It's no secret that the social institution of marriage is in a sorry state these days. Even sacramental marriage is suffering as evidenced by the large numbers of declarations of nullity granted by diocesan marriage tribunals in this country. I was once told by a tribunal administrator that American culture is dysfunctional with respect to marriage.
The Catholic Church has attempted to counter this trend by requiring those wishing to be married to participate in six-month marriage preparation programs and weekend retreats for engaged couples. In most cases, I think, these are viewed by engaged couples as hoops that they have to jump through in order to have their wedding presided over by a priest in their parish church. Some, no doubt, decide that they don't want to jump through the hoops and end up getting married out of the Church. For baptized Catholics, who are bound by Canon Law, the resulting union in invalid due to lack of form.
What are we to do about the marriage crisis in our Church?
The Archdiocese of Phoenix has decided that the current marriage requirements aren't rigorous enough. Rather than six months of preparation, Phoenix requires nine. In addition, all engaged couples will be required to complete a full course of instruction in Natural Family Planning. I applaud the intention and goals of these measures, but I can't help but think that the unintended consequence will be an increase in marriages that lack proper form because the couples decided the hoops are too onerous.
At the other end of the spectrum is a recent column by Fr. Peter Daly. His pastoral approach seems to be based on a pastoral imperative to deny the sacraments to no one. I might be reading too much into what he has written, but I believe that he is suggesting that if a couple wishes to be married in the church, but does not want to comply with all of the pre-requisites for a church marriage, the marriage ceremony should be performed anyway. God will work out the validity and the sacramentality. The problem here, however, is that the couple that refuses to submit to the disciplines of the Church at the time of the marriage probably does not possess the capacity to give consent to enter into marriage, as understood by the Church, at the time that the vows are exchanged. In other words, their union is no more a valid marriage than is that of the couple married outside of the Church, except that they have an ecclesiastical stamp of approval that reinforces an attitude that the Church has no role to play in how they conduct their personal lives.
There has to be a proper balance somewhere. Catechesis on marriage is incredibly important, but it has to be done well before a couple becomes engaged. Ideally, young adults should know what the Church teaches about marriage before they even start dating. Once they make the decision to wed, it's not unreasonable to ask them to undergo additional specific catechesis. There should, however, always be some room for pastoral prudence. Some couples approach marriage with a better spiritual formation, and others have legitimate reasons for not being able to fulfill all of the usual conditions. That's why Canon Law allows provisions for bishops to relax the requirements of certain canons.
It's a mistake, however, to allow the laws of the Church regarding marriage to be held hostage by engage couples. Pretending the laws don't exist solely to keep titular Catholics from leaving the Church does nothing to strengthen the Body of Christ. The Church teaches with authority. To pretend otherwise is to undermine that very authority.