I would like to point out what I believe to be the via media, whereby these our brothers and sisters in Christ can both be welcomed and challenged to live the call of their baptism.
But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death (Rv 21:8).
Every priest who prepares couples for the sacrament of matrimony in the United States knows that a majority of the young people requesting this sacrament are habitually fornicating in a publicly scandalous manner; we euphemize this reality by the word “cohabitation.” Priests are often baffled at the prospect of credibly proposing the Church’s sexual teaching to these couples. Priests’ responses can range from cowardly resignation and unwillingness to confront the difficult situation, to arrogant indignation at the sin of the couple, which immediately closes off any meaningful hope for dialogue and conversion. In this little article, I would like to point out what I believe to be the via media, whereby these our brothers and sisters in Christ can both be welcomed and challenged to live the call of their baptism. In the words of Pope Paul VI in his encyclical letter Humanae Vitae: “While it is an outstanding manifestation of charity towards souls to omit nothing from the saving doctrine of Christ, this must always be joined with tolerance and charity, as Christ himself showed by his conversations and dealings with men. Having come not to judge the world but to save it, he was uncompromisingly stern towards sin, but patient and rich in mercy towards sinners.”
Whenever couples present themselves to the Church’s priest for a sacrament, the first response should be one of joyful and enthusiastic welcome. Whatever the motivations for their petition, an immortal soul has the opportunity to encounter the fount of life and the source of eternal salvation, Jesus Christ. We should greet them and listen to them with care, sincerity, and with a smile.
The question nevertheless inevitably arises: What should a priest do in the face of consistent and habitual moral choices contrary to their dignity as persons and children of God? “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mt 9:13). The first thing the priest ought to do is call the couple—with sensitivity and in a manner suitable to their maturity and understanding—to a deeper life in Jesus Christ; a call to follow Jesus as a disciple. In this spirit, allow me to present three approaches which I have found to be particularly helpful in unveiling the lie of fornication.
- Women are biologically different from men. Men are almost always “ready”—so to say—while women are not. Women are often able to think more clearly and rationally about sex and the sexual act than men. For this reason, I normally address the woman with a question such as the following: “So, Sally, I see that you guys have the same address?” “Yes, Father. …” At this point, I smile and say, “Don’t worry, I’m not kicking you out, and I’m still really happy that you are here to prepare for marriage. Allow me to pose a hypothetical question to you. How would you feel if Ben were willing to have sex with someone who wasn’t his wife? Would that fly in your marriage?” “No!” she inevitably replies. “But Sally, you are not Ben’s wife right now, and he is willing to have sex with you. … Do you think that attitude is going to change all of the sudden after your wedding day?” At this point, the guy is normally looking at me with a perplexed look, and the woman almost immediately gets the point.
- After this first moment and rhetorical question, I move on to the second. It has to do with the ability to make sacrifices and the desire to live a life according to God’s plan. It goes something like this: “I know this isn’t comfortable, and I’m not here to condemn you guys, but I love you and want you to go to heaven and live a happy marriage. Now, you both have told me you want kids, right?” “Of course, Father.” “You know that raising kids will be the hardest thing you will ever have to do?” I say. “Yes,” they respond. “Okay, I’m going to ask you guys to do two things. First, can you promise me you will make every effort not to engage in sexual acts before your wedding day? That means, practically speaking, you won’t be able to be alone together after dinner or alone and in the dark watching a movie, etc. It is going to be hard, but I know you can do this. You are going to have to be more creative about what you do, where you meet, etc. This is going to be awesome for you though! You are going to work on more subtle intimacies: kind words, simple signs of affection, hand-written notes, flowers, walks, watching a sunset, etc. Truth be told, this is going to make your marriage so much better, and it is going to prove to yourselves and me that God is the most important reality in your life. ‘I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me’ (Phil 4:13). This is your new favorite prayer. Also, having kids is going to be much harder than not having sex for six months. The second question I need to ask you is, are you willing to move out? Are there any friends, family members, etc., that could take one of you in during the next six months?”If the priest prudently discerns that there is a true impossibility that one of them move out, then they are to be helped as to how they can live as brother and sister under the same roof: different rooms, one upstairs, one downstairs, no time together after dinner in the house alone, etc. If they cannot move out, the question of scandal with their family and friends will also have to be addressed.
- The third question has much more to do with virtue and the capacity to be chaste, and consequently, it is the lead-in to speaking about Natural Family Planning. “So,” the priest says, “you both know that God calls every person to chastity. That means we use the gift of our sexual lives according to right reason. Basically, we aren’t animals driven around by our feelings, but rather, human beings who can act in a way we know to be good and true despite it’s not always feeling good. Even though it seems counterintuitive, the exercise of chastity is the basic condition for freedom. Let me give an example. Say Ben can’t go three days without sex or he starts to get agitated and short, etc. Then, say Ben goes on a two-week business trip. Sally, you should be really concerned about his ability to be faithful! In a nutshell, if we can’t ‘prove’ our capacity for chastity before marriage, it won’t just appear after marriage. I want you both to be free and have the greatest confidence in each other’s ability to remain faithful.” You should really have the woman’s attention at this point. A smiling face and finding appropriate moments to laugh and insert humor can make all the difference in their willingness to speak frankly and seriously to you as their priest.
I began with the words of the Holy Spirit through the Apostle John in the Book of Revelation to drive home the gravity of fornication and the need for us as priests to make every effort to help our young people. We need to encourage them, challenge them, tell them we believe in them and know that they can live God’s plan for their lives with his help. They need to know that we are rooting for them and that God’s mercy is always waiting for them to forgive, heal, and strengthen them in the sacrament of penance should they fall. Millions of children’s lives depend on the wholeness of their parents’ marriage; the future of our nation depends on the health of our marriages; the New Evangelization is just a slogan if we fail to take marriage and its demands seriously; this is worth all our efforts and our full attention and generosity as priests preparing couples for the sacrament of matrimony.