Preparation for Marriage III (part 2)
Immediate Preparation Part 2: A Chaste Courtship

William E. May
© 2010 Culture of Life Foundation
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation


If the marriage for which engaged couples are preparing is to be happy and lasting, their courtship must be a chaste one. Abundant evidence shows that living together and having sex prior to marriage is not advisable if one wants a happy, lasting marriage because after marriage there is frequent divorce, infidelity, and unhappiness. Thus this article focuses on the meaning of love because a chaste courtship must be rooted in a proper understanding of love.

Clear-headed thinking about love

Love is a many-splendored thing. In his famous book, The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis distinguished between affection (from the Greek storge), erotic love (eros, not necessarily bad), friendship (philia), and charity (agape). Most of us have had the experience of "falling in love" with a person of the opposite sex, and undoubtedly engaged couples have "fallen in love" with each other. But we must realize that this kind of love, which we can call "romantic" love, is in itself an emotion, a feeling, and it can cause us to make fools of ourselves (it comes from the Latin verb "infatuare," to cause to make foolish or fatuus). Love is indeed a feeling or emotion, but it is more than that. It is also an act of the will, of free will, involving free choice.

Here I will make use of the probing and profound analyses that Karol Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II) gave in his 1960 book, Love and Responsibility, because his analyses of love are critically important. In that work he examines (1) two kinds of emotional love, namely sensuality and sentimentality, (2) conjugal or betrothed love, and (3) chastity. I consider his analyses of these realities critically important for understanding how to make one's courtship chaste. He regarded sensuality and sentimentality (also called tenderness) as the necessary "raw materials" of true love as an act of the will committing oneself to another in friendship and, in particular, in "betrothed" or "conjugal" love, which is the love that engaged persons do not now have but toward which they aspire and for which marriage will enable them.

(1a) Sensuality.

Since men and women are bodily, sexual beings, they naturally impress one another as persons of this kind and elicit a response. Among the responses is sensuality, a response to the sexual values of the body-person and a response to the person as a "potential object of enjoyment." Thus sensuality has a "consumer orientation," being directed "primarily and immediately towards a 'body.' Because sensuality is directed to using the body as an object it even interferes with the apprehension of the body as beautiful" (p. 105).

But it is important to recognize that "this [consumer] orientation of sensuality is a matter of spontaneous reflexes," and is not "primarily an evil thing but a natural thing" (p. 106). "Sensuality expresses itself mainly in an appetitive form: a person of the other sex is seen as an 'object of desire' specifically because of the sexual value inherent in the body itself, for it is in the body that the senses discover that which determines sexual difference, sexual 'otherness'" (p. 107).

The human person, however, "cannot be an object for use. Now, the body is an integral part of the person, and so must not be treated as though it were detached from the whole person: both the value of the body and the sexual value which finds expression in the body depend upon the value of the person....a sensual reaction in which the body and sex are a possible object for use threatens to devalue the person" (p. 107). Thus sensuality, although not evil in itself, poses a threat and a temptation. It is, however, "a sort of raw material for true, conjugal love." But since it is "blind to the person and oriented only towards the sexual value connected with 'the body,'" it is "fickle, turning wherever it finds that value, wherever a 'possible object of enjoyment' appears" (p. 108). But this natural response of the person to the sexual values of the body of a person of the opposite sex is not in itself morally wrong. Rather "an exuberant and readily roused sensuality is the stuff from which a rich -- if difficult -- personal life may be made" (p. 109).

(1b) Sentimentality (affection)

Sentimentality, another deeply felt response to the body-person, differs from sensuality because it is oriented "to the sexual value residing in 'a whole person of the other sex,' to 'femininity' or 'masculinity'" (p. 110). It is the source of affection. While based, as is sensuality, on a sensory intuition, its content is "the whole 'person of the other sex,' the whole 'woman' or 'man.' For sensuality, one part of this integral sense impression 'the body' immediately stands out from and is as it were dissociated from the rest [namely, the 'sexual value'], whereas sentiment remains attached to a whole individual of the other sex" (p. 110).

Thus affection seems free of the concupiscence of which sensuality is full. But a different kind of desire is present, a "desire for nearness, for proximity,...for exclusivity or intimacy" (p. 110). This leads to tenderness, and unfortunately can easily shift into the territory of sensuality, this time a sensuality disguised as sentiment (p. 111). It gives rise to "sentimental love" or "romantic" love. The problem here is that this can lead to an idealization of the object of love -- one idealizes the object of sentimental love because one wants that object to be the one who gives the subjective feeling of intimacy. What one "loves" is not the person as such, but rather the experience of closeness and intimacy that the person provides (p. 111).

Although "raw material" for love, sentiment is not love because it is blind to the person and fixed on the subjective feelings that the idealized person can give. Thus "if 'love' remains just sensuality, a matter of 'sex appeal,' it will not be love at all, but only the utilization of one person by another, or of two persons by each other. While if love remains mere sentiment it will equally be unlike love in the complete sense of the word. For both persons will remain in spite of everything divided from each other, though it may appear that they are very close just because they eagerly seek proximity," but the proximity sought is not sought because the person is loved but rather because the subjective feeling of affection the idealized person communicates is loved (pp. 113-114).

(1c) The problem of integrating these "raw materials" of love

Sensuality and sentimentality, Wojtyla says, can be integrated into true interpersonal love, especially between man and woman, only in the light of objective truth and only by free, self-determining choice: "the process of integrating love relies on the primary elements of the human spirit -- freedom and truth" (p. 116).

We are free to choose what we are to do, but, as we know, we can choose badly. Wojtyla emphasizes that we choose well, i.e., we make morally good choices, only when we choose in the light of objective truth. Human persons, males and females, known in the light of objective truth, are not products to be consumed nor are they objects whose purpose is to give us the psychological experience of intimacy or tenderness. Rather they are beings of inestimable value who are to be loved for their own sakes. Guided by these truths, persons can properly integrate sensuality and sentimentality (affection) into themselves and choose well in their interpersonal relationships, especially those between man and woman (my paraphrase of pp. 116-118).

These considerations lead Wojtyla to reflect on betrothed or conjugal love and the virtue of chastity.

Betrothed or conjugal love

Betrothed or conjugal love differs profoundly from the love that ought to exist between engaged persons. But since it is the love toward which they aspire, a summary of Wojtyla's presentation of betrothed love is useful here.

He stresses that love "is directed not towards 'the body' alone, nor yet towards 'a human being of the other sex,' but precisely towards a person. What is more, it is only when it directs itself [through free choice] to the person that love is love" (p. 123). This leads to the "self-giving" characteristic of "betrothed love," a love based on reciprocity, friendship, and rooted in commitment to a common, shared good (pp. 126-127)…. Before the love of a man and woman can "take on its definitive form, become 'betrothed love,' the man and the woman each face the choice of the person on whom to bestow the gift of self....The object of choice is another person, but it is as though one were choosing another 'I,' choosing oneself in another, and the other in oneself. Only if it is objectively good for two persons to be together can they belong to each other," and only then is genital sex morally justified, for then it is rightly called the conjugal or marital act wherein husband and wife become "one flesh" (p. 131).

Chastity and the integration of sensuality and sentimentality into one's personal being

Wojtyla situates chastity among the four "cardinal" (from the Latin cardo, meaning "hinge") virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. It is one of the integral parts of the cardinal virtue of temperance or moderation. Temperance "restrains the instinctive appetites for various material and bodily goods which force themselves upon the senses. Sensual reactions must be subordinated to reason: this is the function of the virtue of moderation....for a reasonable being such as man is to desire and strive for that which reason recognizes as good" (p. 168). We must realize that virtue of temperance (and its parts, such as chastity) is "seated" in our concupiscible appetite. The point is that the temperate person, the chaste person not only knows intellectually but also "feels" differently with respect to "sexual values" than the unchaste person. His "feelings," his emotions and "sensuality" are suffused with reason, ready to be subordinated to the truth.

Wojtyla, further describing chastity's function, stresses that chastity is "simply a matter of efficiency in controlling the concupiscent impulses." "Fully formed virtue is an efficiently functioning control which permanently keeps the appetites in equilibrium by means of its habitual attitude to the true good determined by reason" (p. 169). He gets to the heart of the matter when he says that "Chastity can only be thought of in association with the virtue of love," and that "its function is to free love from the utilitarian attitude" (p. 169). "The virtue of chastity, whose function it is to free love from utilitarian attitudes, must control not only sensuality and carnal concupiscence, as such, but -- perhaps more important -- those centres deep within the human being in which the utilitarian attitude is hatched and grows...the more successfully the utilitarian attitude is camouflaged in the will the more dangerous it is...To be chaste means to have a 'transparent' attitude to a person of the other sex -- chastity means just that -- the interior 'transparency' without which love is not itself" (p. 170). This does not mean that chastity is negative; it is rather positive, a yes to the value of the human person, a yes to raising all reactions to the value of 'the body and sex' to the level of the person (pp. 170-171). We can sum up Wojtyla's thought by saying that chastity is the virtue enabling a person to come into possession of his sexual desires and feelings, not to be possessed by them, so that he can give himself away in love to others, particularly to a person of the other sex.

Modesty, a part of chastity and the moat, as it were, protecting the castle of chastity

If men and women are to be chaste, they must be modest in their conduct and dress. To some extent, how to be modest in these ways depends on the culture in which one lives. Thus modesty in the New Guineas is different from modesty in Washington DC. But a key factor is this: if speech or dress are such that they deliberately evoke sexual arousement then they are not modest.[1]


We have now seen what elements are crucial for a chaste courtship. The next and final article on the immediate preparation for marriage will consider more practical but important matters that need to be addressed during this time: issues such as preparing spiritually and materially for the wedding, taking any mandatory inquiries, particularly helpful ways of forestalling certain kinds of problems that can occur in marriage, etc.