The Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage seems to both intrigue and infuriate the general public. Time and again those of us who are Catholic mental health providers are asked questions about the Church’s stance on marriage, such as why remarriage after divorce is not permitted within the Catholic Church, and why all marriages must be open to life. Ultimately, though, one particular question continues to come up time and again: “Why is the Church so restrictive when it comes to marriage?” The logic behind this question is clear: “If the Church is so merciful, then why does it insist on strict rules and procedures for marriage?” Or, to put it more succinctly, “If two people love each other, what else matters?” These questions, however, miss a fundamental psychological aspect of the Church’s life and tradition: one must be psychologically mature before receiving the sacrament of Holy Matrimony.
Marriage is for Adults
One cannot promise to feel in love forever, but one can promise to always perform loving actions throughout a lifetime.
While I’m neither a Canon lawyer nor a professional theologian, I’m able to comment on the Church’s marital teaching from a psychological point of view. The Church notes in its Canon Law (Canon 1095) that for a person to enter into marriage she must have sufficient use of her reason, understand marriage’s essential rights and obligations, and not suffer from any serious psychological impediment which would cause her to be unable to assume the essential obligations of marriage. In brief, the Church holds marriage in such high regard that it wants to make certain that those who are entering into this vocation have reached an appropriate developmental level; in other words, that they are adults in the proper sense of the term.
What exactly does it mean when the Church claims that only those who have reached an adult maturity are able to marry? While this question merits an article unto itself, we can discuss a few points at present. A psychologically healthy and mature adult is able to not just emotionally understand how marriage is indissoluble, but also has fully integrated this idea into his very self. Meaning, that while he may have days, weeks, months, or even years where he feels it might be best to leave his marriage, he is firm in the belief that divorce is not an option. An example of integration comes from C. S Lewis’ text, Mere Christianity, in which Lewis notes that one cannot promise to feel in love forever, but one can promise to always perform loving actions throughout a lifetime.
A properly developed adult is also able to make decisions without an excessive reassurance from others (particularly from parents). While it may be wise to seek an older couple’s counsel on certain matters, a true mark of maturity is the ability to make decisions, to accept whatever consequences come, and to figure out how to produce the best outcome. A third mark of psychological maturity is progress in at least some of the virtues. While we all struggle in terms of living a virtuous life, an adult should have at least made significant progress with such virtues as fortitude and prudence. If one or both of the potential spouses are lacking in their practice of the virtues, then there is a significant chance of entering into the marital union unprepared.
Since the Church views marriage as a gift from God, it is also concerned with the psychological state of those entering into marriage. Marriage is not something we can demand to be done on our timetable. No couple can walk into their parish’s office and command that the pastor marry them on a particular date. The idea that we cannot have marriage-on-demand is incredibly important to understand especially in a culture where we expect to get what we want, when we want. Delayed gratification is another necessary virtue within the married vocation, and is another mark of psychological maturity. If a person cannot exercise it prior to the wedding, then it is a fantasy to expect that she will be magically able to do so simply because her marriage is blessed by the Church.
Preparing for Marriage
Marriage preparation begins long before the wedding day; properly done, it begins in childhood and is not a merely a six-month crash course.
The solution to the issue of psychological maturity is proper marriage preparation. The Church lays out guidelines for proper marriage preparation in its document, Preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage. One of the main points within the document is that marriage preparation begins long before the wedding day; properly done, it begins in childhood and is not a merely a six-month crash course. This means that marital preparation should begin within the person’s family of origin (especially given that parents are their children’s primary educators). From a psychological perspective, this claim makes perfect sense given that a person’s experience within his family of origin either hinders or helps him act in a mature and virtuous manner throughout his life.
Additionally, since psychological maturity takes time it makes logical sense to begin a person’s proper development within his family instead of immediately prior to his wedding day. Proper marriage preparation takes time, radical honesty with oneself and one’s future spouse, deep introspection in terms of how a person’s experiences within his family of origin shaped him, and a commitment to prayer. No one can rush the process in the name of convenience or to avoid social embarrassment and expect to experience the joy that comes from a contemplative marriage preparation process. Additionally, to rush this process only increases the possibility that a person is entering into a marriage without the full picture of both himself and his fiancée.
The Church sets a high bar for those who want to enter into marriage. It only opens the door to this vocation to those who are psychologically prepared for such a life. Indeed, the Church (like Moses protecting the Ten Commandments) is charged with ensuring that those who seek to enter into this vocation do so well-formed, well-informed, and possessing the virtues necessary for flourishing within this state of life. In a real way, the Church’s teaching on who may or may not enter into marriage is grounded in mercy, since it never wants to see a marriage fail. The Church desires that all marriages flourish and is ready and willing to help those who may need extra support to be able to enter into and enjoy their God-given vocation.