01 April 2015

Liverpool 1980: Clericalised Laity And Marriage Preparation

Idly perusing, as one might, some of the feedback reports from the Working Groups at the 1980 Liverpool Pastoral Congress (LPC), I was astonished by the depths to which delegates believed lay people should be allowed to get involved with and regulate the preparation for the Sacrament of Matrimony.  I was perhaps less surprised by the insistence that those being prepared should be informed about all forms of birth control, though compulsory instruction on Natural Family Planning was a surprise (and, I believe, though some of you might disagree, this betrays the contraceptive mentality that wants everybody told about unnatural family planning as well).

This shows the LPC at its worst.  It might be unkind to portray them as a bunch of middle class Catholics with a middle class agenda and lots of time on their hands to implement it, but there we are: unkind, but true.

This was the group chaired by (as he was then) Fr Vin Nichols. It reported upwards to another committee which incorporated this report into its own report about Marriage and the Family.

When thinking about the Synod on the Family this autumn, I think Cardinal Nichols has got it wrong: it is a battle between contesting sides, and there will be collateral damage, as there already has been, to the Church, to the Magisterium and to authority. But this isn't all the fault of a few German Cardinals in 2014/15: the rot has spread widely and deeply over a long period. This is an illustration.


Chairman: Fr Vin Nichols


In order to develop care and respect within the Church, and to present marriage as a vocation equal in importance to the religious life we propose that:

1. the local Church celebrate the goodness and beauty of married life as the human expression of God's love in prayer, sermons, anniversary Masses and a cycle of Mass themes drawn from married life;

2. the local Church develop the life of its families through adult groups for discussion and learning, reflecting in faith on life-experience and providing broad education, e.g. health education and parent skills;

3. the local Church call on married couples to be the main source of practical care to those in need and for preparation of the approaching marriage;

4. the local Church pay particular attention to involving non-Catholic partners in prayer, worship and activity. They are part of the witness to God's love in marriage, and part of the richness of each parish.

The particular problems facing mixed marriages must be studied by the Church.

The parish is the seed bed of family life and the main support of parents as the first educators of their children;

5. the Church must discover ways of listening to the experience of married people, especially their understanding of the meaning and implications of a permanent sexual relationship. This experience is vital for a coherent and developed teaching on marriage which will speak to people of our day, and must be shared in an atmosphere of care and non-judgemental acceptance.

The Church must constantly educate society, including its own members, to respect the fundamental value of life, permanent marriage and parenthood. We propose that the bishops and the body of the Church speak out for those conditions within which family life can flourish:

(i)            Housing
adequate family housing, including the extended family, with appropriate mortgage facilities and development of housing associations.

(ii)          Finance

that tax and allowance systems give most support to the family especially for young mothers and young families.

(iii)         Employment

by encouraging flexi-time and other policies regarding job transfer to minimise damage to family life and to attend to the effect of unemployment on the family.

A national working party must study these issues (Note 1) and make recommendations to the bishops so that these questions become an accepted part of the church's teaching on marriage. The Church must cooperate here with other groups of similar convictions.


The church must call for as much public finance for service research and education in natural family planning as that given to artificial methods of birth-control. The Church must call for respect for pregnancy and parenthood in the Health Service so that people are not pressurised towards abortion and sterilization.


The Church must support and develop the use of the media to promote the positive aspect of married life through joint Christian ventures commissioning and sponsoring plays and productions in TV and radio. The experience of happy marriage and the holiness it brings must be explored with people of other faiths and presented powerfully to the public.


Educating a person for marriage begins.at birth and is continuous throughout life. It is primarily the responsibility of parents; their influence, and that of the local community, cannot be overstated.

A. Schools play an important part. We propose:

1.         that all Catholic schools, by their administration, timetable, staffing and discipline endeavour to create a caring Christian atmosphere;
2.         that schools develop open and respectful relationships with parents, involving them fully in the life of the school;
3.         that, with the help of married people and outside bodies, they positively prepare pupils for life and marriage (Note 2);
4.         that training for life-relationships should be based on the principle that the educator starts from whatever stage of development young people are at, and the relationships they are at present engaged in. These experiences must be reflected on together, in the light of faith, bearing in mind especially the child with unsettled family background;
5.         that Colleges of Education explicitly prepare teachers to explore with pupils their experience of relationships, to help them acquire necessary skills, and to find Christ in their daily lives;
6.         that this training for marriage and life be encouraged in non-Catholic school by our word and example (Note 3);
7.         that the parish supplement the work of schools, especially with weekends, days etc. designed to help young people in their understanding of relationships. The diocesan youth service should play an important role in this.

B. Preparing the engaged couple.

(1) Diocesan organisation.

(i) A diocesan co-ordinator (male or female) must be appointed to develop all aspects of the ministry to marriage and family.

(ii) Each deanery must establish a team for marriage and family life, and from these teams a diocesan committee should be formed to assist the diocesan co-ordinator and be part of a diocesan pastoral council.

(iii) The deanery team should be responsible for ensuring adequate preparation of all couples approaching marriage, calling on the many agencies at work in this field, and seeking to include married people and people of other religious groups.

(iv) The deanery team should include married people and wherever possible a person who has experienced marital breakdown  (Note 4).

 (v) The deanery team will organise training and support for those people willing to help prepare couples for marriage.

(vi) A national commission for marriage and family life should be established.

(2) Diocesan Policy
We propose that every diocese establish a policy which makes it clear that the firm expectation of the Church is that each couple approaching marriage shall:

(a) give four months' notice of their marriage (Note 5);
(b) agree to take part in preparation for marriage in a manner that is fitting to their needs (Note 6).

We propose that in certain exceptional cases, the local bishop will defer an intended marriage, and the local Catholic community will offer the couple the support or counselling they need, and continue that support for as long as necessary.

(3) The work of preparation.

It is not possible to create a single pack or course for engaged couples, as differences of class and culture are so important. Certain basic points can be made.

We propose that courses to prepare engaged couples should:
(i) be carried on, as far as possible, at local level, according to local conditions;
(ii) centre on developing the relationship between the couple, helping them to reflect on it in faith;
(iii) aim at putting the engaged couple in touch with married couples so that
(a) they can be encouraged by their example;
(b) they can receive continued support after marriage(Note7);
(iv) present to the engaged couple a clear and full understanding of the church’s developing teaching on responsible parenthood and family planning, and how it is to be applied in particular circumstances. Also the couple must be offered clear instructions on the various methods of family planning and their implications, so that they can eventually make a clear and informed choice (Notes 8 + 9).

The overall aim of preparation for marriage must be to inspire a young couple with a vision of the beauty of their calling and how by the quality of their lives they can bear witness in their local community to the love of God for all men.

With the exceptions noted all these proposals were fully supported by the topic group.

At the sector meeting, the recommendations were voted upon in blocks. Each block of recommendations was accepted unanimously with only one exception. (See Note 5.)

Note 1: At sector level a call was made for careful study of the role of women in family life and society today, as an important part of general education for marriage.
This received widespread approval.

Note 2: At sector level it was stated that education for personal relationships, and sex education should not be left to the discretion of the head-teacher, but should be known as part of the bishops' policy for all Catholic schools. This received full approval.

Note 3: At sector level a call was made that the bishops speak clearly to Education Authorities and the Department of Education and Science about the quality of education in personal relationships and sex education in state schools, especially as many values contrary to Christian principles are promoted, often in a hidden manner.

Note 4: At topic level another version of this was put forward viz.: the deanery team must include married people and may co-opt a person who has experienced marital breakdown.

At first there was an almost equal vote for this and the presented proposal but after further discussion, a substantial majority supported the proposal, i.e., 'the deanery team must include married people and wherever possible a person who has experienced marital breakdown'.

At sector level, in confusion over procedure, opinion seemed to be almost equally divided.

Note 5: At topic level, a small minority wished for these policy proposals to be compulsory.

At sector level there was a minority (about one third) in favour of a compulsory policy.

Note 6: At topic level there was a suggestion, supported by a small minority, that betrothal be explored as a setting for marriage preparation and for its celebration in the Church community.

Note 7: A comment has been received from four delegates about the need to give special attention to preparing couples where both partners are not believing Christians.

Note 8: At topic level a small minority opposed the call to give information on the various methods of birth control.  A stronger sentence was requested by six people as follows: ‘the couple should be made aware of the hazards of artificial methods of birth control, and how those artificial methods, by acting directly or by implication as possible abortifacients, destroy the sanctity of human life and are not acceptable to Catholic teaching’.

Note 9: A submission at topic level: ‘The Church must emphasise again that doctors, nurses and health visitors within its ranks give a clear lead in the field of natural family planning in the context of training for marriage and marriage itself’.  Dr Nicholson. Supported by approximately 12 people but with the assent of others in the topic group.


Patricius said...

I, too, think that Cardinal Nichols has got it wrong. No less a protagonist than Cardinal Kasper has already spoken interms of a battle:

Deacon Augustine said...

There is nothing wrong with laity being involved in the preparation for marriage, with the proviso that they are fully on board with the teaching of the Church - as any catechist should be. But it should be done in conjunction with the clergy, which often does not happen these days, alas.

"present to the engaged couple a clear and full understanding of the church’s developing teaching on responsible parenthood and family planning"

This sentence contains the weasel words around which battle lines are being drawn: "developing teaching". Nichols, Kasper et al believe that doctrine can develop in a manner such that it contradicts earlier doctrine. This is of course false.

Ttony said...

deacon Augustine: at Liverpool "developing" was a codeword for "changing". (This was pointed out by Clifford Longley, approvingly.)

Left-footer said...

Heartbreaking. Thank you, Tony, for yet another very valuable and well-informed post.

A very Happy Easter to you and yours. God bless!