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The Challenge of Marriage Preparation | Dr. Janet E. Smith

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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." (LR 15)

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 for marriage.

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 done?

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 Dossier.

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
Marriage and the Family in Casti Connubii and Humanae Vitae | Reverend Michael Hull, S.T.D.
Male and Female He Created Them | Cardinal Estevez
The Meaning and Necessity of Spiritual Fatherhood | Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, MTS
Practicing 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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