For Better or For Worse

Previous Months' Topics

Tony and Cathy Witczak are leaders in Worldwide Marriage Encounter, a Catholic program that helps couples improve and enhance their marriages (www.wwme.org), which is marking 40 years of service to the Church. They spoke to Fathers for Good on the topic of “For Better or for Worse.”


 

Finding Joy in the Best and the Worst

 
Richard McCord 

Richard McCord, married for 32 years, is executive director of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C. He spoke to Fathers for Good about “for better or for worse.”

Fathers for Good: In terms of Catholic marriage, what does “for better or for worse” mean and how should couples prepare?

McCord: As everyone knows, this phrase is contained in the vows that a bride and groom exchange on their wedding day. It is a concrete way of promising how -- along with other contrasting words like richer and poorer -- they are going to be faithful to each other for a lifetime no matter what comes along. It’s also a way of expressing the hope that God will strengthen and sustain them to deal with whatever lies ahead.

Not surprisingly, most couples (especially on their wedding day) cannot imagine that words like “poorer” and “worse” will ever describe their life together. But this doesn’t mean that couples cannot or should not prepare for the times in a marriage that are worse rather than better. How?

What we are talking about is the two-fold task of building and sustaining commitment. Commitment can be described as the glue that holds a marriage together in good times and bad.

Essential to building marital commitment is acquiring a deep understanding of marriage and a compelling image or vision of it that will cause a couple to value their relationship so much that they will not let it slip away. For Catholic Christians this understanding of marriage is a sacramental one and the image offered to them is the unbreakable union that Christ has with his Church. Because Christ is faithful and loving to the end, we who share his life through Baptism and the other sacraments can also be faithful and loving to the end.

Sustaining marital commitment over a lifetime involves acquiring of skills that will help us to practice the Christian virtues that are so important in marriage. For example, improving our communication and developing the ability to manage conflict are two behaviors that can increase in us the virtue of patience. And it’s this virtue among others that will help us to be faithful to our marriage vows in times “for better or for worse.”

FFG: When a couple experiences “for worse” in their marriage, what resources does the Catholic Church have to get them through?

McCord: The fundamental resource is offered by Christ through the Church. This is the grace of the Sacrament of Matrimony itself. Grace is a way of describing the new relationship that a husband and wife have in Christ and with Christ by reason of the sacrament they receive.

What effect does the grace of marriage have on the spouses? Here’s how the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it. “Christ dwells with them, gives them strength to take up their crosses and so follow him, to rise again after they have fallen, to forgive one another, to bear one another’s burdens, to ‘be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,’ and to love one another with supernatural, tender, and fruitful love” (#1642).

God’s grace isn’t magic so it’s very important to cooperate with it by taking steps to change the “worse” conditions in our marriage. In this regard, the Church offers pastoral counseling, educational and support programs, mentoring relationships, married couples’ retreats and a variety of other ministries. One of these is the Retrouvaille (“Rediscovery”) ministry for troubled marriages (www.retrouvaille.org ).

Recently, Pope Benedict XVI described this couple-to-couple ministry as a rope offered to couples to avoid being totally lost and to begin climbing the hill again. He called those working in the ministry the “guardians of a greater hope for the couples who have lost it.”

FFG: What can a couple do to improve their marriage relationship?

McCord: Personally, my wife and I have been empty-nesters for several years. It’s in this season or phase of a marriage that the experience of spousal “friendship” (or the absence of it) becomes very significant.

Elsewhere on the Fathers for Good website, there is an interview in which spousal friendship is identified as “indispensable” to a happy marriage. Why? Because “this foundation of friendship remains firm when the emotions and passions of eros (erotic love) wax and wane.” Moreover, we know that most divorces occur not because of a huge conflict between the spouses but because they simply reach a point where they no longer have the energy to stay connected. In other words, there is no desire for an abiding friendship.

Also on this website you can see a few clips from a public service campaign that the U.S. bishops are currently running. The campaign asks “what have you done for your marriage today?” You can also see clips on the bishops’ website, www.foryourmarriage.org.

The campaign interviews ordinary people on the street -- many of whom are men. I’ve been very touched by their responses. They’re practical, loving, and sometimes funny in a very authentic way. I particularly remember the older man who said “I read the newspaper to my wife today.” Was his wife blind or sick or impaired in some other way? We don’t know. We only know that he was still being attentive to his wife, his “soul-friend” of many years, and wanting to keep their marriage alive.

FFG: Tell us about the National Pastoral Initiative for Marriage and the For Your Marriage website.

McCord: The U.S. bishops think that marriage is being challenged and called into question in so many ways these days. No one can simply take it for granted!

So a few years ago they began a National Pastoral Initiative for Marriage in order to call attention to the meaning and value of marriage as both a natural institution and a Christian sacrament. Already the Pastoral Initiative has produced many materials intended to help our understanding of the current state of marriage by appealing to Church teaching, the experience of married couples, social science research and other resources. You can see all these materials on www.usccb.org/laity/marriage/npim .

The For Your Marriage website (www.foryourmarriage.org) is a big part of the Pastoral Initiative. This website is designed to offer help to engaged and married couples in the form of information, interactive features, encouragement, referral to programs and resources. It’s a lot like the Fathers for Good website. Our site has been operational for a year. We’re always making improvements to it. It has something on nearly any aspect of marriage you could imagine, including a link to the marriage and family offices of most dioceses in the U.S.

Currently we are working on some resources that a parish staff might use to become a “marriage-building” parish. Also, in late 2009 the U.S. bishops are planning to issue a pastoral letter that will focus on the foundations of our teaching about marriage.