The Catholic quiz for marriage compatibility.

The Catholic quiz for marriage compatibility.

The Catholic quiz for marriage compatibility.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Nov. 17 2003 12:26 PM

Pope Quiz

Can the Catholic Church help you find a suitable mate?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Terry and Michaela, devout Catholic sweethearts in Omaha, Neb., had already mailed wedding invitations when they took the marriage quiz required by their parish church. Known by the acronym FOCCUS (Facilitating Open Couple Communication Understanding and Study) the questionnaire asked about the couples' attitudes toward topics like money, sex, and gender roles. The results, when they came back, were shocking. In clear percentages, the printout showed a mass of clashing responses to every question about money. Who would earn it? (Both were unemployed.) Who would manage it? Appalled at their conflicting answers, the couple called the wedding off.

It might seem strange that the church, which historically encouraged couples to marry to prevent premarital sex, now urges them to take a critical look at their prospective union. Based on answers from the quiz, some priests and lay counselors actively discourage some couples from marrying. Yet FOCCUS is not a religious tool; its questions are stripped of any judgment, and its facilitators are instructed not to use it as a forum to preach or punish. (Though often popularly referred to as a quiz, FOCCUS is actually an "inventory''—a set of questions intended to identify a couple's attitudes.) "The goal," says Dr. Barbara Markey, its creator, "is to confront couples with issues they might not have thought about before." That no one in the church's leadership has questioned her premise shows how much Catholicism's view of marriage has evolved.

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Despite its sometimes provocative content, the quiz itself looks like any standardized test. Using a No. 2 pencil, each respondentscribbles in a bubble marked "Agree," "Disagree," or "Uncertain" for 156 questions that fall under 19 categories. These include financial issues, sexuality issues, and lifestyle expectations. The results, scored by computer, show the couple's percentage of coinciding attitudes. Taken six months or more before the wedding date, FOCCUS prompts anywhere from 10 percent to 25 percent of its respondents to postpone or even scrap their weddings.

The quiz's predictions appear to be accurate: According to a 1995 study (by an independent research group at Purdue University), FOCCUS was 80 percent correct at predicting couples' satisfaction by their five-year anniversary. In fact, it has proven so successful at launching happy marriages—and thwarting train wrecks—that it has been adopted by more than two-thirds of the nation's dioceses. What's more, it's now taken by more non-Catholics than Catholics. Of the three major pre- marriage questionnaires, FOCCUS is the most widely used, offered by more than 500 Protestant churches as well as non-Christian and secular counselors.

The adoption of FOCCUS by non-Catholics is one indicator of how far the test veers from Catholic tradition. In crisp, affectless prose, FOCCUS acknowledges a range of behaviors the church itselfrejects:artificial birth control, premarital sex, homosexual activity. During the discussion phase, facilitators give special attention to red-flag issues such as drug use. For couples rating a seriously bad score, the priest or counselor might urge professional help. Or he might gently advise calling the wedding off, a suggestion that would have been unheard of a few decades ago.

From the second century until the mid-1960s, the Catholic model of marriage rested on one value: procreation. It was only the Second Vatican Council of 1965 that, amid much controversy, reimagined marriage as "an intimate partnership of life and love." It took until 1983 for this definition to enter canon law, the written code governing the workings of the church. For the first time in church history, successful marriage—once defined by numerous offspring—was equally defined by the quality of the relationship. Meanwhile, in the late 1960s, when the first no-fault divorce laws appeared, Catholics started to divorce at the same rate as non-Catholics. Watching thousands of parishioners divorce or plead for annulments, priests and other Catholic lay counselors searched for realistic ways to help marriages work.

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Since World War II, the church had been offering a kind of groupcounseling known as pre-Cana conferences (named for the biblical wedding). These efforts ranged from awkward chats with theparish priest about natural birth control to elaborate retreats in which a team of clergy, financial specialists, mental health advisers, and long-married couples addressed the conundrums newlyweds might face. These approaches, while well-intentioned, lacked specificity.       

In the 1980s, Catholic counselors tried out a questionnaire created by two psychologists and two clergymen. This, too, was flawed: Its questions and scales were not based on clinical research about relationships.It also failed to explore stressors such as two-career marriages and the impact of past family problems. So, in 1985, Dr. Markey, an enterprising psychologist at the Center for Family and Marriage in Omaha, Neb., (and a nun), devised with colleagues a more thoroughquestionnaire. Clinically tested, the new quiz explored the couple's individual backgrounds, relationship skills, and "bonders" such as children and finances. The final product, with a few tweaks, is still in use today.

In the careful, neutral wording of psychotherapy, FOCCUS poses questions Catholics may have only explored in the confines of confession. Question 13, for example: "We have decided on the family planning method we will use." (That the method might be artificial—stillbanned by the church—goes without comment.) Question 65 explores the possibility of forgoing parenthood: "My future spouse and I have agreed that we will not have children." And with exquisite tact, Question 75 inquires whether "Pregnancy is part of our lives at this time." But the question that catches many respondents off-guardis Question 95. "I am concerned,'' it states, "that homosexual feelings or behaviors could have a negative effect on our marital relationship.''      

Not surprisingly, some Catholics disapprove of the quiz's judgment-free approach. "It's a trite, stupid instrument," says Father Jerry Pokorsky, an Arlington, Va., priest who has worked extensively in marriage preparation. In his own practice, Pokorsky forcefully reminds couples of church teachings banning homosexual acts, artificial contraception, and premarital sex. But referring to the national level, where other priests may not do the same, Pokorsky says, "I think there's great danger associated with FOCCUS. It's not value-free. It coincides with cultural prejudices."

Perhaps. Still, FOCCUS proponents say there's little chance couples will misinterpret major issues, such as artificialbirth control, toward which church opposition remains firm. It's also doubtful that FOCCUS users could themselves change official church teaching. The pope and bishops generally pick the doctrinal issues that they want to champion and aren't much affected by grassroots movements or opinion.

Yet even fans of FOCCUS agree it doesn't guarantee marital bliss. For one thing, couples inventories only spot potential conflicts; they don't solve them. According to some experts, "learnable relationship skills," such as the ability to communicate or argue effectively, are what determine if a marriage will survive.

For the most part, however, Catholic and secular counselors call FOCCUS a breakthrough. At Rutgers University's National Marriage Project, a secular policy think tank, director David Popenoe praises couples inventories in general for preventing bad marriages and for getting couples accustomed to soliciting outside help. Terry and Michaela—they of the broken Nebraska engagement—were just grateful FOCCUS kept them from marrying too quickly. The year after they called their wedding off, they landed jobs and hashed out their financial roles. Then they took their vows. They've been married for 10 years now.