Accord’s marriage preparation figures may be dropping, but this disguises an increase in its importance, writes Greg Daly
2018 saw a continuing year-on-year drop in numbers of people attending sacramental preparation courses offered by Accord, the Catholic marriage care service, but as usual it’s worth getting behind the headline figures.
On the face of things, of course, the situation looks disappointing. From a high of 17,108 people attending Accord’s marriage preparation course in 2016, 16,864 took part in 2017 with just 16,048 doing so last year. It might look, therefore, as though Catholic marriage preparation is in decline.
Against this, however, it’s important to acknowledge the degree to which 2016 was a peak year for marriage preparation by what was then an agency of the bishops’ conference.
2009-10 had seen sacramental preparation plummet against the background of the economic crash, as 2008’s 20,457 participants dropped to 16,632 and then 13,963. This was followed by a steady year-on-year recovery, rising to 17,108 in 2016.
Since then the number of couples availing of Accord marriage preparation courses have dipped, but it remains to be seen whether this will be a real trend or simply a blip. It is striking, after all, that even the current figures are higher than the 15,504 people who did the Accord course in 2014 and the 15,774 who did it in 2015.
It is, in any case, worth lining these figures up with broader marriage statistics across both Irish jurisdictions, starting with the fact that 2014 saw 13,072 Catholic marriage ceremonies in the Republic and 2,884 in the North, a total of 15,956.
The following year saw 14,486 Catholic weddings south of the border, with 2,883 in Northern Ireland, 17,369 in all, and 2016, a bumper year for Accord marriage preparation courses, saw just 12,140 Catholic ceremonies in the Republic while there were 2,748 in the North.
Catholic marriage ceremonies were barely half the total number of weddings in the Republic in 2017, clocking in at 11,219, or 50.9% of the total, such that the odds are that when the Central Statistics Office issues the 2018 figures in a few months time headlines will be ubiquitous about how for the first time ever Catholic weddings will be make up less than half the total of marriage ceremonies in Ireland.
In addition to that 11,219, of course, there were 2,635 Catholic marriage ceremonies in the North, giving a total of 13,854.
That’s the context in which the Accord figures need obvious comparisons, with an especially interesting trend emerging:
-15,504 people did Accord courses in 2014, a year when Ireland saw 31,912 people getting married in 15,956 Catholic ceremonies across the island of Ireland. That year, 48.5% of all couples having Catholic marriages in Ireland underwent Accord preparation.
-15,774 people did Accord courses in 2015, when the island of Ireland saw 34,738 people getting married in 17,369 Catholic weddings. This meant a slight drop to 45.4% in the number of couples having Catholic marriages doing Accord courses.
-17,108 people did Accord courses in 2016, when there were just 29,776 people marrying in 14,888 Catholic marriage ceremonies across both jurisdictions. Not merely was this a bumper year for Accord in absolute terms, but it was a year that saw the proportion of couples having Catholic marriages that did Accord courses first soaring to 57.5%.
-16,864 people did Accord courses in 2017, when 27,708 people married in 13,854 Catholic weddings on both sides of the border. The proportion of couples doing Accord preparation before Catholic marriages continued to rise to 60.9%.
In the absence of statistical data on 2018 from the Central Statistics Office or the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, it’s difficult to drill down on the 2018 Accord figures, but nobody should be surprised if while the number of Catholic marriage ceremonies continued to drop, the percentage of such ceremonies preceded by Accord courses continued to rise.
Accord is not the only game in town when it comes to Catholic marriage preparation – other courses are run by, for instance, the Nazareth Family Institute or Together – but it is quite clearly the ‘big beast’ in this area, and its relative importance seems to be growing.
It is possible, of course, that the growing relative importance of Accord courses might reflect a greater degree of ‘intentionality’ by Catholics getting married, but it would be risky to make such a claim without a full breakdown of what sorts of official sacramental preparation all Catholics getting married in Ireland undergo.
Making such a claim seriously would also require Accord and other agencies to collect statistical data on the extent to which participants in Accord courses accept Catholic teaching and partake in Catholic worship.
It is worth noting, after all, that the demographics most likely to marry in Ireland in any given year tend to be demographics in which religious belief and practice are statistically low, by Irish standards if not by international ones.
Is it the case, then that many of those doing Accord courses are doing so simply to ‘get the cert’, so they can get married? Surely this must be the case, but rather than being indignant about this, perhaps it would be better if the Church saw this as an opportunity.
After all, just as Our Lord at least once said “whoever is not against us is for us”, so it should be accepted that even those who show a semblance of interest in the Faith are not willing to reject it altogether, and want to maintain some link.
This gives the Church a chance to reach out, to evangelise to couples who might have lost interest or belief, and to invite people back into a sacramental life.
Doing this, of course, might require that marriage preparation courses be developed further. While those who do the courses tend to be hugely impressed by the obviously ‘human’ aspects of the preparation, and to recognise that it doesn’t pretend to answer every problem but to point people towards tools, approaches, and ways of thinking that will help them in married life, there is probably scope for developing the more uniquely Catholic aspects of marriage preparation.
Bulking up their theological content would seem one obvious step in the right direction; it is, after all, a little odd that the amount of preparation for marriage as a Sacrament can be negligible compared to the kind of preparation undergone for Communion and Confirmation, and one wonders how many Catholics realise that the Church sees Christian matrimony as a path to sanctification.
Building also on such areas as natural family planning would be an obvious step too, even if just to show people that talk of ‘Vatican roulette’ is far off modern scientific methods in this area, and that Pope Francis isn’t talking nonsense when he sings the praises of St Paul VI for his “prophetic” Humanae Vitae.
One way or another, Accord is set to play an increasingly important role in the life of Irish Catholics.