Preparing for Marriage I: Remote Preparation

William E. May
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

Background and introduction

Today many persons soon to be married are far more occupied with and interested in their wedding than they are with their marriage. Moreover, today there are competing and contradictory views about marriage. Some feminists claim that a heterosexual, misogynist patriarchy invented marriage as a way of enslaving women. Advocates of a secularist, atheistic (or at most nontheistic) understanding of human "persons" judge marriage a legal contract between persons, whether of opposite sexes or of the same sex, presently required to obtain certain benefits. They claim that marriage is a human invention, a cultural construct subject to radical change, and morally irrelevant to sexual behavior or to decisions whether or not to have children, who are viewed more frequently as burdens than as blessings. There are also those whose understanding of human existence is shaped by our Judeo-Christian heritage and "natural law" (on this see Marguerite A. Peeters' "Current Proposals and the State of the Question," in Men and Women: Diversity and Mutual Complemenarity: Study Seminar Vatican City, 30-31 January 2004. Pontificium Concilium Pro Laicis. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2006, pp. 73-98). They affirm that God is the author of marriage, which they celebrate as the lifelong union of one man and one woman who pledge to be faithful to one another until death and who welcome children as gifts crowning their one flesh union, as blessings and not as burdens.

With others who seek to help build a "civilization of love" and develop a "culture of life," my understanding of marriage is that just described. I believe that in creating "man," "male and female," in his own image and likeness (see Genesis 1:28ff), God also created marriage. I likewise believe - and think that evidence drawn from many sources makes this belief "credible" - that it is not good for children to be generated in acts of fornication or adultery or "made" by the new reproductive technologies, as W. Bradford Wilcox, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia has shown in numerous studies. (For a listing of these studies see Every human baby, no matter how generated, is a person of inviolable dignity, but God wills that babies be begotten in and through the marital act, an act proper and exclusive to spouses and one open both to love and to life.

How then are we to prepare for marriage, particularly in our contemporary society? After calling attention to three different "stages" in the preparation for marriage, I will describe the procedure I will follow in this and future articles on marriage preparation.

Different "stages" in marriage preparation

In his 1993 Apostolic Exhortation on The Role of the Christian Family in the World Today (Familiaris Consortio) Pope John Paul II distinguished three "stages" of marriage preparation: the "remote," the "proximate," and the "immediate." According to him, the remote "begins in early childhood, in that wise family training which leads children to discover themselves as beings endowed with a rich and complex psychology and with a particular personality with its own strengths and weaknesses. It is the period when esteem for all authentic human values is instilled, both in interpersonal and in social relationships, with all that this signifies for the formation of character, for the control and right use of one's inclinations, for the manner of regarding and meeting people of the opposite sex, and so on" (no. 26). The "proximate" begins at a "suitable" age. John Paul considered this "suitable" age the "period of youth" or about the time of the onset of puberty and lasting "through the engagement period." The third or "immediate" stage, he said, should take place in the months and weeks prior to the celebration of marriage and should be a real "journey of faith," of a renewed and vital plumbing of the meaning of the Christian life and calling (see also Pontifical Council on Marriage's Preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage available at

Purpose and Procedure

My purpose is not to consider the three stages of marriage preparation from the specific perspective of a Catholic Christian, but rather from the perspective of the Judeo-Christian heritage of so many in our society, a perspective in many ways common to Jews and to others as well.

Several articles will consider the three stages. This one is devoted to the "remote" stage; the next two or possibly three will consider the "proximate" stage (in developing ideas regarding that stage I will also take up the important topic of a chaste courtship). A final article will consider the "immediate" preparation.

The "Remote" Preparation for Marriage

Pope John Paul II said that this stage begins "in infancy" and continues until the age "suitable" for youth (for most this would be during puberty). The "remote" stage in fact begins in the mother's womb. My focus is on the absolutely indispensable role that mothers and fathers play during this stage of marriage preparation.

"Mothering" and "Fathering"

A key principle of Montessori education is that an "environment" fitting for children must be "prepared" if they are to flourish and if their "absorbent minds" are to exercise their God-given thirst for learning and the truth (on this see E. M. Standing, Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work (London: A Plume Book, 1984), pp. 263-279). The very first "environment" affecting a human child is his or her mother's womb. As John Paul II noted, every new human life is entrusted to "each and every other human being, but in a special woman, precisely because the woman in virtue of her special experience of motherhood is seen to have a specific sensitivity towards the human person" (Christifideles laici, 51 emphasis added; see also Mulieris Dignitatem, 30).

In Mulieris Dignitatem, 18 John Paul said that the mother's unique contact with the child generates in her "an attitude toward human beings -- not only toward her own child but to every human being -- profoundly marking the woman's personality." He expresses agreement with the commonly held view that women "are more capable than men of paying attention to another person and that motherhood develops this predisposition even more." He then concludes: "The man - even with his sharing in parenthood - always remains 'outside' the process of pregnancy and the baby's birth; in many ways he has to learn his own 'fatherhood' from the mother."

Women as mothers

Studies have demonstrated that even while in their mother's wombs infants bond with their mothers and flourish if their mothers "welcome" them into this, their first "home." But these modern scientific studies simply support what women and mothers have known for centuries. Many scholars and others maintain that women become mothers "naturally." According to them men and women differ not only anatomically and physically but in the very depths of their being. Women sense differently, feel differently, think differently, love differently. Their own bodies, integral to their being as persons, give them more "clues" as to who they are. Unlike males, their fertility is periodical as they are being prepared to welcome a child into their wombs, and once a child is conceived their breasts begin to develop so that at the child's birth they are able to nourish him or her at their breast and care for him or her. There is at first a "symbiosis" of mother and child, and the child must gradually learn that he or she differs from his or her mother and girls find it easier to do this than boys because they simply have to distinguish themselves from their mothers as individuals, whereas boys must so distinguish themselves not only as individuals but as different in their own sexuality. [1]

Men as fathers

But men do not become "fathers" naturally. They have to learn what a father ought to do in order to "father" his children. It is true that they learn this to a great extent from their wives, but they also learn it from their own fathers and from the example of other good fathers. And blest is the man whose father, like mine, cared deeply for him and helped his mother in her task of raising him.

Fathers must insert themselves into the bond between mother and child if the child is to develop a necessary "autonomy," one that recognizes too the natural law God has inscribed in the human heart. But this does not mean that maternal values are repudiated - fathers ought to embody mother-like attributes without ceasing to be fathers - but the exclusivity of the mother-bond is challenged by a loved family member whose own relationship to the child separates the child and orients it toward its personal future in extra-familial society. A woman is naturally inclined to nurture the child and is involved intimately in his or her education at all times but particularly during infancy and childhood. A man is naturally inclined to impose an order on things, whether it is the simple physical fact of initiating pregnancy, providing the home as shelter and protection, or the more spiritual tasks of disciplining the children physically and mentally, or undertaking the work of the wider social order. Thus the father, who also ought to be involved in his children's education at all times, is much more involved in and influential in it during their adolescence and young adulthood. As one writer, Benedict Ashley, O.P. put the matter: "Where the woman allows a child to grow, the father causes the child to grow" (Benedict Ashley, O.P., "Moral Theology and Mariology," Anthropotes: Rivista di studi sulla persona e la famiglia 7 (1991), 140).

Male children, as they grow into adolescence, need to know what husbands and fathers are to do, above all they must know that a husband must love his wife and never "abuse" her or treat her as a sex object. Girls too need to know this and to learn from their fathers, as well as from their mothers, two essential things: first, that they must treasure and guard their virginity until they marry, if they are to respect their own dignity; and second, the need for children (who, after all, can be conceived if they do not remain virgins) to be conceived and born of men and women who are "fit" to educate them in the love and service of God and neighbor, and that only men and women married to each other are so "fit."

In short, a key and absolutely necessary condition for marriage preparation during the "remote" stage from infancy through pubescence is that children, male and female, be given the environment of loving husbands and wives. In fact, the best gift a father can give his children is to love their mother as his irreplaceable, nonsubstitutable spouse, his "best" and "closest" earthly friend, and the best gift a mother can give her children is to love their father the same way.


1. There is abundant literature on this. See for instance, the following: Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse, "On the Difference Between Men and Women," in Male and Female: Christian Approaches to Sexuality, ed. Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse and Urban T. Holmes III (New York: Seabury, 1976), pp.3-16; Steven C. Clark, Man and Woman in Christ (Ann Arbor: Servant Books, 1980, chapter 1 of Part II; George Gilder, Sexual Suicide (New York: Quadrangle Books, 1973) chapters 1 and 2; Gilder, Men and Marriage (New York: Penguin, 1986); see also Carle Zimmermann and Lucius Cervantes, Marriage and the Family (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1960), pp. 137-292 (by Cervantes - both Cervantes and Zimmermann were Harvard Professors. Although the Zimmermann-Cervantes study was made in the late 50s and Barnhouse's Clark's in the late 70s and early 80s, there is a great similarity between the debates raging over male and female differences raging then and those raging today. Today Barnhouse and Clark oppose feminists like Susan Brownmiller, Germain Greer, and Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza , whereas Cervantes and Zimmermann opposed their earlier predecessors. More recent and more militant feminists who view marriage as an invention of heterosexual patriarchs to keep women in slavery are considered and identified by Marguerite Peeters' essay on this matter (see reference to her essay in footnote 1). Cervantes and Clark cite numerous studies by biologists, sociologists, anthropologists in support of their presentation. See also the material from contemporary sexologists used by Karol Wojtyla in the final chapter of his Love and Responsibility. A helpful essay on this subject is Manfred Lutz's "and Crises in the Relationship Between Man and Woman," in Men and Women: Diversity and Mutual Complementarity, pp. 47-62.