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The Challenge of Marriage Preparation | Dr. Janet E. Smith
It is one of the mysteries of my life why God has chosen me, an unmarried woman
without children, to travel about explaining the Catholic understanding of
sexuality and marriage. Some people find it bold and presumptuous on my part; I
feel rather pushed around by the Holy Spirit.
Pope John Paul II in his Love and
Responsibility attempted to
answer the charge that he as a celibate would not have the knowledge to write
about matters sexual. He stated that "[celibates] lack of direct personal
experience is no handicap because they possess a great deal of experience at
second-hand, derived from their pastoral work. For in their pastoral work they
encounter these particular problems so often, and in such a variety of circumstances
and situations, that a different type of experience is created, which is
certainly less immediate, and certainly 'second-hand', but at the same time
very much wider. The very abundance of factual material on the subject
stimulates both general reflection and the effort to synthesize what is known."
I certainly don't have the pastoral experience of a priest who does marriage
preparation and marriage counseling and who, most importantly, hears
confession. Yet, often after my talks perfect strangers share with me a rather
astonishing amount of private information in hopes that I can give them some
useful advice. (The power of absolution would occasionally come in handy here.)
And as a single person, for whom it is not too much trouble to set another
place at the table, I get an abundance of invitations to dine a various
households (or I invite myself!). Thus I do get to observe a large number of
couples and families interacting. I must get it right sometimes because when I
have created imaginary conversations between spouses about particular matters,
I have been accused of hiding in people's bedrooms!
But in the end, I tell those who challenge me to accept nothing on my
authority; what I say seems to match many couples' experience, and if it doesn't
match theirs, they are free to dismiss my claims. It pleases me that no one has
ever accused me of over-romanticizing or under-romanticizing marriage. Single
folks can easily think that marriage is unrelenting bliss (if we pay little
attention to real-life relationships) or we can easily think that marriage is
hell or at least purgatory (if we pay too much attention to the occasional
strain evident in even very good marriages). I have a sure fire cure when I am
feeling sorry for myself because I don't have a spouse and children; I just
call one of my married friends and ask how life is. I have discovered that the
biggest cross for the unmarried is that we don't have spouses and children and
the biggest cross for the married is that they do have a spouse and children!
The fact is that most people want to get married and most people will get
married. Yet, especially in our day and age people are incredibly unprepared
There is no longer any acceptable form of courtship. Young people simply don't
date. Young men do not plan for the weekend and then invite a young lady out.
Often young people just hang out together and perhaps someday one or the other
musters up the courage to ask his or her friend "Is anything romantic going on
here?" For the licentious, a positive answer means finding a vacant bed. These
individuals frequently marry whoever is their sexual partner at about the age
of 27. Studies show that about 85% of those who marry have already begun their
sexual relationship; about 50% are living together. They tend to divorce
eventually. For the conscientious, finding a like-minded person is very
difficult and knowing what to do next is a problem. Should one find a person
suitable to marry, who shares the same values and understanding of marriage and
children (not an easy feat!), there are often years of education to complete
and huge loans to pay off. Remaining chaste is a problem; the long hours
couples spend alone are a real challenge in face of powerful desires.
Now, a near majority of young people grow up in households split by divorce;
thus they are largely lacking suitable models for what makes a marriage work.
How are they to know how to have a good marriage? It is befuddling that those
who chose the religious life must go through years of discernment carefully
guided by those who have gone before them, whereas marriage preparation is
quite minimal; it takes place when it is nearly impossible to revoke the
intention to get married.
The Church actually speaks of three stages of marriage preparation: remote,
proximate, and immediate. Remote preparation takes place in the home, as the
child from a very young age observes how his or her parents interact. Children,
like sponges, soak up nearly everything around them. In our culture, that
preparation is often counterproductive; children spend their earlier years with
squabbling parents and their teen years shuttling between parents who are
trying to get their lives together. Even those who grow up in intact households
harbor deep doubts about the durability of marriage.
Proximate preparation takes place as one moves into adulthood and begins to
think about choosing a life partner. This might include some sort of education
in abstinence or sexuality in the schools. I think this period is also
mismanaged in our culture. Young people are not counseled to date wisely. They
easily fall in love with someone who is not a good choice for a life partner
and thus many unfortunate marriages are made.
PreCana instruction and engagement encounter weekends constitute immediate
preparation. If done well, these are opportunities to begin to work on some of
the issues that all married couples face and even to give a very important
final consideration to the wisdom of one's choice. This is an opportunity to
teach Catholics who know so little about their faith. A crash course is needed
in what a sacrament is, in marriage as a vocation, in marriage as indissoluble.
Couples need to learn why premarital sex is wrong, why contraception is wrong,
why prayer should be a part of everyone's life, for instance. How often is this
Some dioceses are now dealing sensibly and creatively with the problem of
cohabitation. Couples who desire a large wedding are required to live apart
before the wedding. This is a great gift to the couple; some immediately and
others eventually are grateful for this mandate; they feel they have entered
marriage in a "purer" state and made a more sober choice of partner.
The task of parents today is daunting. With very little support and a great
deal of opposition they must teach their children Christian values. In addition
to that, parents must learn to prepare their children for marriage, to help
them think about marriage and what sort of person would make a suitable spouse
and even to help them to meet such a person. A happy marriage is one of the
surest paths to general happiness in this world. Achieving one is worth an
enormous effort and one major element in achieving a good marriage is marrying
a person who shares one's values and is willing to put marriage and family
first. We should do what we can to help young people become good marriage
partners and to find good marriage partners. Catholic yentas where are you?
This essay was originally published in the January/February 1999 issue of Catholic
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Book Excerpts:
Focus Groups and Marriage: A Match Made for
Heartache | Mary Beth Bonacci
Entering Marriage with Eyes Wide Open
| Edward Peters
Human Sexuality and the Catholic Church
| Donald P. Asci | Introduction to The Conjugal Act as a Personal Act
Who Is Married?
| Edward Peters
the Family in Casti Connubii and Humanae Vitae | Reverend
Michael Hull, S.T.D.
Male and Female
He Created Them | Cardinal Estevez
and Necessity of Spiritual Fatherhood | Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers,
Chastity in an Unchaste Age | Bishop Joseph F. Martino
The Truth About Conscience | John F.
Kippley | An excerpt from Sex and the Marriage Covenant
Dr. Janet E. Smith is the
Fr. Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Issues at Sacred Heart Major Seminary
in Detroit. She is the author of Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later
and editor of Why
Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader and many articles on ethical and
bioethics issues. Over 700,000 copies of her tape, "Contraception:
Why Not?" have been distributed. She taught for nine years at the University
of Notre Dame and twelve years at the University of Dallas. She speaks nationally
and internationally on several issues, especially the Catholic Church's
teaching on sexuality. She is serving a second term as a consultor to the
Pontifical Council on the Family.
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