Earlier I offered suggestions about the “remote” preparation for marriage that begins during infancy—even in the womb—and lasts until the onset of puberty or early adolescence. This article and two others will present ideas about the “proximate” preparation for marriage: this one identifies what the term “proximate preparation” means and focuses on the some of the major elements that ought to make up this proximate preparation. A second will continue the consideration of major elements in this preparation and also consider more briefly important but in my judgment some less pressing matters that should be taken up, such as the need for stable work, sufficient financial resources, making the home a peaceful environment. A third will consider the matter of a chaste courtship. I will then, in later articles, make suggestions for the “immediate” preparation for marriage.
What does the term “proximate preparation” mean?
The term “proximate preparation” refers to a very long period of time because it extends from the end of the “remote preparation,” the onset of puberty or early adolescence, until the beginning of the “immediate preparation” for marriage that should take place during the months and weeks before the “nuptials” or “wedding” of the engaged couple is to take place.
Essential elements in this proximate preparation
We can identify these by considering carefully the thought of Pope John Paul II and the Pontifical Council for the Family on this matter.
According to Pope John Paul II this proximate preparation “will present marriage as an interpersonal relationship of a man and a woman, and it will encourage those concerned to study the nature of conjugal sexuality and responsible parenthood, with the essential medical and biological knowledge connected with it. It will also acquaint those concerned with correct methods for the education of children, and will assist them in gaining the basic requisites for well-ordered family life, such as stable work, sufficient financial resources, sensible administration, notions of housekeeping. Finally, one must not overlook preparation for…fraternal solidarity and collaboration with other families, for active membership in groups, associations, movements and undertakings set up for the…benefit of the family” (Familiaris Consortio 66. Ellipses indicate features essential to preparing for a Catholic marriage; these have been omitted because many of our readers are not Catholic but share with Catholics a fundamental understanding of what marriage is). From his description of “proximate preparation,” omitting features specific to preparation for a Catholic marriage, we can legitimately conclude that during this stage of marriage preparation it is essential to help persons understand what marriage is as an interpersonal relationship between a man and a woman, the nature and meaning of the conjugal or marital act and of responsible parenthood. In addition, it requires those preparing youth for marriage to help them understand the “facts of life,” and to do so not as mere biological knowledge but as enabling them to grasp more clearly God’s plan for marriage as a life-giving reality and to do so in a manner appropriate to their maturity, e.g., as pubescent teens, young adolescents, young adults etc. It should likewise be concerned with the proper education of children who will one day marry and raise a family and with practical aspects of married life such as a stable job, adequate financial resources etc. and also prepare them to be open to and collaborate with other families and the broader society of which they are members.
The Pontifical Council for the Family’s 1996 document, Preparing for the Sacrament of Marriage, identified the following essential components of proximate preparation (again, ellipses indicate matter exclusively relating to the preparation for a Catholic marriage): “instruction regarding the natural requirements of the interpersonal relationship between a man and a woman in God’s plan for marriage and the family: awareness regarding freedom of consent as the foundation of their union, the unity and indissolubility of marriage, the correct concept of responsible parenthood, the human aspects of conjugal sexuality, the conjugal act with its requirements and ends, and the proper education of children. All of this is aimed at knowing the moral truth and…[it] must not neglect formation for the social… tasks proper to those who will have new families as a result of their marriage. Family intimacy should not be conceived as being closed in on itself, but rather as a capacity to interiorize the human…riches inherent in married life in view of an ever greater giving to others. Therefore, in an open concept of the family, married and family life requires the spouses to recognize themselves as subjects having rights but also duties towards society…” (nos. 38-39).
This document’s list of items essential for the proximate preparation for marriage parallels that of John Paul II. But it explicitly notes the role of free consent in establishing marriage, speaks of marriage’s unity (monogamous marriage) and indissolubility. The other items identified seem to me to be either identical with or very closely related to the ones already brought to our attention by John Paul II.
In light of this I propose the following as essential elements in the proximate preparation for marriage:
1. The key role of free personal consent by both man and woman to marry;
2. Marriage as monogamous and indissoluble;
3. Responsible parenthood;
4. The nature and meaning of the conjugal act;
5. The proper education of children;
6. Rights and duties of the married to the larger society.
This article will address the first 3 of these major elements. The next one will address the final 3 and also such important but less substantive matters as a stable job, financial resources, homemaking or housekeeping, etc.
1.The Key Role of Free Personal Consent to Marry
Consent is an act of the will, and the free, personal consent of one man and one woman to marry each other is absolutely necessary. This consent brings marriage into existence. It is what makes them to be husbands and wives.
We must distinguish this consent from the consent necessary to make a man and a woman an engaged couple. In getting engaged a man proposes marriage to a woman and if she says “yes” to this proposal, they consent to be an engaged couple. Their pledge to get married in the future is sealed when the man gives the woman an engagement ring. But engaged couples are not married; they are not husband and wife, nor do they have the rights and duties of husbands and wives. Each is free to break the engagement and continue searching for a wife or husband or perhaps to choose a single life as a priest or religious or as a single person in the world.
Helmut Thielicke hit the nail on the head when he said: “Not uniqueness establishes the marriage, but the marriage establishes the uniqueness.” This shows that at the heart of the act establishing marriage is a free, self-determining choice on the part of the man and the woman, through which they give themselves a new and lasting identity. This man becomes this woman’s husband, and she becomes his wife, and together they become spouses. Prior to this act of irrevocable personal consent the man and the woman were separate individuals, replaceable and substitutable. But in and through this act they make each other unique and irreplaceable. The man and the woman are not, for each other, replaceable and substitutable individuals but are irreplaceable and non-substitutable persons.
2. Marriage as Monogamous (the unity of marriage) and Indissoluble
That marriage is monogamous and indissoluble follows from the nature of the consent to marry already considered. In and through this consent husbands “foreswear all other women” and wives “foreswear all other men,” and thus the reality to which they consent and bring into being is monogamous, i.e., between one man and one woman. The indissolubility of marriage is also rooted in the nature of this consent through which the man has given himself the identity of this woman’s husband and she has given herself the identity of this man’s wife. My identity as her husband is thus rooted in my very being, just as my identity as the son of Katherine Armstrong May and Robert W. May is rooted in my very being. Thus I can no more un-spouse myself through subsequent choices, just as I cannot un-son myself, nor can my wife un-spouse herself, just as she cannot un-daughter herself. I may be a poor or bad husband, just as I can be a bad, unloving son, but I remain for all that a husband, and the husband of the woman to whom I freely gave myself when I gave myself to her in marriage and she to me.
It is most important to explain what responsible parenthood requires in the proximate preparation for marriage. Today, unfortunately, many erroneously think that responsible parenthood means preventing the birth of a child who is, for some reason, unwanted by using contraception and, should contraception fail, using abortion as a backup. This is irresponsible parenthood.
Responsible parenthood means realizing, first of all, that children are a blessing, the gift crowning the marital act, not a curse or a burden. It means, secondly, that marriage and the having and raising of children go together; it is natural and normal for married couples to beget children to whom they can give the home they need and to which they have a right, and to educate them in love so that they love God above all things and their neighbors as themselves.
Responsible parenthood also means understanding the “facts” of life. Those being given proximate preparation for marriage should realize that when a man and a woman have genital sex they are choosing to engage in the only kind of bodily act through which new human life can he generated. It remains this kind of act in itself even if some conditions, for instance, the infertility, temporal or permanent, of both the man and the woman may make it impossible for new life to be generated.
There can be serious reasons why a married couple ought not to have another baby: a new pregnancy might cause serious health problems for the wife; the time needed to care for a child already born suffering from maladies such as cystic fibrosis could make caring properly for another child during that child’s infancy very difficult; extreme financial burdens might be caused, etc.
Couples who contracept also may have a serious reason not to cause a pregnancy. Like all of us, they are intelligent and purposeful in their actions. They know that if they have genital sex it can cause the woman to become pregnant. But they want to have genital sex and realize that it is the kind of bodily act through which a new life can be generated and thus cause the woman to be pregnant. They therefore do something precisely to impede that new life from beginning; that is, they contracept. Contracepting would be foolish and serve no purpose if they were kissing or having anal or oral sex or playing cards, but it does make sense and is purposeful if they want to have sexual intercourse and prevent the woman from getting pregnant.
Couples who practice responsible parenthood do not contracept. They realize that the wife may become pregnant if they engage in the marital act at a time when she is fertile. And they also know, as a result of excellent programs of natural family planning (or what can accurately be called “fertility awareness” programs), how to determine the times when the wife is fertile. If it then is reasonable not to cause her to become pregnant, they choose to abstain from the marital act and choose to engage in it when it is reasonable to think that she is not fertile. In addition, they can use this knowledge to enhance the likelihood of conception with pregnancy and birth of a new human person when it is prudent for them to have a child. Their behavior is completely different from that of couples who contracept.
We have now explained during what period of life the “proximate preparation for marriage” should take place and reviewed three of the essential elements in this preparation. In the next article three more essential elements will be discussed along with a consideration of less substantive but quite important issues that must be taken up in this preparation, issues such as a stable job and adequate financial resources.
 Helmut Thielike, The Ethics of Sex (New York: Harper &Row, 1963), p. 20.
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