The permanency of marriage is being undermined – Cardinal Nichols should put the Church's preparation of couples at the centre of his mission

The Today programme on Radio 4 yesterday filled me with gloom. It was on the subject of pre-nuptial agreements and listening to it I felt in my bones that this flinty-faced, mercenary approach to marriage will be extended over here like an ill wind blowing across the Atlantic. In the US, pre-nuptial agreements have the force of law; over here it seems they don’t, yet; but this is likely to change. Although on the radio one chap gamely tried to defend marriage “for better or worse”, pointing out that if you hit a “worse” patch in your relationship the thought of a get-out clause would make it easier to contemplate divorce rather than reconciliation, I had the sinking feeling that he was arguing on the wrong side of contemporary history.

First, the definition of marriage has been changed fundamentally, so that it is no longer a union of a man and a woman. Now it is no longer for life, either; it will become a mere financial and legal contract, designed to save legal fees further down the line when the rough patch will be smoothly translated into permanent blight. It is very depressing. You might think it will only affect couples with disposable money. But actually it will affect everyone, oligarchs or not, just as same-sex marriage has, because the whole concept of permanency in marriage will have been undermined.

Then I read an article on the Catholic Spiritual Direction blog, entitled “How Do The Two Become One?” and was reminded that whatever men may do to meddle with the purely human institution of marriage, it is forever a noble sacrament in Catholic teaching. This changes everything. The article was by Greg and Julie Alexander who run an apostolate dedicated to “proclaiming the beauty, goodness and truth of God’s plan for marriage”. They have written a book, Marriage 911: How God saved our marriage (and He can save yours too), published by Servant Books. It sounds as if it’s the last manual that divorce court lawyers want to know about.

The Alexanders are honest about the tribulation in their own marriage. “For many years, we were lost,” they say, and making choices “that were causing chaos in our home”. The way they write about these lost years, it suggests they tried to live a marriage without God, without self-sacrifice, reliant only on themselves: “Our passions became disordered and we were left feeling empty and alone in the same bed.” It was only when they admitted they had closed themselves to grace, their marriage was an empty shell and they had hit “rock bottom” that they were able to turn from their “brokenness and misery” and thus open themselves to God’s plan for them.

Slowly their marriage was transformed. With God at the centre of their relationship they began to experience “the great joy and beauty” that God intended. Now in their apostolate they are reaching out to other couples whose marriages are in difficulties and telling them that “the gift God gives them comes as a complete package, and they must learn to love the person as they really are, not what they hope they will be.” The Alexanders provide an inspiring riposte to the pre-nuptial mentality that calculates how to tidy up the loose ends when a relationship comes to an end: “When we seek to emulate the love of Christ for His Church in our homes we will find great peace and joy, that which the world can never give. It is in living self-sacrificial lives of service, allowing God to guide our thoughts, words and actions that couples will attain the intimacy they are seeking and truly become one flesh.”

Recently Madeleine Teahan, associate editor of the Herald, wrote an article asking why marriage preparation was so brief and unsatisfactory compared with the long and comprehensive preparation necessary to become a priest or religious. It’s a very pertinent, indeed urgent question. By far the most important decision of most people’s lives generally receives minimal guidance or assistance from the Church. Cardinal Vincent Nichols should put proper marriage preparation at the centre of his evangelical mission in Westminster.