check out Victor Turner "Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage," The Proceedings of the American Ethnological Society (1964), Symposium on the New Approaches to the Study of Religion, pp 4-20.
posted by bilabial at 7:47 AM on February 27, 2007

I got married nine years ago, my husband is Catholic and I am an atheist. We got married in his home town, where we did not live, at the church his parents go to.

The priest sent us some video tapes about couples issues, basically generic marriage advice stuff with a slight Catholic overtone.

When we got to town for the manditory meeting, I was expecting a big interrogation session but mostly after finding out that I was not divorced as he had thought (due to a hypenated name) he proceeded to tell us in great detail about his recent trip to Poland and Italy.

He did give us a few bits of very generic advice, using his mother and his relationship as an example, "My mother never can remember if it's fresh spinach or cooked spinach I hate, but I try to be understanding."

There was no mention of birth control, children, attending church, or anything like that.

This was a very conservative congregation that still says the Latin Mass and discourages eating meat on Friday. I was prepared to have my beliefs questioned and surprised and relieved that it didn't happen.

I think this kind of stuff must vary a lot from church to church. Also, my husband's family knows this priest very well so perhaps that's why it was so casual.

Good luck with your wedding and marriage.
posted by Melsky at 8:02 AM on February 27, 2007

It depends on the diocese and the priest.

From the responses above, people seem to be mixing up three distinct parts of the catholic marriage process (at least how it's practiced in my diocese)... This was my experience when my wife and I went throu

In order in Milwaukee
1. You meet with the priest
2. You attend a marriage workshop
3. You attend a focus session
4. Then you meet with the priest again.

First off, to make the experience as pleasant for you as possible, if you haven't found a parish that you want to be married in already, try to find a parish with a priest you and your wife like. My parish is very bent on social justice and the priests are rather left-leaning on most issues. There are also priests with exactly the opposite views.

What happens in various stages
1.&4. You explain your intentions to the priest, he asks you some questions including whether or not you'll be able to consummate the marriage and whether or not either of you are being forced into it. Our priest was incredibly helpful throughout the process, even when I screwed up the vows in practice. Yes, you'll probably have to discuss things you wouldn't normally feel comfortable about talking about in public, but really the church is just trying to get your marriage started on the right foot... Think of it as very cheap marriage counseling (counseling is really something the church provides that people forget about)....

I don't think he'll refuse to marry you because you're an atheist, unless if you staunchly refuse to expose your children to catholicism or the like.

2. The marriage workshop basically helps you discuss things with your partner and find potential problems you may have missed. For the most part, religion isn't a large component of it (excluding the prayers at the beginning and end).

3. In the foccus session you meet with a couple and fill out a long questionnaire in an attempt to find areas you and your future betrothed disagree. My wife was really nervous about it, but we had went through the book the hard questions previously and it made it easier. Again, this is just another form of counseling.

4. You meet with the priest again to reaffirm your intentions and to make sure everything is set for the wedding.

I don't think your atheism will be a large issue unless you go in set on picking a fight. You won't be the first non-believer the priest has married/encountered and you won't be the last.
posted by drezdn at 8:47 AM on February 27, 2007

Just a note here that, as others have also stated above, there is no one answer here and things definitely will depend on exactly what priest you are talking to. Here in Virginia, where we went through this issue, we were told by the priest that there were a couple of things that could stand in the way of getting married in a Catholic church, and one of those things was not believing in God.

(FWIW, I think there was also a criterion that had to do with children, but I think it was not so much how you would raise the children but rather that you were open to the possibility of having children.)

If you survive the initial interview with the priest and go through the pre-cana counseling, there are questions on the little multiple choice test that are going to suss this out of you. So if you get a priest that is going to stick to the standards, you can either lie (both to any outright questions as well as on the multiple choice test) or you can get married somewhere else. Depending on the priest, even holding your tongue about your athiesm would not quite make the grade -- there would have to be a statement of belief.

Finally, in my experience it did not matter whether you wanted to be married with or without a mass -- the basic requirements were the same.

This is just one experience and some others here have definitely had different ones, but I am telling you to be prepared for the possibility that the priest assigned to you will be as serious about this as ours was. If this happens, you are going to need to consider how much it is personally going to bother you to lie to this person that you don't know vs. how upset your fiance and her family may be if you cannot get married in a Catholic church. You probably should talk to your fiance before you go in there about what she expects of you -- whether, if the issue came to a head, she would really want you to lie, and, if you had a problem with that, how lying would make you feel.

Finally, for us the first meeting had to occur roughly 6 months before the wedding date, so if you go this route make sure you've allowed yourself enough of a time buffer there. Good luck!
posted by onlyconnect at 10:01 AM on February 27, 2007

I doubt it would even come up, but assuming you're a typical poster here, you probably have more in common with a Catholic priest politically than you might expect.
posted by dagnyscott at 11:34 AM on February 27, 2007

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