7. A friend of mine said that in the first pre-marriage counseling session, a priest asks the couple if their primary reason for getting married was to have children, and if not, the priest will not marry them. Is this true?
A 1: The Church’s ongoing mission is to continue the mission and ministry of Jesus. As early as Matthew's Gospel, there is evidence that the Church was ministering forgiveness of sins as part of the mission it inherited from Jesus, cf. Mt 9:1-8. This ancient practice of forgiving sins has existed in the church throughout the centuries, though not the way we have come to know it today. The method or "rite" of celebrating this sacrament, of confessing and being forgiven, has varied at different times.
A 2: No one, not even the pope, can restrict the activity of God or limit God's gift of forgiveness. The presumption in your question is that if you confess your sins to God each night in prayer, then God forgives you. That being the case, do you still need to go to confession? The answer to that might be viewed from a couple of perspectives. First of all, when we speak to God in prayer, God does not speak back--at least not in the same way that we speak in person with one another. Therefore, it is easy for us to confess our sins "directly" and not be challenged to change. Let's face it. Most of us are pretty good at making excuses for ourselves. At the very least we tend to explain away our responsibility for certain actions. So, if we find ourselves committing sin, either an isolated or a repetitive experience, we might also find ourselves excusing our actions in the certain knowledge that God has forgiven us. When, however, we confess our sins in the sacrament of reconciliation, there is a person who can challenge us directly and personally. The hope and expectation is that through this experience of healing, challenge and forgiveness, we might alter our actions.
A second dimension to the idea of the sacrament is that all sin is essentially communal. There really are no private sins. Sin is not just an offense against God, to use older language. It also is an offense against others. The church is a community, specifically, a community that makes Jesus present in our world. Sin brings division into that community. While God may forgive when we speak directly in personal and private prayer, who speaks for the community? In the sacrament of reconciliation, the priest is the representative of the whole church. His offering of reconciliation and peace is done in the name of the church. When we confess our sins in the sacrament, we know that the community has spoken and offered healing, restoring us to the community of the church.
A 3: This is a further explanation of the last question.
While we as individuals can, and should, forgive those who offend us only God can forgive sin. This was one of the objections people raised against Jesus when he would tell people their sins were forgiven. Of course, we believe that Jesus is God, and therefore he had/has the right to forgive sin. Where do we find Jesus today, and how does his ministry of forgiveness continue in our world?
Jesus continues to live in his church, which, at his direction, carries on his ministry. When we confess our sins to the priest, he represents the community of the Church. There is a story in Matthew's Gospel about a paralytic who was brought to Jesus. Jesus forgave his sins, and then told the man to get up and walk. The story ends with the acknowledgment that the "church" was already forgiving sins in the name of Jesus as early as the 80's "they praised God for giving such authority to men" (Mt 9:8).
Clearly God can and does forgive in many ways, and not even the Church can regulate God's decision to forgive sins. Also, the form of confession commonly known today is not the only way the Church can forgive or has forgiven in the past. The point here is to emphasize the communal nature of sin, and the priest as the representative of the community. We cannot hurt God. The only way we can "offend" God, what we call sin, is by hurting or offending others. Sin is always communal. Therefore, in the life of the Church, Jesus has given the community the power to forgive.
A 4: No. Your boyfriend does not have to be confirmed in order for you to marry in the Catholic Church. I know that there are some priests who try to insist on a person being confirmed. I suppose they figure this is the last time they can control someone else's life. Or maybe they want to emphasize the importance of receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation. But in regard to marriage, they are wrong. There is no church law requiring a person to be confirmed before getting married.
A 5: If you should decide to marry each other, your boyfriend will need an annulment from his first marriage, even though it was not in the church. Assuming there are no extenuating circumstances, this is a fairly simple kind of annulment. Your parish priest should be able to assist you. Still it is necessary to raise this issue with the priest early in the marriage preparation process so that the annulment is secured and there are no complications.
A 6: If you want to be confirmed, you need to contact your local church and enter whatever kind of program they have for adult Confirmation. Depending on how much formal catechesis (education in the faith) you had growing up, your parish community may invite you enter a more formal RCIA program. Either way, a program will be in place that will enable you to prepare to receive and celebrate this important sacrament.
Q 7: A friend of mine said that in the first pre-marriage counseling session, a priest asks the couple if their primary reason for getting married was to have children, and if not, the priest will not marry them. Is this true?
A 7: No. Or at least, it should not be true. I know of no priest who asks that question. To begin with it is not the teaching of the Catholic Church. Traditionally the Catholic Church taught that there was a primary end of marriage—the procreation of children; and a secondary end—the mutual love and affection of the couple. With the Second Vatican Council, that concept was altered to acknowledge two equal ends of marriage, namely procreation and the mutual love and affection of the couple. In the pre-marriage questionnaire, a couple is asked if they intend to have children—not if having children is their primary reason for getting married. If a couple were to say they have no intention of ever having children, that would be contrary to Catholic Faith and that would be grounds for a priest refusing to witness the ceremony.
A 8: There is no problem with couples who are infertile. Over the course of a marriage, sterility naturally becomes a reality. Of course, most couples do not know they are infertile until after they get married.