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Chapter 9: Marriage, Sexual Acts, and Family Life

Question I: What Are the Responsibilities of Those Preparing for Marriage?

In contemporary, Western societies, people who decide they are ready to marry generally base that decision largely on the fact that they have found someone they want to marry. There is nothing wrong with that—unless one considers the matter in the light of faith and the perspective of vocation. But Christians shaping their lives as they should will proceed differently; they will not develop romantic relationships without knowing beforehand that they and their prospective partners are ready and free to marry.

Even early in adolescence, many young people can discern confidently that their vocation includes marriage; but whether it happens early or late, at that point an individual should begin preparing to undertake this vocation and fulfill its responsibilities. Judging himself or herself ready to marry, a person should begin to look for a suitable spouse, bearing in mind not only the qualities required in a spouse if the marriage is to be good and happy, but his or her own gifts and limitations. Finding someone with whom, both agree, the vocation to marry is shared, an individual should enter into an engagement. The engaged couple should work together to overcome any obstacles and prepare to marry, while also remaining open to signs that their judgment was mistaken and they should not marry.

Unfortunately, as in other matters, many Christians approach marriage just as nonbelievers do. That is taken into account in the following treatment of responsibilities regarding marriage preparation, and norms are articulated for those ready at any stage to begin to approach the matter as conscientious Christians should.

1. Some Should Discern a Vocation to Marriage and Prepare for It

Not all Christians are called to marriage, and those who are, need to discern this element of their vocation. Appropriate preparation should then begin, even if marriage will be possible only far in the future.311 It should include developing and carrying on chaste friendships with persons of both sexes.

a) Many should accept the vocation to prepare for marriage. Sexual capacity is an important gift which Christians can use in different ways to contribute to the kingdom. On becoming fully aware of this capacity at puberty, each should begin to consider how he or she will integrate it into a good and holy life. Some also will need to reconsider this question later in life, for example, after a spouse dies.

The starting point should be the fact that for some Christians it is better not to marry, since the unmarried who have the gift of complete continence can more easily grow in holiness and serve the kingdom in special ways (see Mt 19.11–12; 1 Cor 7.8, 38; CMP, 27.H; C.4.e, above).

Still, many Christians will discern signs that they do not have the gift to use their sexual capacity in a dedicated single life in the world, or in a committed life of celibacy or virginity for the kingdom’s sake. For some, the sign will be the one St. Paul indicates: “It is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (1 Cor 7.9). If they are to live good Christian lives, they will conclude, sexual desire must be integrated with conjugal love and so subordinated to the good of marriage. Many of these people, and others too, will discern another sign: a felt need for a spouse and, if possible, children, a need experienced as a profound sense of personal incompleteness which they cannot accept peacefully.312

The consideration of how sexual capacity fits into personal vocation next should focus on physical, mental, and psychological limitations and defects, to see if any preclude marriage. For example, some people will find themselves with a seemingly unalterable homosexual tendency or incurable impotency—that is, inability to engage in marital intercourse—and others will suffer from other health problems incompatible with fulfilling the responsibilities of marriage and family life.

Some of those who discern signs pointing to marriage and see nothing precluding it are in a position to marry at once. At once, then, they should begin to seek a suitable partner. But others, including adolescents, should conclude only that they probably eventually will be called to marry. Their present vocation is to prepare for marriage, while keeping open the possibility that they never will be called to it.

b) This preparation consists in developing gifts and gathering resources. In contemporary affluent societies, adolescents and young people who have no sense of personal vocation often live irresponsibly: they do willingly only what gives them immediate self-gratification, care little for others, are uncooperative, work only at what happens to interest them, set about greedily acquiring whatever they desire, and wastefully mistreat and discard things. But the day-to-day lives of young people are important not only for their present satisfaction but for their future happiness. As Pius XI teaches, “the basis of a happy wedlock, and the ruin of an unhappy one, is prepared and set in the souls of boys and girls during the period of childhood and adolescence.”313 Everything they do should shape good character and develop Christian modes of response, for their intrinsic value and also for their possible future benefits for marriage and family life. Parents should do all they can to exemplify the relevant virtues and encourage their children to develop them.

Since genuine personal fulfillment in a good marriage does not come from self-gratification but from personal service to others, those looking forward to marriage should use their gifts to help and care for others as opportunity offers. For example, they should help care for the elderly and ill, look after and instruct younger children—whether their own brothers and sisters or others—and do what they can to lighten the burden of their parents’ work around the house. Instead of regarding interpersonal relationships only as sources of benefit to themselves, they should consider their relationships, including those with parents and teachers, as opportunities to contribute to the well-being and happiness of others. By cooperating gladly and gratefully in others’ plans and projects, they develop their capacity for teamwork, so important in marriage, while giving those with whom they cooperate the satisfactions of success and gratitude for their efforts.

Marriage and family life call not only for the education and training necessary to make an adequate living but also for the development of the skills and knowledge required to conduct married life, maintain and manage a household, and raise children. Those preparing for possible marriage should make choices about their education with the requirements of marriage and family life in mind, and should diligently pursue their studies. Still, formal education alone will never suffice. Prayer, Scripture reading, personal study, and discussion with parents and others who have experience of marriage also are needed, as is thoughtful observation of real families, both happy and miserable, to see how to fulfill the vocation and avoid common pitfalls.

Marriage and family life require good use of material things. People preparing for this vocation should share unselfishly and care well for their family’s home and goods, acquire only what they really need, help those in need, and, if possible, save money or gather other material resources necessary to start a family.

c) Those preparing for marriage should develop chaste friendships. Everyone should have friends, because friendship is good in itself and also helps psychological and moral growth (see 7.D.3.a), including the development of the virtue of chastity (see E.8.j, above). Moreover, genuine friendships with people of both sexes bring specific benefits for adolescents and young people who are preparing for marriage: growth in self-awareness, knowledge of others’ traits, including their masculinity and femininity, and practice in open and cooperative relationships with peers. The distinguishing marks and responsibilities of friendship have been treated above (in 7.D.3).

Like any other relationship between individuals who can be sexually attracted to each other, a friendship between an adolescent boy and girl or a young man and woman normally differs from a relationship in which sexual attraction is entirely absent. Still, normal adolescents and young people can develop chaste friendships with persons of the opposite sex, just as faithful, heterosexual priests, religious, husbands, and wives can. If such friendships are to develop, however, friendship must not be displaced by romantic relationship. Romantic relationships are those whose quality as a whole is specified by erotic attraction: the couple are drawn to bodily contact and enjoy being together so that they can touch each other; contact is likely to lead to genital arousal; the erotic affection tends to exclude other similar relationships; and the relationship becomes absorbing, leads to daydreaming, and tends of itself to grow more intense (see 7.D.3.j–k).

Healthy adolescents and young people often experience intense erotic feelings; they should learn to recognize these for what they are and accept them, like other normal feelings, as good in themselves. But, like more mature men and women who are chaste friends, adolescents and young people need not allow romance to replace their friendships. To maintain and develop a genuine friendship, they must avoid acting on erotic feelings, and since sharing erotic feelings with those who excite them usually leads to acting on them, even such communication usually must be avoided. Young couples also will need to be careful about the time, place, and frequency of their meetings. To enjoy each other’s company without running risks, they do well to share most of their activities with one of their families or a suitable group of friends.314

d) When marriage is not in prospect, romance is inappropriate. In affluent Western nations, people generally take it for granted that boys and girls will carry on a series of romantic relationships beginning in early adolescence. Television and the other media consistently communicate cultural standards which approve such relationships and take it for granted that they will include sexual activities. Most Catholics and other Christians have been influenced by the dominant culture to take an increasingly permissive attitude in this matter.

But a romantic relationship is appropriate only when it can lead to engagement and marriage. Otherwise, it provides no real benefits, but only certain satisfactions proper to engagement and marriage, while at the same time displacing the activities characteristic of friendship, which the partners might be able to develop and enjoy. In carrying on a romantic relationship for its illusory intimacy, people act for an apparent good which blocks true benefits of a real human good. To carry on a romantic relationship when marriage is not in prospect is therefore wrong.

Almost inevitably, too, such a relationship soon becomes gravely wrong. Even if it were not wrong in itself, it certainly is not morally necessary and so, at best, would be permissible. But as soon as such a relationship begins to intensify, the underlying erotic emotion leads to significant temptation, and so continuing the relationship becomes an occasion of grave sin. Since this occasion of sin is easily avoided—by terminating the relationship—continuing it is a grave matter.315

Consequently, those preparing for marriage but not yet ready to seek a potential marriage partner should try to develop and carry on many chaste friendships while entirely avoiding romantic relationships, which are an obstacle to real friendship and a grave and unnecessary threat to chastity.

2. Those with Marriage in Prospect Should Seek Suitable Partners

A person who not only thinks his or her vocation includes marriage but is ready to become engaged should seek a suitable potential spouse, applying reasonable standards and practicing careful discernment in doing so. Pius XI teaches:

 To the proximate preparation of a good married life belongs very specially the care in choosing a partner; on that depends a great deal whether the forthcoming marriage will be happy or not, since one may be to the other either a great help in leading a Christian life, or, a great danger and hindrance. And so that they may not deplore for the rest of their lives the sorrows arising from an indiscreet marriage, those about to enter into wedlock should carefully deliberate in choosing the person with whom henceforward they must live continually: they should, in so deliberating, keep before their minds the thought first of God and of the true religion of Christ, then of themselves, of their partner, of the children to come, as also of human and civil society, for which wedlock is a fountain head.316
The best way to deal with intractable marriage problems is to forestall them by being very careful about whom one marries. It is important not to be guided by an image—acquired without reflection—of an ideal mate or to be carried along by romantic feelings, developed before taking serious thought about marriage. Having recognized that a particular individual cannot reasonably be considered a potential spouse, a person should realize that marriage to that individual cannot possibly be part of his or her vocation.

a) Further steps should be taken to prepare for marriage. At this stage, the preparation for marriage appropriate for adolescents should be continued and intensified. Those who have not yet done so should study Christian marriage and family life in some detail, with particular emphasis on acquiring a mature knowledge of marital sexual activity, including natural family planning, and sound techniques of child raising.317 They also should try to develop relevant talents further—for instance, in homemaking and caring for a home—and should gather necessary financial and other resources. If they have any doubts about their physical or psychological capacity to fulfill the responsibilities of marriage, they should obtain any necessary medical or other assistance to resolve them.

b) One should not carry on untimely romantic relationships. Since marriage is the only good fulfillment of a romantic relationship, a person should not have such a relationship with anyone whom he or she either should not or does not wish to marry. This requires making certain that someone meets other criteria of suitability as a marriage partner before allowing any romantic relationship to develop. If a romantic attachment is formed prematurely—that is, before reasonable standards are applied and discernment is exercised to exclude the possibility that one should not marry that person or would not wish to do so—one’s emotions will interfere with good judgment.

Furthermore, even for those who have marriage in prospect, romantic relationships remain wrong until a suitable potential spouse has been identified. Romantic activities with anyone not thus identified are an easily avoidable occasion of grave sin, and so are themselves grave matter.

c) One should consider only those truly available for marriage. Even before seeking a suitable potential partner, a person should exclude anyone already married, pledged to celibacy or vowed to complete continence, too young or immature for marriage, a member of his or her own family, or known to be incapable of marital intercourse.318 People unwilling to consider marriage or unable to marry in the reasonably near future also should be excluded.

d) Only those who are morally well qualified should be considered. Anyone of bad character should be excluded as a potential partner. Such a person is unlikely to fulfill marital and familial responsibilities, and his or her faults are virtually certain to cause grave moral difficulties, not only for a spouse but for any children. Although grave sinners through weakness can and perhaps will reform, it would be imprudent to treat such a person as a potential partner with a view to reforming him or her. All too often, such plans succeed only temporarily, and the habit of sinning returns after marriage.

Besides these general moral considerations, before considering anyone a potential marriage partner, a person must be certain of his or her attitudes concerning marriage and its specific responsibilities—that marriage is absolutely indissoluble, that abortion is unthinkable, that any necessary birth regulation must be by marital abstinence. Someone who does not share one’s beliefs and commitments on these matters should be excluded as a marriage partner, since wrong attitudes would either render any attempted marriage invalid or else make it very hard to carry on in marriage without grave sin.319

Before anyone is considered as a potential marriage partner, it also is necessary to know about his or her attitudes concerning the religious formation of any children who might be born. An individual who is not prepared to have babies baptized soon after birth and brought up as practicing Catholics is not a good prospect for marriage, since he or she would raise very serious obstacles to fulfilling the most important responsibility which parents have toward their children.320

e) If possible, one should consider only those who share one’s faith. Since marriage should be a full communion of life suited to handing on that whole life to children, a Catholic should marry a Catholic who completely shares his or her faith and moral commitment. Differences in religion detract greatly from unity of mind and heart while impairing parental unity in a most important respect.321 Moreover, someone who does not fully share Catholic faith and moral commitment is unlikely to be morally well qualified to be a Catholic’s spouse, since he or she, even if a person of genuine good will, is likely to have beliefs and commitments incompatible with the truth the Catholic Church teaches concerning marriage, its specific responsibilities, and the raising of children. Where otherwise suitable potential partners are available who completely share one’s faith, anyone who does not should therefore be excluded.

Sometimes, however, no such suitable potential partner can be found. Then a Catholic’s preference should be for baptized persons who firmly hold and faithfully practice Christian faith, even though in a church or ecclesial community not in full communion with the Catholic Church. Of course, only those may be considered whose beliefs and commitments about marriage, its specific responsibilities, and raising children are compatible with the truth the Catholic Church teaches. Marriage even with such a person still will involve difficulties, and the Catholic party will have to make special efforts to keep and grow in his or her faith; but the couple will have the great benefit of the sacramentality of the marriage, and, if they overcome their special difficulties, their marriage can contribute to the ecumenical movement by manifesting unity in moral and spiritual values.322

Lacking a suitable potential Christian partner, a Catholic with marriage in prospect should try to find an upright non-Christian suitable in other respects, not least in beliefs and attitudes about marriage, its specific responsibilities, and the raising of children. Even if these criteria are met, such a marriage will involve more serious difficulties, require greater efforts, and lack sacramentality.323 However, it can truly realize the essential good of marital communion, which includes the natural holiness of marriage; it also provides a special apostolic opportunity for the Catholic who lives a faithful and exemplary life, since in this way his or her non-Christian spouse will receive a very effective communication of the gospel and a certain real link with Jesus and his Church.

f) One should prefer those with whom more perfect unity is likely. While religious differences detract from unity of mind and heart, and impair parental unity in the most important respect, less important factors can pose serious problems for marital communion and cooperation in raising children. To become one flesh in marriage, not only must two persons differ by being of opposite sexes, but they also can differ fruitfully in other ways, provided these also are complementary, that is, like the difference in sexuality, they contribute to the unity of a functioning whole. Still other differences, however, contribute nothing to unity and, indeed, impede it. So, except for differences which are, or can be made, complementary, someone seeking a suitable potential spouse should prefer those as similar as possible to himself or herself in all respects. Often, of course, differences which will not help build a happy marriage lead to superficial attraction; but otherwise suitable potential partners who differ in ways which are only likely to lessen compatibility should be excluded from consideration if possible.

g) One should seek a potential partner by forming real friendships. People who live in a rather homogeneous and sound Catholic community or have been educated in such a community often have one or more apparently suitable potential marriage partners among their acquaintances. However, those who lack the benefits of such a community must make suitable acquaintances in other ways. In either case, only by developing a close interpersonal relationship can anyone acquire the information and carry out the discernment necessary to identify a suitable potential marriage partner.

For several reasons, that close relationship should be a real friendship without a romantic element. As already explained, the latter is excluded until an otherwise suitable potential partner has been identified. The only legitimate way to acquire intimate knowledge about other persons is sincere friendship; and even if a friend is found unsuitable as one’s potential spouse, the friendship remains worthwhile, and it can be continued indefinitely if the romantic element has been excluded. Moreover, when the time comes for romance, it can provide a richer and more secure basis for marriage if real friendship has preceded and accompanies it.

3. An Engagement Should Be the Fruit of Both Romance and Reflection

Rightly, a man and a woman looking toward marriage to each other as part of their vocations develop a romantic relationship, but as they do, they also should reflect and discern together whether they really are called to marry. If they conclude that they are, they should become engaged.

The following articulation of norms for developing a relationship leading to engagement and marriage inevitably sounds overly rational, cold, and perhaps even calculating. In real life, however, proceeding in an upright way will not deprive the couple of the warmth and joyful spontaneity of being in love, for passion is a gift of nature. When this gift is received, it need not be prescribed, and so is taken for granted here.

a) Romance and discussion of marriage should begin together. If the parties to a real friendship come to see each other as suitable potential marriage partners, the friendship often will develop spontaneously into a romantic relationship. Erotic desire will be felt and expressed by bodily contact: holding hands, kisses, and embraces. While these contacts can and should be very restrained, insofar as they are expressions of erotic desire they point toward eventual fulfillment in one-flesh communion. If romance does not develop spontaneously, a person may rightly instigate it by similar expressions, although the possibility of marriage also can be raised without any such prior expression.

In any case, the beginning of conversation about the possibility of marriage and the initiation of a romantic relationship should take place together. Marriage is established by two things: mutual consent and consummation. Mutual consent presupposes common deliberation, and so requires conversation about the possibility of marriage. Consummation presupposes erotic affection, which should be fully integrated with the volitional element of conjugal love, that is, the mutual and unconditional will to be married to each other. So, erotic affection appropriately is expressed and nurtured in harmony with the deliberation and choices leading to marital consent.

Consequently, someone who becomes aware of the beginning of a romantic relationship should make certain, if not already so, that he or she is free to marry, that the other person is a suitable potential marriage partner, and that marriage will be possible in the reasonably near future. If all these things are so, the necessary conversation should be carried on.

b) The relationship’s romantic element should be chaste. The process leading to marriage necessarily has a romantic element: the couple must think and talk about marriage and imagine themselves married; in doing so, they will experience erotic emotion toward each other. Some contacts inappropriate between persons with no prospect of marrying each other now become appropriate. These contacts, even if light enough to seem modest to any chaste person who observes them, inevitably point toward eventual marital intercourse; if they did not, they would not express erotic affection. If either party should find such contact repugnant and refuse it entirely, that is a clear sign that the couple are unsuited for marriage to each other.

Still, since a couple considering marriage are not yet married, any intentional sexual act is grave matter. They may not intend to bring about any sexual arousal whatsoever, that is, they may not seek and enjoy any experience of bodily contact precisely insofar as it includes such arousal. Rather, they should seek and enjoy that experience only insofar as it expresses and assists their actual present relationship: that of friends interested in marriage and considering marrying each other. Sexual arousal can only be accepted as a side effect, and its potential for being an occasion of sin, whether of action or of thought, must be taken into account and dealt with as the unmarried always must deal with it.

If the couple engage in bodily contact or other sexually arousing activity beyond the minimum legitimate and necessary to express erotic affection in a way true to their present relationship, they can hardly help intending that arousal, and so it will not be a side effect. For instance, prolonged kisses and embraces, the uncovering of the genitals, and genital touches are not clearer or more firm expressions of erotic desire than the less arousing forms of bodily contact that first begin to point toward eventual sexual intercourse. Thus, someone choosing the more arousing activities does not do so for the sake of expressing and eliciting affection, but for the sake of their natural effect: the bodily and psychic process which naturally ends in sexual intercourse. Consequently, while couples considering marriage may and should engage in light bodily contact to express and elicit erotic affection, they should limit such activity to what is necessary for its legitimate purpose and firmly commit themselves to blocking the natural dynamism of the erotic process. As their affection grows and their friendship becomes more intimate, the couple may not proceed to more arousing activities; indeed, they should be increasingly careful.

In some cases, those involved in a legitimate romantic relationship come to realize that marriage is no longer in prospect. Then they should not continue the relationship, since it no longer serves an intelligible purpose, will only block real friendship with each other and/or suitable romantic relationships with others, constitutes an unnecessary occasion of grave sin, and so is sinful.

c) In persuading someone to marry, some means should be excluded. If someone who raises the question of marriage finds that the other party neither entirely rejects the idea nor is persuaded that it is worth pursuing, he or she may try to motivate an affirmative response. This can involve not only articulating the reasons for thinking marriage to each other would be good, but trying to prove the point by appropriate actions, for example, doing things that show one’s potential as an adequate provider or good homemaker. Moreover, affection may be expressed and nurtured in the ways suited to any good friendship as well as those appropriate in a romantic relationship within the limits already explained.

But not every effective means may be used in trying to persuade another to marry. Since insincerity here bears on a very important choice, any lying or deception about plans or intentions for marriage and family life is a very grave matter. A person must absolutely exclude any conscious pretense of sharing interests he or she does not really share, of intending to change in ways in which change is unlikely, and so on. Nor should the other party be offered unrelated goods, like wealth or status, as inducements to marry, since marital consent should be a free and mutual self-giving, not a giving of oneself or one’s services in exchange for some other good.

Finally, lust must not be used by instigating or permitting any illicit sexual activity. Gravely sinful in itself and manipulative in the same way as any appeal to an irrelevant rational motive, this approach also is altogether self-defeating, for it elicits the transient desire for sexual satisfaction rather than the permanent will for communion of life, which is essential to marriage.324

d) Cooperation in discernment should precede engagement. Even though a couple believe marriage to each other may be their vocation and find that prospect appealing, they should not become engaged at once. Instead, they should further examine the idea of marrying each other and eliminate any doubt either might have—in other words, they should exercise discernment. This means taking the time and trouble to follow out relevant norms for discernment (see 2.E.3.e and 5.J).

As always, discernment here presupposes that there is no reason to think the possible commitment would be wrong. But even then, prayer and reflection are needed to exclude the possibility that the couple actually have some other vocation. Unless already on friendly terms with each other’s families, they should become well acquainted with their possible in-laws, since marriage will bring each of them into the familial community to which the other will continue to belong.

Both also should ask for and listen carefully to the reactions and advice of their parents and other family members. The couple must make the decision, but their families are likely to provide wise and friendly advice, and the families’ interest in the possible marriage demands that their contribution to the couple’s deliberation be taken seriously.

Still, marriage will unite the couple, and the most relevant facts are those which have to do with them. Unless they have known each other for some time—for example, as schoolmates or neighbors—they will need time to relax, set aside the manner they assume for special occasions and new relationships, and manifest their usual feelings and habits. No matter how well they have known each other before thinking about marriage, they now must share their hopes and dreams, their concerns and expectations about marriage and family life, until confident that they can share the rest of their lives together and wish to do so.

If either has any specific doubts, the couple should try to resolve them. If one continues to feel some attraction to an alternative to the marriage, he or she should explore that other possibility. If either has any specific, persisting reason to doubt that the marriage will be a good one, the couple should take that as a sign that they are not called to marry and should terminate their romantic relationship.

Of course, many couples will come to the firm conviction that they should marry. Nothing else any longer has the slightest appeal, and no specific motive for hesitation remains. The only possible motives for not becoming engaged are the general anxiety every thinking person feels about the unknown future and the general reluctance every responsible person feels about taking on lifelong obligations. Setting aside these motives, the couple should become engaged. In doing so, each should promise to marry the other on one condition: that, at the moment they mutually consent to marriage, both enjoy the same confident discernment they now have achieved that this is their vocation.

4. The Engaged Should Prepare Themselves for Married Life

Engagement often is regarded as a time of preparation for marriage considered as an event rather than a common life. Thinking of themselves as all but married, the couple act more or less as if they already were. The marriage preparation required by the Church may be viewed as a mere hurdle to be cleared, while the emphasis is on making plans and arrangements for parties, the wedding ceremony, and the honeymoon. These events certainly must be planned, but the couple should focus more on the many years ahead than on their wedding day and the events connected with it. Moreover, they should live their engagement not merely as a time of transition but as a portion of their Christian lives, whose every moment is inherently valuable. For the engaged, engagement is their present vocation; they should respond in such a way that it will be a worthwhile and beautiful part of their lives even if they never marry.

Conscientious couples often ask: How long should an engagement last? The question admits of no straightforward answer. In two or three months, one couple can do everything necessary to prepare well for marriage, while another needs a year or two. Military service or studies can require that an engaged couple be separated for a time, making it prudent to delay marriage; so can other conditions—one party suffering an acute illness, loss of a job, and so forth. Still, those who do not have a reasonable prospect of marrying at some fairly definite time should not enter an engagement, and couples with no compelling reason for delay, but unable to agree on a date for marriage, should not prolong their engagement.

a) An engaged couple should see a priest at once. Before setting the wedding date, spreading the news of their engagement, or making any firm plans, the couple should see a priest, if possible a priest at the parish to which one or both belong. He will ask them various questions to make certain they are free to marry, and all these questions must be answered truthfully; lying would be grave matter. He also will provide information about the marriage preparation program required by the diocese. The couple should cooperate with this program, discuss the experience fully with each other, and so draw from it everything they can to prepare for a good marriage and family life.325

The interview with the priest and the marriage preparation program often make it clear to an engaged couple that they have left undone something which should have been done before they became engaged. If so, they should regard their engagement as tentative until it is established that there is no reason why they cannot or should not marry, and that neither has any doubts about whether he or she wishes to marry. If it becomes clear they cannot or should not marry, or if either party no longer wishes to do so, marriage to each other clearly is not their vocation, and, no matter how painful it may be, they should terminate their romantic relationship at once. If either has doubts, planning for the marriage should be postponed until all doubts are resolved.

b) Engaged couples have special reasons to be chaste. Having pledged their love, the engaged couple should avoid solitary sexual acts and sexual acts involving any third person. Not only are all such acts grave matter in themselves, but now they would violate the faithfulness each owes the other in virtue of their engagement promises. With their engagement, the couple should begin the lifelong faithfulness they will pledge to each other on their wedding day.

Moreover, if the couple have sinned together against chastity before their engagement, they should repent and commit themselves to perfect continence until married. Since they are not yet married, the norms explained above (in 3.b) continue to apply. Indeed, the engaged have an additional reason to avoid intentional sexual acts: sinning with someone cannot express love toward that person, and to commit sins against chastity with the person one is about to marry raises the question whether one wishes to marry that person, or only desires to have and make use of him or her. By abstaining from intentional sexual acts, the engaged couple practice an important element of marital sexuality, which often requires abstinence; and by helping each other abstain, they manifest their love—their will to be truly married—in an unmistakable way. In fact, perfect continence is the only way for them to manifest their love adequately, since by it they integrate their erotic affection with their future marriage.

Far from opening the way to intimacies previously excluded, then, engagement calls for greater caution to maintain perfect continence, since erotic desire naturally intensifies as marriage approaches. One important example of the caution necessary is that in planning to be together, an engaged couple should make sure they are never so entirely alone that they can be certain nobody will interrupt them. Of course, they need privacy for conversation, but they should not deceive themselves on that ground and unnecessarily expose themselves to temptation. The privacy they need for conversation can always be found in a public place or a room accessible to others.

c) Engaged couples should settle several important questions. Because a couple can set certain legitimate limits to their marital cooperation, and because different couples can adopt somewhat different methods for handling recurrent problems, the engaged should fully discuss and settle important matters which will determine the general shape of their married and family life.326

For example, unless they know they are sterile, they should make sure they share the same ideas about the number and spacing of children, and that they can agree about the technique of natural family planning they will use and how they will use it. They also should reach a clear understanding about whether both will work outside the home (and, if so, for how long and under what conditions), what part each will take in caring for children, and how they will divide and share other household duties. Again, because relationships with in-laws and the handling of finances often cause serious problems, engaged couples should discuss these matters thoroughly and agree on how they will deal with them. They also should come to an understanding on important practical issues that must be settled so that they can begin life together, for example, initial financial arrangements and setting up a common household.

In discussing these matters vital to building a good marriage, the engaged have a grave obligation not only to avoid deception but to be completely open and forthright. Cooperation here provides practice in what they will have to do throughout married life and is a good test of their compatibility. A couple who cannot settle some of these issues should accept that as a sign that they should not marry.

d) Wedding arrangements should serve the relevant goods. Marriage and the events surrounding it should be joyful. The beauty and grandeur of marriage itself, as well as the occasion’s importance for the couple and their loved ones, call for a celebration suited to serve as a metaphor for heaven. Still, the essentials specified by the Church’s rites for entering marriage and those determined by nature for consummating it are very simple. All other elements of the celebration and honeymoon are nonessential; and while they can serve the good of marriage, communion with the couple’s families of origin, and friendship, they also can be given too much importance. As a result, wedding and honeymoon may exemplify consumerism while the relevant goods are harmed rather than served.

Specifically, concern with the trappings should not lead a couple to pursue appearances which interfere with the reality of the good of marriage itself. That can happen in various ways. Planning the wedding can distract them from essential elements of their preparation for marriage: prayer, study, coming to agreement on important issues, and so on. Sometimes lavish wedding and honeymoon preparations make it difficult for a couple with unresolved problems or doubts to break off their engagement. Resources sometimes are wasted which could better be used for establishing a household and having children. Perhaps most important, the reality of married life often is a disappointing experience after the glamour of the wedding and honeymoon, and, with the excitement over, each partner may seem to the other no longer the same person he or she was during the engagement. Then they were comrades in a wonderful project; now they are companions in life, which must be lived ordinary day by ordinary day.

In making wedding arrangements, an engaged couple should try to strengthen rather than harm communion with their parents and families. That includes not asking for nonessentials which their families will find it hard to provide and respecting their parents’ authority within their households and their wishes regarding their roles in the affair. Nor should the arrangements impose unreasonable burdens on other family members or friends, whose contributions to the celebration should be entirely voluntary and gratefully accepted. Finally, while a wedding is rightly considered an occasion for a major celebration, the conspicuous consumption often involved in lavish weddings and honeymoons is a grave abuse of resources, which violates social justice and love of neighbor. Occurring in connection with the celebration of a sacrament, this borders on sacrilege.

e) The engaged couple should prepare spiritually for marriage. An engaged person who has not already received the sacrament of confirmation should do so before marriage, if possible, because confirmation strengthens Christians to carry out their personal vocations. Also, to enjoy the full fruits of the sacrament of marriage, a Catholic couple should take steps to make certain not only that they are in the state of grace but that their love of Christ is deepened, and so they should make good confessions and receive Holy Communion.327

Throughout the period of engagement, the couple should pray for each other and pray together for a good and happy marriage. They might use various passages of Scripture—for example, “Grant that . . . [we] may find mercy and that we may grow old together” (Tb 8.7).

The couple may benefit greatly from studying and discussing together the liturgy for marriage, especially the readings provided in the lectionary for a nuptial Mass. They can enrich their spiritual preparation by prayerfully considering the relevance of these liturgical materials to their own future marriage. They also can help plan the liturgy, suggesting to the priest who will officiate those readings and other liturgical options they find most meaningful.

f) The engaged should prepare to commit themselves absolutely. While it is a grave matter for married persons intentionally to wish they had not married their spouses, the engaged have a grave obligation to remain open to the thought that they should not marry. Although they should not have become engaged unless firmly convinced they are called to marry each other, the process of marriage preparation, especially their own discussion of important matters, often raises fresh questions. That is why the mutual promise that forms the engagement is conditional and remains binding only if neither party has doubts when the time to marry comes. Questions that arise during the engagement period should not be regarded as temptations to be unfaithful to their mutual promise to marry, but as possible signs that, after all, they are not called to do so. If it becomes clear that there is some reason why they should not marry, they should accept the fact that this is not their vocation, and promptly terminate the engagement.

Just before marrying, furthermore, the engaged couple should ask themselves, individually and together, whether they are still firmly convinced they should marry, or whether either has any unresolved doubts. At this point, of course, even more than when they made the engagement, they are likely to be feeling some anxiety about the unknown future and some reluctance to give up their freedom. Those feelings are not doubts, and should be set aside. But if either party has any specific motive for hesitation, the couple should either cancel the wedding or postpone it until the doubt is resolved. It would be wrong to go on with the wedding simply to avoid disappointment or embarrassment. Nor should either try to hold the other to the engagement, since the reluctance of either to marry should be recognized as a clear indication that marriage to each other is not part of their vocations.

This final discernment is necessary to exclude all doubts, because in exchanging marital consent the couple should commit themselves absolutely to be faithful spouses until death parts them. Marriage is for better or for worse; there should be no conditions whatsoever concerning anything that might happen in the future.328 Thus, marital consent must exclude the thought that, if worse comes to worst, divorce and remarriage could be a solution. Moreover, in exchanging marital consent, not only do the couple give themselves to each other in a covenant which becomes absolutely indissoluble when fulfilled by marital intercourse, but together they accept their common vocation to be a sacred sign of the unbreakable unity of Christ with his Church, and so commit themselves to Christ to carry out this vocation faithfully.

311. John Paul II, Familiaris consortio, 66, AAS 74 (1982) 160, OR, 21–28 Dec. 1981, 13, outlines this early preparation for marriage.

312. Even mature and holy people committed to a dedicated single life in the world or to virginity or celibacy for the kingdom’s sake sometimes experience sexual desire and, perhaps even more strongly, as some testify, a sense of personal incompleteness. But they plainly have the gift for the life they live, and so such experiences indicate the lack of that gift only if accompanied by a feeling of inability ever to accept peacefully the renunciation involved in forgoing marriage and parenthood. While some Christians—for example, most people who have an unalterable homosexual tendency or who have been abandoned by their spouses—are called to forgo all sexual satisfaction and some or all the satisfactions of family life whether or not they can do so peacefully, Christians who enjoy the gift for the evangelical renunciation can accept it peacefully, so that they need not live with constant tensions, which would impede their apostolate and detract from their value as witnesses to the kingdom.

313. Pius XI, Casti connubii, AAS 22 (1930) 584, PE, 208.112.

314. For a sound and helpful guide to dealing with erotic feelings and forming chaste friendships, see Mary Rosera Joyce, Friends: For Teens (St. Cloud, Minn.: LifeCom, 1990). While intended as a text to be used with the guidance of a parent, teacher, or counselor, adolescents could profit from studying this book on their own.

315. See Aertnys, Damen, and Visser, Theologia moralis, 4:117. In affluent nations, many adolescents and young people who have no prospect of marriage are involved in romantic relationships. The most obvious are those described as “going steady,” but most of what is called “dating” is part of, or is intended to lead to, such a relationship. Some nonromantic pairing off, particularly within the context of a larger group’s social activities, also may be called “dating.” In any case, what is important for moral evaluation is the character of the relationship, not what it is called.

316. Pius XI, Casti connubii, AAS 22 (1930) 585–86, PE, 208.115.

317. See John Paul II, Familiaris consortio, 66, AAS 74 (1982) 160–61, OR, 21–28 Dec. 1981, 13. If she has not already done so, a fertile woman should begin at this time to chart her menstrual cycles, noting the various signs of fertility and infertility.

318. A couple may not contract marriage if there is or may be a prior marriage bond unless it can be dissolved or determined to be null (see CIC, c. 1085), nor if either party is in orders or vowed permanently to chastity (see cc. 1087–88). Canon law also excludes marriage by boys under sixteen and girls under fourteen (see c. 1083), discourages marriage by anyone under the age accepted in the region (see c. 1072), and forbids marriage of anyone under eighteen without either parental consent or the local ordinary’s permission (see c. 97, §1; c. 1071, §1, 6<198>). Divine law absolutely excludes the marriage of an ancestor (i.e., parent, grandparent) to a descendent (child, grandchild), legitimate or not, and of blood siblings (brother, sister, half-brother, and half-sister) (c. 1091, §§1–2). The marriage of persons similarly related by adoption, of certain close relatives by a prior marriage, of an uncle and niece or aunt and nephew, and of first cousins is prohibited by canon law (see c. 1091, §§1–2; c. 1092; c. 1094), but dispensations sometimes are given. Permanent inability to engage in marital intercourse at the time of an attempted marriage would invalidate that apparent marriage (see c. 1084, §1).

319. Certainty about a potential spouse’s beliefs and convictions on these matters is equally necessary whether the person is Catholic or not. There can be no valid marriage if either party excludes absolute indissolubility, exclusivity (i.e., no polygamy), or readiness to accept at least some children (see CIC, c. 1056; c. 1101, §2; c. 1125, 3<198>). Someone prepared to engage at times in marital intercourse open to life but also to use abortion or contraception as methods of birth regulation can marry validly, but his or her spouse may not formally cooperate in any sexual act facilitated by those methods.

320. CIC, c. 1086, cc. 1124–25, requires that if a Catholic marries a non-Catholic, the Catholic must make a sincere promise to do everything in his or her power to have any children baptized and brought up in the Catholic Church, and that the non-Catholic party be informed of this promise.

321. See Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Matrimonii sacramentum, AAS 58 (1966) 235–36, Flannery, 1:474–75; Paul VI, Matrimonia mixta, AAS 62 (1970) 257–59, Flannery, 1:508–10.

322. For Catholics, marriage to a non-Catholic Christian is forbidden without express permission of competent authority (see c. 1124), precisely so that measures can be taken to forestall dangers to the faith of the Catholic spouse and children (see CIC, c. 1125). On the ecumenical potential of such a marriage, see John Paul II, Familiaris consortio, 78, AAS 74 (1982) 179, OR, 21–28 Dec. 1981, 16.

323. According to CIC, c. 1086, a marriage between a Catholic and a non-Christian is invalid without a dispensation; therefore, to enter such a marriage, the Catholic party must fulfill the conditions for the necessary dispensation and obtain it.

324. Leo XIII, Arcanum, ASS 12 (1879) 401, PE, 81.41, points out that divorce and permanent separation seldom would occur “if men and women entered into the married state with proper dispositions, not influenced by passion, but entertaining right ideas of the duties of marriage and of its noble purpose; neither would they anticipate their marriage by a series of sins drawing down upon them the wrath of God.”

325. In some cases, unfortunately, official marriage preparation programs contain false teaching and bad advice. Couples should realize that nothing in such a program can alter the truth the Church teaches or free them from their responsibilities to be faithful to that teaching. Those who suspect or realize that the official program has been corrupted by dissenting opinions should seek better instruction wherever they can find it, even if they are compelled to undergo the required preparation as well.

326. In doing this, couples might read and discuss a sound book, for example: Michael P. Penetar, Building a Happy Marriage (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1986).

327. See CIC, c. 1065.

328. CIC, c. 1102, §1, prescribes: “Marriage based on a condition concerning the future cannot be contracted validly.”