In marriage preparation, engaged couples are taught that love is not just a feeling. Love is a decision. One must decide every day to love one's spouse, even if the feeling of love may not be very strong at a particular moment. Similarly, as Jesus taught by invitation to follow his teaching and commands, so too the church teaches by invitation to her sons and daughters to follow the teachings of the church. Having looked at several reasons why couples choose to live together before marriage, we now address the reasons why the church teaches that there is "a better way" to prepare for the sacrament of marriage.
1. The Vocation to Love
"God is love," as Sacred Scripture teaches us. God freely gives his love and his life in the act of creation. Created in God's image, every human person has been called into existence through love and has been created for love. Everyone, therefore, is created to give love and to receive love, since "human life is a gift received in order to then be given as a gift." The church teaches that, "God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion. Love is the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being." Each person is called to this vocation of love in a spirit of friendship and self-giving.
There are really only two ways of realizing this vocation to love: marriage and virginity or celibacy. Between a man and a woman, the highest expression of this friendship or mutual gift of self is through the holy bond of marriage. "Since God created them male and female, their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love."
2. Gift of Sexuality and the Body
All of us need to remember there are things in life which are holy; things made by God to be beautiful and good. These things reflect God's own beauty and goodness. We commonly think of the sacraments or of other holy events within the church in this way. Yet we must also understand that one of the absolutely holy, beautiful and sacred things that God has given to us is our sexuality. Sex is holy. Sex is sacred. We know sex is holy because God uses it, joining his divine and creative power to the love of a man and a woman to bring forth new life into the world. No two people ever work so closely, hand in hand with God himself, as when they become co-creators with God and bring forth new life into the world. Although many people are probably not thinking about this at the time when they engage in sexual relations, God is very present in that life-giving act, whether a pregnancy results or not.
Because sex is so sacred and beautiful, God has filled it with meaning. Every act of sexual intercourse is intended by God to express love, commitment and an openness to life. If two people are ever uncertain about whether engaging in sexual activity is the right thing to do, they need to ask themselves if love, commitment and an openness to life are present in the relationship. Sexual activity is a gift we give to another person to whom we have committed our lives. All too frequently sexual activity is seen as the taking from another for one's own pleasure.
Premarital sexual intercourse deprives the conjugal act of the deeper meaning that God created it to contain. There is not a total giving of self in premarital sexual relations as there ought to be in the sexual act of a husband and wife. It is seriously morally wrong for two people to have sex if they are not married, because the sexual act expresses a total commitment which the couple does not yet have. The church teaches that, "the only 'place' in which this self-giving in its whole truth is made possible is marriage, the covenant of conjugal love freely and consciously chosen, whereby a man and woman accept the intimate community of life and love willed by God."
3. Freedom and the Virtue of Chastity
The person who has acquired the virtue of chastity is a person who is totally free. The chaste person is well-ordered from within and is not driven this way and that by spontaneous urges and passions. The chaste person "maintains the integrity of the powers of life and love placed in him. This integrity ensures the unity of the person." The virtue of chastity ultimately leads to self-mastery, which is ordered to the gift of self.
The best kinds of gifts are the gifts given out of total freedom — no strings attached. The freer persons are from their own selfishness and self-gratifying desires, the more they can give of their true selves. The church has always taught that the human person is most fully human when acting from an informed conscience and free choice and not by blind impulse. The human person either "governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy." In the case of a sexually active couple living together before marriage, the couple is becoming enslaved to sin rather than becoming free to the truth that Christ has taught us. That lack of freedom often impairs the ability of the couple to truthfully address the other important issues that need to be discussed before the decision to marry is made.
Teachers of natural family planning (NFP) have discovered that those who engage in premarital sex find it difficult to practice the periodic abstinence that natural family planning sometimes requires. In other words, there is a marital chastity that is required of couples; and those who do not practice premarital chastity find it difficult to practice marital chastity. If one is promiscuous before marriage, those habits easily linger with them. There will be times in marriage when self-restraint and sacrifice will be required, and if a person has not learned this before marriage, then it will be all the more difficult during the marriage. This is one reason why artificial contraception used before marriage and during marriage can open the door to the temptation of infidelity.
Premarital sexual intercourse and cohabitation open the gift, so to speak, before it has been given. Waiting for one's wedding day in order to give the gift of conjugal love, on the other hand, creates a natural yearning which can help engender a greater sense of totality of the gift of self to the one person whom God has chosen from all eternity to share this gift. To give this gift, which is symbolized by the nuptial language of the body in sexual intercourse, in a context any less than the total commitment of spousal love is an affront to its inherent and God-given dignity.
4. Secondary Virginity
For couples who are contemplating the decision to marry, one of the very best preparations that one can do is to receive the sacrament of reconciliation, so as to be free from the evil effects of sin. For couples who have been sexually active, the decision as a couple to commit themselves to a "secondary virginity" is for one to say to the other, "I love you so much that I wish to wait until the day of our wedding and the beginning of our married life together to express my love to you in the physical intimacy of sexual love." It is Christ's way.
5. God's Way
As we saw above, Scripture and the church teach that our sexuality is a gift from God, something very holy and sacred, something very beautiful, something filled with profound meaning. The call to love is the call to give oneself to another as Christ gave himself to us on the cross in an act of unconditional love and self-surrender. When a man and a woman make the decision to give themselves to each other in marriage, they should want to give themselves freely as a gift in the holy covenant of marriage. The couple wants this union blessed by the church and sanctified by the grace of the sacrament.
The heart of the marital covenant lies in its unity and indissolubility. In marriage, this covenant is publicly affirmed. It is a covenant that is both unique and exclusive to the spouses. Everything that has led to this public exchange of vows has been to help the couple gain the sufficient freedom and the knowledge necessary to make their gift to each other total and unconditional.
To abstain from sexual relations before marriage means denying pleasure. This notion of self-denial is not popular in today's culture. Who would deny we live in a culture which exhorts us to always seek immediate pleasure and self-gratification? But to deny oneself for the good of another, and ultimately for the good of oneself, is indeed a noble purpose. This is not even to mention the joy that awaits couples who make this sacrifice because of true love.