Frontlines

A marriage cult grows in the church

André McNicoll May 7 1979
Frontlines

A marriage cult grows in the church

André McNicoll May 7 1979

A marriage cult grows in the church

Frontlines

CLOSEUP

André McNicoll

In the drab basement of Notre Dame de Lourdes Church in Cyrville, outside Ottawa, an “information session” is under way to acquaint 25 attentive couples with the marital bliss that awaits them through Marriage Encounter. The LaRivières introduce themselves: “My name is Nicolas and this is my wife Jeanette.” “My name is Jeanette and this is my husband Nicolas.” Other couples follow the hosts and drone the same few words until Charles Picot, a young priest sitting in the middle of the flock, deviates slightly to intone, “My spouse is the church.” Song sheets have been distributed beforehand and all rise and sing.

Twenty-five more couples, one more priest, in their first stages of involvement with Marriage Encounter, a phenomenally successful and increasingly controversial movement flourishing within the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed the church, apparently dormant during these past 20 years that have seen the appearance of more than 1,000 cults in North America, seems to have rediscovered the unflattering reality of human gullibility and, through Marriage Encounter, is paying homage to the latest indoctrination techniques, to say nothing of

good old-fashioned pyramid selling.

If these couples in the basement choose to participate, they will pay $180 a pair to be “encountered”; to reaffirm their marriage (in a priest’s or nun’s case, marriage to the church) through an intense weekend of close-contact communications known as the “blessed 44 hours.” In Canada, in less than five years, more than 80,000 couples have been encountered and the waiting list now stands at 30,000. In the United States, a staggering 600,000 have gone through the experience. But it’s among French Canadians that ME has attained something of a cult status.

Every weekend over 2,000 francophone couples and another 500 anglophone pairs check into hotels and motels early Friday evening for their “blessed 44 hours.” Run by three “team couples” and a priest, the weekend program consists of 14 lectures divided into four phases: two on “I”; two on “Us”; six on “Us and God”; and four on “Us, God and the World.” The team couples, always holding hands or showing some other sign of affection, illustrate each theme with examples from their own lives. One of the keys to the success of the weekend, and to maintaining the couples’ interest for a long time after, is a communication technique known as the “10-10.” Following each lecture, and

in theory for every day thereafter, the spouses spend 10 minutes writing each other a love letter and another 10 minutes discussing their reaction to the contents. The accent is always on feelings, on emotion; by the time a special mass is celebrated on Sunday afternoon to culminate the weekend, many of the participants are in tears of ecstasy.

Which is part of the problem with the entire Marriage Encounter concept, according to a Toronto psychiatrist and cult expert Andrew Malcolm, author of The Tyranny of the Group. “People are gullible and naïve,” he says. “It’s easy to lull people into believing that their happiness depends on a magical solution, something outside of themselves.” Encountered couples seem sincere, happy, devout, secure in the midst of a remarkable collective phenomenon. As one husband tries to explain the appeal of encountering: “Before ME we didn’t care about problems other couples were having. It was their problem. Now, we feel involved.”

With the divorce rate in Canada on the rise, a great many couples and families are facing problems they can’t cope with. But there is a curious sameness to encountered couples, a sort of emotional cloning that betrays a refuge in rigidity rather than the mastery of the very difficult art of true adaptation. Demonstrations of affection sometimes appear mechanical and programmed. And couples confide they can feel guilty because they have allowed the ecstasy of the weekend to diminish in intensity and they are not doing their “10-10” every day.

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Like its sponsor the church, ME is rigidly organized. Since October, 1977, there has been a National Board in Moncton (the movement started in North America among a group of Franco-Americans in the Maine-New Brunswick area) overseeing a complex maze of zones (each usually a parish), counties, units and districts. Each piece of the organizational puzzle is headed by one couple and a priest. ME was born in Spain in the 1950s, the brainchild of Gabriel Calvo, a young priest working with couples in Barcelona. It was discovered in 1968 by an American Jesuit, Chuck Gallagher, who saw in it the antidote for the “overemphasis on personal fulfilment in today’s life,” as he explains. The trappings of modern group psychology were gradually bestowed: intensity, seclusion, secrecy, subjectivity and an inflexible ritual.

Gallagher’s version, International Marriage Encounter with head offices in Los Angeles, has had enormous success in a world seemingly craving a return to the old faith. Last October, after a meeting in Mexico, an International Council was formed to direct operations in 37 countries. At $180 per couple (up until about a year ago it was $90 but the couple, toward the end of the weekend, would be asked to double the offering)

the movement has not found financial survival difficult. Nor is marketing a problem. Upon completing the weekend, each couple submits a list of five other couples they think could benefit from the “blessed 44 hours.” Encountered couples are also asked to attend a monthly “Share” meeting in the local church with about 30 couples and to form a “Love Cell.” The latter is a group of 10 couples who meet once in one of their homes and then break up to form 10 more cells. The movement is actively promoted at the parish level and the sale of books, notebooks, bumper stickers and jewelry, while closely controlled, is encouraged.

The seven bishops of the Montreal diocese have recently asked their assistants to form a committee to look into Marriage Encounter. “Not because of any concern at all,” says a spokesman in Archbishop Paul Grégoire’s office. “This is a standard procedure when there’s a movement within the church.”

Meanwhile, in the basement of Notre Dame de Lourdes Church, smiling couples of all ages, but mainly under 40, are busy filling in their registration forms and parting with a non-refundable $10 deposit. It’s usually the wives who will have initiated the decision to be encountered. For them the guarantee of future happiness is too much to resist and then, too, it gets kind of lonely when you’re the only unencountered couple on the block. But the young priest, Charles Picot, is uneasy. He confesses he would have preferred to sit at the end of the head table but he was told he had to stay in the middle. “That’s the way things are always done,” he was instructed. He worries a lot about the inflexibility of ME. But, as he tries to reassure himself, “People today need a framework, even if it is too rigid.”