This is Matt: We here at CMR have been huge fans of Erin Manning who blogs over at And Sometimes Tea. And so we wanted to have Erin write over here once a week for the next month as a guest blogger. I think CMR could use some female perspective – other than Patrick’s. So enjoy Erin’s post. Heeeeeeerrrre’s Erin!!!!!!!

Last week, I read that the Diocese of Phoenix had decided to strengthen their marriage preparation requirements. Instead of six months of mostly lay led marriage preparation classes, the diocese now requires nine, to include mandatory NFP classes and some basics about Catholic teaching regarding marriage, including Catholic opposition to divorce, contraception, and homosexual “marriage.”

Yesterday I read about (and wrote about) the Polish priest who installed a fingerprint reader to make it easier to track confirmation candidates’ Mass attendance. If the children attend 200 Masses in three years, they can skip an otherwise mandatory exam.

What do these two very different stories, from two very different places in the world, have in common? One specific problem, a problem I like to call “Sacramental Gatekeeping.”

In one sense, I can understand the actions of both the Phoenix Diocese and the Polish priest. In the first instance, it can’t be denied that a scandalously large number of people get married in the Catholic Church in America without being regular practitioners of the Catholic faith, without truly understanding what the Church believes about marriage or requires of those who enter this vocation, without being in any sense ready to take on this new way of living, this sacramental union with another person and, with God’s blessing, with the children they should be hoping to have together. In the second instance, I think the priest is trying in an ingenious way to remove an onerous requirement for confirmation–an exam–and giving those children who are serious enough about their faith to come to Mass a way to avoid having to take a test on their way to this sacrament.

But unfortunately, both solutions to the problems are quite likely to end up being anything but. A couple wishing to marry in the Phoenix Diocese isn’t going to undo what might be a couple of decades of religious indifference or bad catechesis with a whopping total of three extra months of preparation, especially when a lot of that preparation is likely to involve being in a classroom with dozens of other couples who are all filling out worksheets with titles like “Relationship tools–what are your expectations of marriage?” or “Money–who is in charge?” A simple Google search of the Pre-Cana program (a standard marriage preparation class for Catholics) shows glowing reviews by couples who attended–and who lived together before marriage and had no idea of separating before the wedding, and who weren’t asked to, or who lied and said they had separate addresses, etc.

And though I’m sympathetic to the Polish priest, it’s true that a savvy child could easily scan his or her fingerprints and then simply leave the church building or hang out in the back. I have no idea how likely a Polish Catholic child is to try such a thing, but it’s only too likely that some American children, faced with a similar system, would learn how to game it.

So what ends up happening is this: the philosophy of Sacramental Gatekeeping keeps thinking that less-serious Catholics can be brought to a greater understanding and appreciation for the sacraments they seek if they have to attend more classes (and pay more class fees), take more tests, prove more attendance, add more “service hours,” and otherwise do more and more things that really have very little to do with the sacraments at all as “minimum requirements” for receiving these sacraments. And the less-serious Catholics keep figuring out ways to get around the increasingly burdensome requirements–while those Catholics who do take their faith seriously, who are at Mass every Sunday and Holy Day (and sometimes quite a few weekdays as well), who have been active in their parishes since their Baptisms (or at least since they left the Cry Room) end up being told “You wish to receive a sacrament, or have your child receive one? Great! Here are six more hoops through which you must jump…”

And the hoops are getting to be insane.

Take baptism, for instance. How many dioceses or parishes now require that both parents must take a class for each child, that they may not attend the class until after the baby is born, and that they cannot bring the baby to the class with them? This is almost like saying, “Hey, if you are the practicing Catholic parents of four or five young children and you breastfeed your baby, we’re going to make it really really hard for you to get baby number six baptized until he or she is weaned–but then again, we don’t allow baptisms during Lent, so you’re going to have to wait at least that long anyway. Aren’t you excited?”

Or take first penance and first Holy Communion. How many dioceses or parishes are now requiring several years of parish-based religious education plus special sacramental preparation classes in addition to some special sessions like all-day retreats which both parents and the child must attend? If your child is paying tuition at a diocesan school, some of these requirements sometimes (but not always) evaporate–but if you are homeschooling your child using the exact same religious education textbooks your diocese uses, chances are you’re still going to be required to enroll your children in the parish program. Here, the Powers That Be are saying, “We know you consider yourself a Catholic school-at-home. We think the education you are giving your children is the exact equivalent of the religious education of a child whose parents never attend Mass and who is not receiving any school-based religious instruction at all. Isn’t that nice of us?”

Or take confirmation. I could write a whole post on this one; isn’t it crazy that one of the Sacraments of Initiation has been postponed to the age of sixteen in so many dioceses around the country? Why do we wait so long before our children receive the Holy Spirit? The most honest reason I’ve heard comes from weary parish religious-ed teachers who say sadly, “If we confirmed kids any earlier, they’d stop coming to church much younger than they already do.”

But because confirmation has become a kind of “Rite of Telling Our Kids They’re Now Spiritually Mature Adults Whether They Are Or Not,” the requirements have spun out of control. I’ve heard from lots of people whose children were required to take at least two years of special classes above and beyond normal religious education, to log huge numbers of “service hours” doing projects in the parish and in the community–but only so many hours in each of several specific categories, because the child who has been volunteering at the parish for years has to branch out and go feed the homeless or it doesn’t “count,” so to speak–and even, perhaps most disturbingly, to go on overnight co-ed confirmation retreats, where various topics are discussed, but not, certainly, the imprudence of spending the night in close proximity to dozens of teenage members of the opposite sex.

And now marriage will be the latest sacrament to be adorned with extra hoops for the good Catholic young adults to jump through. Setting aside the fact that many excellent Catholic teachers over the years have warned against lengthy engagements, there is the problem that the young man and woman from strong Catholic backgrounds who have been going to Mass and frequenting confession throughout their youths and young adulthoods, who could practically teach a class themselves on what the Church teaches about marriage, who are eager to begin their lives together and to have children with God’s blessing, and who take seriously all that the Church expects and requires of them as mature adults, will have to agree to a nine-months’ engagement, dozens of classes at least some of which may be of dubious value, and whatever else in the way of hoops may be laid out in front of them during the nine-months’ “marriage preparation process.”

Some who are reading this will no doubt object: “But there are no such young couples! The vast majority of the Catholic couples getting married in the Church are weak in their faith, irregular in their attendance, indifferent to the Church’s teachings, and untrustworthy! It’s unrealistic to expect young Catholics to know their faith and actually plan to live it!”

To the extent that this is true, it is not too much of an exaggeration to call it the central problem facing the Church today. Unfortunately, it is a problem likely to be exacerbated, rather than helped, by Sacramental Gatekeeping.