We have now examined some of the major elements that must be taken up during the proximate preparation for marriage, namely, (1) the key role of free personal consent by both man and woman to marry, (2) marriage as monogamous and indissoluble, and (3) responsible parenthood. We will now consider (4) the nature and meaning of the conjugal act, (5) the proper education of children, and (6) the rights and duties of the married to the larger society. In a final piece on proximate preparation I will consider some very serious matters, not focused on understanding what marriage is all about but of great practical importance: a stable job, adequate financial resources, homemaking or housekeeping.
4. Meaning and nature of the conjugal or marital act
The conjugal or marital act is not merely a genital act between a man and a woman who happen to be married. It is an act “proper and exclusive” to spouses and as such it is the kind of act in and through which conjugal or marital love can be fittingly expressed. It is also the kind of bodily act in and through which new human life can be given and received. It is thus an act “open” to the good, first, of marital love, and, second, of new human life. If either spouse deliberately, i.e., intentionally, sets aside the good of conjugal love and chooses simply to gratify his or her lustful desires, the act can no longer be considered a marital or conjugal act—it is an act that abuses the other spouse. For instance, if a husband wanted sex and did not even care whether the person who gives him sexual pleasure is his wife or not, he violates the good of conjugal love and abuses his wife.
Just as a husband and a wife violate their marriage and render their genital union non-conjugal or non-marital by deliberately setting aside conjugal love and for it substitute their own selfish gratification, so they likewise violate their marriage and render their union non-conjugal if, in freely choosing to have genital sex, they deliberately repudiate its procreative meaning by intentionally “closing” their act to the transmission of new human life by contracepting, a subject taken up in some detail in “Proximate Preparation One.”
5. The proper education of children
Spouses are the primary educators of their children, not the state, and this truth ought to be recognized. They are not only to welcome their children lovingly and nurture them humanely, but to educate them in the love and service of God and neighbor. As their children’s primary educators they are the ones who have the right and responsibility to teach them “the facts of life” when they are in puberty and beginning to realize that males and females are indeed different in many ways, they are sexual beings with sexual desires. Their parents have the duty to help their adolescent children understand, as fittingly as possible given their level of maturity (beginning adolescence, teen age, etc.) not only the anatomical and biological “facts of life.” More importantly they must help their children learn that they must gain control of their feelings and desires and not allow themselves to become possessed by them and that they can do this only by fostering the virtue of chastity.
Chastity is an integral part of the virtue of temperance, which in turn is one of the four cardinal (from the Latin cardo, meaning “hinge”) virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude. Temperance is a virtue concerned with ordering a person’s appetites for food, drink, and sex, and chastity is the specific virtue with regard to sex. Its function is to make it easy, second nature as it were, to order his sexual desires reasonably so that he can relate properly to others, in particular persons of the opposite sex to whom he (or she) is naturally attracted. A person acquires this virtue by making true judgments and choices about what he rightly ought to do in his relationships toward others, again particularly persons of the other sex. Such judgments include judgments that he ought not have sex (genital sex) with another person or engage in sexually arousing behavior strongly inclining one to have sex unless he is married to that person. The virtue, acquired in this way, internally disposes a person to make choices in accord with these true judgments. It is, as it were, “seated” in the person’s sexual appetites so that he not only knows intellectually what ought to be done or not done but “feels” repugnance at acting unchastely and joy in acting chastely. I think we could say that chastity therefore is a virtue that enables us to take possession of our sexual desires and not be possessed by them so that we think and feel that we must gratify them as much as possible. Only people so in possession of themselves are able to give themselves to others in love and with respect for their irreplaceable dignity as persons. Chaste adolescents, teens, and young adults will know and “feel” why it is good for them to abstain from genital sex or arousal behaviors that push one to engaging in sexual intimacies and intercourse. They will understand why it is good for them to be virgins until they are married.
The great virtue of chastity needs the virtue of modesty in conduct and in dress. A former student of mine, Colleen McGuigan (now Colleen France and the mother of several children) wrote a remarkable and beautiful paper in which she developed a theme her mother had taught her: “Modesty is the moat around the castle of chastity” in the light of Karol Wojtyla’s Love and Responsibility (her essay can be found at http://www.christendom-awake.org/pages/may/castle.htm).
As their children’s primary educators, parents likewise need to discipline their children fittingly. It is very important to know who their friends are and to explain to their children why some friendships should be dropped and others cultivated. Parents must also let their children know that as long as they are dependent on them, parents do not violate their privacy when they inspect their rooms. They are obliged to do so to make sure that, because perhaps of peer pressures, their children are not using drugs, alcohol, and purveying pornographic material. They need also to monitor their use of t.v. and the internet and make use of available technologies for blocking access to morally vicious internet sources. These very important matters cannot be taken up here in depth but perhaps will be in future Culture of Life pieces.
6. Rights and duties to the larger society
As part of educating their children, parents have the duty to show them during the proximate period of marriage preparation that good families are not closed in on themselves. They are part of a larger society, beginning with their neighborhood, their city or town, their state, their nation, and now the global community. They are called to work for the common good of these larger societies to the extent that is possible and to oppose movements that violate that good. Briefly put, the “common good” of a society embraces all those real (as opposed to false) goods that contribute to the flourishing of individuals and the societies of which they are members, goods such as life itself, including health and bodily integrity, knowledge of the truth and appreciation of beauty, developing and exercising skills in play and work, living in friendship with others, coming into possession of their desires and not being possessed by them, etc.
The matters considered here are absolutely essential for a decent program of proximate preparation for marriage aimed at adolescents, teen agers, and young adults. They must not only come to know the truths presented but must commit themselves to shape their own lives in accordance with them if their marriage is to be an authentic love-giving, life-giving union of a man and a woman that endures–for better or worse, in sickness and in health, until death—and not a pseudo-reality in which the man and the woman commit themselves not to love each other exclusively until death but only so long as their union is to their advantage. In the final piece devoted to this stage of preparation for marriage such practical matters as a stable job, adequate financial resources, and homemaking will be taken up.
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