Turning to marriage’s experts for lived marriage expertise

Turning to marriage’s experts for lived marriage expertise Cardinal Kevin Farrell
Criticism of Cardinal Kevin Farrell is misplaced, writes Greg Daly


“Priests do not have experience to prepare people for marriage, says Vatican Cardinal,” read a headline in the Irish Times early last week. Summing up and quoting some key points in an interview with Cardinal Kevin Farrell in the Irish bishops’ Intercom magazine, the article was quickly picked up by the New York deacon – previously an award-winning journalist with CBC – Rev. Greg Kandra, and has since prompted incendiary debate across the American Catholic internet.

Unfortunately, while some articles have at least tried to draw on the full range of quotations excerpted in the Irish Times piece, others have focused sharply on a couple of lines from the article, and presented them for criticism as though there had been no immediate or general context to them.

Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, said “priests are not the best people to train others for marriage”, they reported, continuing: “They have no credibility; they have never lived the experience; they may know moral theology, dogmatic theology in theory, but to go from there to putting it into practice every day….they don’t have the experience.”

Cue outrage, demands for clarity, indignation on the part of and on behalf of clergy, and eventually a follow-up Irish Times piece about a Dublin-based priest calling for the cardinal’s resignation. Disappointingly, it seems that none of the journalists who’ve covered this story from abroad managed to track down the original interview, such that the vast amount of commentary on this has been based on comments shorn of any context.


The interview, in the July/August issue of Intercom is a lengthy one, taking up four pages in the magazine. While attention has focused on just 48 words spoken by the cardinal, the piece as a whole runs to more than 3,000 words, with the first question relating to how there can be tendencies in the Church to see lay people as somehow ‘less’ than clergy or to dislike the term ‘laity’ as though it has connotations of inferiority.

Acknowledging that historically the laity often did play a second-class role in the Church, and adding that “unfortunately, in some countries, they still do”, Cardinal Farrell explained that the role of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life is to give prominence to laity, who he called “the most important people in the Church”.

Although originally hailing from Drimnagh in Dublin, the cardinal clarified that he wasn’t speaking either of Ireland, as he hadn’t lived here since the 1960s, nor of the US, which he identified as a country where laity play vital roles in running the Church.

“The basis of all human life is the family, but in some countries the Church is so clerical,” he said in contrast. “I travelled to a country to speak about Amoris Laetitia recently, and they organised a meeting of about six or seven hundred people. Eighty per cent of them were priests.”

Summarising that talk, he continued: “My theme is that priests are not the best people to train others for marriage. They have no credibility; they have never lived the experience; they may know moral theology, dogmatic theology in theory, but to go from there to putting it into practice every day…they don’t have that experience.”

The first thing to note here is, of course, that the cardinal had condensed a full-length talk there into two sentences: there was obviously much more to it than that tiny summary, and anyone enraged on the basis of two lines should take a look at what the Catechism sections 2477 to 2479 says about rash judgement, detraction, and our duty to try to interpret others’ words in a favourable way.

More broadly, this is an idea the cardinal has touched on before, of course, notably when speaking at Down and Connor’s Faith and Life Convention last September. Towards the end of his keynote address on Amoris Laetitia he said: “I would request that you not have all the priests always doing marriage preparation.  They have no credibility when it comes to living marriage – the reality of marriage.  They may know the principles. They may know the values.  They may speak to you of philosophy, of theology. But the reality of everyday…?”

Stressing the danger marriage faces in the modern world and the need for the Church – meaning committed Catholics across the world, not simply clerics and religious – to fight for it, the cardinal continued that experienced and properly trained married couples would be key to this. “Every parish should have couples who are prepared – and I underline the word ‘prepared’ – to teach and guide and accompany other married couples along the way of life,” he added.

It should be an utterly unremarkable thing to say that as a general rule the people who know marriage best are married people, just as it should be utterly unremarkable to say that people are more likely to come across as authoritative and plausible when talking about things they have experienced than about things they have not personally lived through.

That’s what ‘credibility’ means, after all. It’s a subjective quality, the quality of being believable, dependent not on the truth or wisdom of what a speaker says, but on whether a listener finds that speaker plausible. The medievals put it well when they said quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis reciptur, roughly translating as “what people hear depends on who is doing the hearing”.

That’s not to say for one minute that priests don’t have valuable things to contribute to marriage preparation – that would amount to a dismissal of Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia, after all, along with decades of reflections and teachings by St John Paul – let alone that it’s not their responsibility to ensure that couples have been prepared for marriage.

No, it’s merely to say that it generally doesn’t make sense for priests to do the totality of marriage preparation and specifically that it doesn’t make sense for priests to “train” couples for marriage; that’s a peculiar word, after all, one that points to the nitty-gritty day-to-day experience of married life, an area where most priests would admit to knowing less about as a lived reality than would any number of married couples.

There are reasons, after all, why Accord and other marriage preparation courses in Ireland and elsewhere tend to be run by married people. They can speak from their own lived experience, as well as from observation, study, and reflection.

It’s worth thinking of it another way: while married and other lay people might be able to play vital roles in clerical formation, I don’t think anyone would seriously argue that they would be the best people to train clergy. No matter how much they’d read or how many priests that had talked to, their lack of personal experience of priestly life would leave them without credibility in the eyes of their pupils.

Stressing that faithful married Catholic couples are, as a general rule, the Church’s experts on marriage, and asking them to share that expertise seems to be the obvious thing to do. It’s extraordinary that Cardinal Farrell should be criticised for saying so.

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