Fourth in a Series on Catholic Marriage and Parenthood
Fr. Thomas J. Gerrard
Asked by the priest what was the way of preparing for the Sacrament of matrimony, a little Irish girl naively replied: "A little courting, your reverence." The truth thereby unconsciously spoken needs to be well spread abroad in these days. Courting time is a preparation for a great Sacrament.
In speaking of this, even as of all other phases of Christian life, there is need of much common sense. On the one hand, the young people who have arrived at this interesting stage may be expected to take it seriously, but on the other hand, they must not be expected to deport themselves as if they were preparing for a funeral. Company-keeping is one of the happiest times of life, and if it is not attended with joy and brightness there is something wrong somewhere. At the outset, then, let it be known to all parents that there is nothing sinful in their grown-up children looking for partners. Let it be known to all nuns that there is nothing wrong in big children of Mary speaking to the young men of the congregation. Let it be known to all young men and all young maidens that the affair of courtship is not something to be ashamed of. Of its nature it involves a certain amount of modesty and shyness. Still, from its earliest signs and movements, it is something which ought to be perfectly aboveboard, known to father and mother, acknowledged in the presence of the family. It is a preparation for a great Sacrament, and its verve and joy and delight can suffer no loss through being regulated by the claims of religion.
Now, although falling in love is something which ought to be controlled by reason, it is not entirely an affair of the reason. It is primarily an affair of the heart. If only such marriages took place as were the result of clear reasoning and mere reasoning from beginning to end, this would become a very dull and uninteresting world, and we might indeed have grave fears for the survival of our race.
But in addition to reason, God has given man and woman affection and love. The affection and the love have reason to guide them, but their action depends largely on their object. The light of intellect in the man cannot make a woman's face look more beautiful. The light of intellect in a woman cannot make a man's form look more handsome. A case of real love between a man and woman is beyond adequate explanation. A man may love a woman for her good looks, for her domestic virtues, for her intellectual endowments; but the kind of love she likes best is that when he is obliged to say: "I do not know why I like you, I only know that I do."
So the problem to be solved by all young Catholics is this: How are the claims of this mysterious and inexplicable love and affection to be reconciled with the claims of stern reason and sublime religion? Let it not be supposed that these rival claims are incompatible with each other. They all come from one and the same Author, and so it is only a question of adjustment. In order to make this adjustment, then, both parents and children should know what are the rules of the Church and what are the rules of right reason. With this double guiding light, the young people may then frequent such places and cultivate such company as shall be likely to afford a fitting environment for the passion of love when it makes its appearance.
The rules of the Church come first. Marriage is a great Sacrament, and the Church, having the guardianship of all the Sacraments, claims the right to say what is the best preparation for marriage and what are the conditions under which it may be contracted. She has a right to say what conditions affect the validity, and what conditions affect the lawfulness, of the contract. The contract is the Sacrament, and, therefore, only the Church can say what impediments render the contract unlawful, and what impediments render the contract null and void. They will all be found to be eminently practical and possessed of a special aptitude to foster that pure and passionate love which the young people value so highly.
The first qualification that a Catholic would look for in a partner for life would be that the partner should also be a Catholic. Mere acquaintances feel that they have a common and lasting bond between them if they are both Catholics. This feeling must be indefinitely intensified between two who are to live together in the intimate life of holy matrimony. Indeed, the advantages of such a condition, together with the evil consequences following upon the neglect of it, need a separate treatment. It will be sufficient here to say that the Church regards the matter as of the most vital importance. The impediment is classified, with two others, under the title of " Prohibition of the Church." These two also will recommend themselves as obviously conducive to the safe-guarding of the Sacrament. The one is the proclamation of the banns, by which each party is protected against possible fraud or mistake. The other is that which requires the consent of parents. It is part of the solemn duty of parents to watch over the children in an affair of great consequence. And indeed parents, especially the mother, do watch their children most anxiously. The law of nature compels it, the law of the Church sanctions it. With reason, then, does the Church oblige children to consult their parents in the matter. Of course, cases may and do arise in which the consent of the parents is unjustly held back. Some parents out of mere selfish love dislike to lose their children, and act all regardless of the divine ordinance that for the sake of matrimony a man shall leave his father and mother. In case of dispute, however, the children will not go against the wishes of their parents without first consulting their confessor.
Again, since the Church regards marriage as a great Sacrament, she encourages her children to celebrate it with great pomp and festive joy. It happens as a rule only once in a lifetime and, therefore, is most fittingly accompanied with banquet and merry-making. All these things, however, would manifestly be out of place during times set about for the more solemn religious exercises. The Church ordains, therefore, that marriages shall be discouraged during the seasons of Advent and Lent; in Advent until the feast of the Epiphany, in Lent until Low Sunday inclusive. A marriage may, however, be permitted during these times, but it must be celebrated without any of that external display which would otherwise be so fitting on such an occasion.
A third condition for a lawful marriage is that neither party shall be engaged to any one else. There are three points of view from which a previous engagement must be regarded. It has a personal aspect, a legal aspect, and an ecclesiastical aspect.
No man of honor will enter into a new engagement until he has been formally released from any previous engagement in which he may have become involved. It would, perhaps, be needless to say that he ought not to make serious overtures to another partner until he has been released by the first; for, oftener than otherwise, it is the appearance of a new face which is the cause of dissatisfaction with the old one. A man in such a predicament owes it both to himself, to his previous partner, and to his prospective partner to arrange an honorable settlement as soon as possible. The claims of society demand that neither girl should be kept in a false position. The previous partner, too, may have legal rights to compensation for breach of promise.
Then again there is the ecclesiastical aspect of the matter. The law has recently been changed, and henceforth only those engagements hold good in ecclesiastical law which have been made in writing, signed by both parties and signed by the parish priest or ordinary, or at least two witnesses. Of course, couples may marry lawfully without such an agreement in writing, but without such an agreement the engagement will not be binding in conscience or produce any canonical effect. It would produce a legal effect and a social effect; it would hold good in the eyes of the law of the country and in the eyes of all respectable society. Nay, more, although there would be no obligation to marry, although the espousals were invalid, through want of proper formality, still those invalid espousals would render a person liable to all due restitution or damages just as if they were valid. Thus the Church protects the weaker party in two ways. First, she gives the warning and protects young people against imprudent engagements - engagements entered into without deliberation, and under circumstances when innocence and ignorance hinder the due consideration of the dignity of the Sacrament. Secondly, she obliges the guilty party to make fitting restitution for all the material loss which the innocent party may have suffered in consequence.
Another impediment, similar to that of previous betrothal, is the impedimental vows. Obviously, a vow to do one thing is a hindrance to the making of a vow to do something contrary. So rarely, however, does this impediment arise that it may be left for individual treatment. If there has been a vow of any kind, the matter should be mentioned to the confessor.
Further, there are a number of impediments which not only render a marriage unlawful and sinful, but also null and void. Let us clearly understand the difference between what is unlawful and what is invalid. If I burn down my neighbor's haystack, it is validly burnt down, for there is no haystack left; but it is unlawfully burnt down. My action is valid, but not lawful. If I shoot at my neighbor in the dark and miss him, my action is both unlawful and invalid. I have intended to take my neighbor's life, but have failed to do so.
Likewise, there may be certain attempts to get married which, on account of certain impediments, produce no effect. Such ceremonies are both unlawful and invalid. It is the duty of the priest to inquire whether there be any such impediments before he allows the celebration to take place. Most of them are so rare as not to need public treatment.
When the banns are published, the faithful are told that if they know of any impediment, either of consanguinity, affinity, or spiritual relationship, they are bound to declare the same as soon as possible. The impediment of spiritual relationship is that which arises out of the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. The chances of this relationship are reduced to a minimum by the custom of having a man as sponsor for the boys and a woman as sponsor for the girls.
The two great diriment impediments, therefore, which need to be carefully watched by young people are the impediments of consanguinity and affinity. Consanguinity is the connection of blood relationship; affinity is the connection of relationship by marriage. The Church excludes marriages between persons who may be related to each other within certain degrees of relationship. She thus forbids marriage between first, second, or third cousins; and also between a man and his deceased wife's sister. These are the more common cases in which difficulty arises and which need to be carefully guarded against. In some of them, of course, which are not involved in the primary law of nature the Church may grant a dispensation. Nevertheless, she regards them as evil, and only grants dispensations in order to prevent greater evils. The disastrous results of intermarriage are well known. It leads to deterioration of the race, to insanity, to physical deformity, and to a general weakening of the social bond. The Church, therefore, in setting her face against such marriages, proves herself to be the friend and guardian of the temporal, as well as of the spiritual well-being of her people.
Now, although the Church is very strict in limiting the freedom of her children whenever it is for their good, yet at the same time she leaves much to their own individual judgment. Those who look forward to a happy marriage, therefore, must avail themselves of that freedom which the Church allows, and use also their own sound judgment and common sense. In this sphere one cannot lay down hard and fast rules. What is good in England may be bad in America; what is permissible in one degree of society may be inadvisable in another. The custom of the country or of the particular sphere of Catholic society is a point which must always be considered. Nevertheless, a few general suggestions may be offered.
Character or virtue will be the first quality to be sought for in the choice of a mate. The predominant and essential virtues expected from the man are honesty and sobriety. These are especially manly virtues. In the natural order it is the sense of honor which will keep the husband faithful to his wife, and insure for her that respect, care, and protection to which she has a right. Sobriety, too, is absolutely necessary for the making of a happy home. The love may be there and the fidelity may be there, but they will be in constant peril if they are accompanied by drunkenness. And if drunkenness be a failing during the days of courtship, a reform after marriage cannot be expected. The pity of it is that girls are only too eager to find excuses for a lover addicted to this failing. "Oh, but he is as quiet as a lamb when he is sober!" The only reliable advice to give to a girl with an intemperate sweetheart is to break off the engagement at once. The predominant virtue expected from the woman is chastity. This will be measured by the care which she takes in avoiding occasions of sin. Here it is not a question of having sinned grievously, but of a constant observance of all those habits of modesty, reticence, sobriety of language and gesture, and, above all, utmost decorum in all necessary intercourse with members of the opposite sex. They are habits which can be observed and felt much more effectually than they can be described. In fact, every Catholic girl knows them, and no one is so observant of and sensitive to them as the honorable young man who comes to pay court to her.
Next, compatibility of temper must be examined. It is easy to discern. Quarrels during time of courtship may be reasonably excused from time to time. The proverb that true love never runs smoothly implies that, in the common estimation of mankind, lovers' quarrels are a part of the business of love-making among those who are not angels. But there are some lovers whose courtship seems to be one perpetual quarrel, one everlasting carping, jealous insinuation, and complaint. Obviously such a life would only be accentuated in the marriage state, and the sooner the engagement is broken off the better for both parties.
The question of health, too, ought not to be overlooked. In earlier days the Church spoke more explicitly on the matter, though now she leaves it to the parties themselves to decide. The cases in which the difficulty most frequently arises are those of insanity and consumption. As a counsel of perfection it is well in such circumstances to abstain from matrimony. But where this abstention is fraught with moral danger, then the advice of a medical expert should be sought. Parents have a duty toward their prospective offspring as well as to themselves. The science of heredity is anything but an exact science. As for consumption, the treatment of it has now been so vastly improved that very many consumptive people may now marry without serious danger either to each other or to their offspring. Those, however, who contemplate such a marriage ought always to consult a specialist previously.
The questions of age, social standing, and wealth may not be overlooked. Certainly many happy marriages have taken place between persons far removed from each other in age, fortune, and position. These, however, are exceptions rather than the rule. A young person will not naturally seek a much older one with a view to matrimony. But the cases of those hunting after a larger fortune and higher position are only too frequent. And it is these who come to grief in married life.
Lastly, there is the question of passion and personal beauty. Let it be said at once that passion is not a bad thing in itself. It is only bad when it overrides reason. Let it be said, too, that beauty of form and looks is not a thing in itself to be despised. The Church, in her office of virgins, applies to them the words of the psalmist: "With thy comeliness and thy beauty set out, proceed prosperously, and reign." So long as it is kept in due subordination to the gifts of character and virtue, then it may be prized for what it is worth. Only when opposed to the fear of God is beauty said to be vain, and form fallacious.
The great principle to be kept before one's mind, therefore, in the choice of a mate, is that the Sacrament of marriage is not a crushing or a cramping of human nature, but a perfecting and realizing of it. If limits have been placed by the law of God, by the law of the Church, by the law of reason, then those limitations of choice are the conditions of a wider and nobler freedom. If it seems hard to have one's choice limited to a partner of the same religion, remember that that law duly observed will be a safeguard against a multitude of more irksome limitations in the future. If it seems unfair to have one's choice limited to those who are not of blood relationship, remember that that law duly observed will probably mean salvation from some of the most horrible calamities which can befall the marriage state. If love seems to have limits set to it by reason, remember that those reasonable limits are the barriers which prevent love from degenerating into mere passion, and insure for it a strong and lasting endurance.