Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Why wait for marriage?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 21, 2022

In June the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life released new guidelines for marriage preparation, suggesting—among other things—that the normal period of formal preparation for marriage should be one year. The longer period of engagement, the Vatican explained, would encourage the practice of chastity.

Really?

Am I missing something? Take two healthy young people who are in love, anxious to fulfill that love and begin their life together. Now tell them that they’ll have to wait a year. Yes, they might practice chastity, and gain much grace in the practice. But let’s face it: there is another option. The 97-page Vatican document makes the argument for chastity, but the arguments for unchastity are coursing through the bloodstreams of ardent young couples. Is it wise, is it prudent, is it pastoral to say that—as a blanket policy, applied to every couple—they must wait?

(Just by the way, there are some good people who find love late in life. Isn’t in uncharitable to tell an older couple that they must wait a year—when they might not have many years left?)

Faced with that one-year waiting period, some couples will remain chaste. (Those couples, I suspect, will be those who are least in need of extra marriage preparation, because they have already formed habits of virtue and already gained a reverence for the sacramental bond.) Other couples will aim for chastity, perhaps with the best of intentions, but fail, because the natural drives—not merely for sex, but for healthy human love—are strong.

Still other couples will nod their heads when the priest (or other marriage-prep counselor; see below) advise them to practice continence before marriage—and then go home to the apartments where they are already living together, having set up joint housekeeping long ago. For them too, the year-long wait will produce no dividends; it is simply a paperwork requirement. So as a practical matter the longer wait does not promote chastity; it merely adds hypocrisy to the indictment.

But again there is another option. The young couple, ready and anxious to marry, visit their pastor to tell him their plan. He announces that they must wait at least a year. They don’t want to wait; they are deeply in love. So they walk down the street to the Protestant church, or to the justice of the peace, and begin their life together without the grace of the sacrament.

Surely that is not the intent of the Vatican directives: to discourage couples from marriage in the Catholic Church. Indeed the document cites the decline in church weddings, along with the frequency of divorce, as reasons for better marriage-prep programs. But is it not quite predictable that, when the formal requirements for a marriage in the Church become more onerous, many couples will look elsewhere?

The Vatican document traces many of the problems with marriage to “too superficial a preparation” for the sacrament. True, but if Catholics have not received a fundamental understanding of the sacramental bond by the time they reach marriageable age, a year of coursework is unlikely to remedy that problem. Real preparation for marriage begins in childhood, with the example of the parents, and continues in church with the preaching of pastors. If parents and pastors have failed in their responsibilities, marriage-prep counselors will need more than a year to do the remedial work.

Especially because—and here we must consider the practical application of the Vatican guidelines—many of the lay couples who volunteer to be marriage-prep counselors are actively discouraged from offering an uncompromising version of Catholic teaching. A clear rejection of divorce might not sit well with young people whose parents are divorced; a condemnation of fornication would offend the couples already living together. And although the goal of the class might be proper preparation for sacramental marriage, another unspoken goal—and one much easier to measure for success—is to keep couples involved, to minimize the dropout rate.

“Even in the case of cohabiting couples, it is never useless to speak of the virtue of chastity,” the Dicastery tells us. But for the young priest tackling his first marriage-prep classes, things aren’t so simple. He has been instructed by the pastor not to drive people away from the parish. He is keenly aware that at the parish down the road, his counterpart doesn’t challenge cohabiting couples on the matter. How can he persuade young people to comply with what they see as simply a rule—and a rule that seems to apply only within the geographical bounds of this one parish?

The one-year period of marriage preparation gives counselors more time to offer compelling arguments for chastity. And there are many available volunteers—armed with the best of intentions and with coursework in theology and apologetics, confident in their powers of persuasion—ready for the job. But how often are people argued into chastity, or any other virtue? How many loving couples carefully weigh the pros and cons, and break off a passionate embrace? Marriage preparation is not like an academic course; it is a lifelong process.

Years ago I heard an Orthodox rabbi explain why the rate of premarital pregnancy is so low among young Orthodox Jewish women. From their early days, these girls have been trained to avoid things that their friends and neighbors enjoy—things that have a powerful natural appeal. The smell of bacon is tantalizing, but they do not eat it. So when they feel the power of sexual impulses they are not defenseless. They have practiced self-discipline and they have learned the Law.

Rather than produce new texts and devise new courses to educate engaged couples, drawing on the latest sociological surveys and psychological theories, better to begin “marriage preparation” for every parishioner, offering a clear exposition of the Law—the Ten Commandments—as the routine matter of Sunday homilies. It will take much longer than a year to undo the damage wrought by the sexual revolution, and aggravated by generations of sloppy catechesis. Still, better to start now.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: kalcott52452 - Jul. 28, 2022 8:11 PM ET USA

    I support the requirement because it gives couples more time to address impediments to marriage that could be grounds for an annulment down the (painful) road later. If this requirement causes couples to be married elsewhere, are they truly ready for a sacramental marriage? What would we think if a man, who was considering the priesthood, balked at an extra year of seminary? Good riddance, right? Not ready! Marriage vows and priestly vows are equally binding. Annulments take more than a year.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Jul. 28, 2022 7:00 PM ET USA

    For once I agree with the Vatican. The church has no fix for a bad valid marriage. However, confession can fix any problems from having to wait one year.

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Jul. 28, 2022 6:02 PM ET USA

    That's a start. I know that 51 years ago, when we were preparing for marriage, it was very difficult to remain celibate. We waited eight months and seven days for our wedding. If I hadn't spent 4 years in a religious community and appreciated the value of chastity, I don't know if I could have done it, especially when every film we saw featured extramarital sex in a positive light.

  • Posted by: feedback - Jul. 23, 2022 9:06 AM ET USA

    It seems that many of the poorly instructed in the Faith, and often not practicing, baptized Catholics would not marry outside of the Church not because of their religious convictions, but because they do not wish to upset someone Catholic in their family.

  • Posted by: rfr46 - Jul. 22, 2022 8:20 AM ET USA

    Have a problem? Make a new law. That is the prevailing and failing strategy that seems to be everywhere today. How about looking at the underlying cause of the problem and treating that? The solution proposed by the Dicastery is naive, unworkable, and ineffective. It is further evidence of widespread bureaucratic incompetence in the Vatican.