Sunday, 15 May 2011

Traditional Catholic theologians on courtship and engagement

Following my recent posts on traditional Catholic teaching on marriage, I now move on to the subject of premarital behaviour, including engagement (betrothal).

The following principles emerge from the sources:

Catholics should normally marry only Catholics.

It is reasonable for young people to get to know each other through courtship before they commit to marriage.  The idea of courtship itself is therefore accepted.

However, young people who consort together must do so with the intention of getting married in the not-too-distant future.  Otherwise, they are needlessly putting themselves at risk of committing sexual sins.

They must also avoid meeting together alone, secretly, or too frequently.  It is good for them to be chaperoned.  This is because courtship provides a temptation for sexual sin.  Outward signs of affection should be restrained in nature.  Sometimes the couple should abstain from the usual elements of courtship for their own good.

Courtship should be carried on with parental advice and approval, and parents can prevent an engagement if they have a serious reason for objecting to it.  An engagement contracted against parental wishes is invalid provided that those wishes are well founded.

Engagement is a legal contract formed by the couple's mutual promises to marry.  It appears that there may have been some doubt as to whether a valid Catholic betrothal could be formed simply by a proposal and acceptance without an explicit mutual exchange of promises, but in any event legislation was introduced in 1908 requiring engagements to be concluded formally in writing.

Engagement confers the right and duty to marry, but does not have the effects of marriage.  In particular, it does not mean that the couple can begin a sexual relationship.

An engaged couple should not delay long before marrying.  This is to prevent them from being tempted to commit sexual sins.

-  Young people should marry roughly between early adolescence and their early-to-mid twenties.


St Leonard of Port Maurice, Counsels to Confessors (1853)

It would be wrong to conclude that to be in love is always a sin, but it would be still worse to suppose that it is always innocent. If one is to judge relatively, and according to the things which generally happen, it would be regarded as an incontestable proposition that love-making as it exists in these days is mostly a near occasion of sin....


F.A.Gopfert, Moraltheologie (1897)

What is to be thought in general of acquaintanceships, continued association, visits, etc., between young persons of opposite sex? It cannot be said that they are in themselves grievously sinful, but as a rule they are hardly anything else but the near occasion of grievous sin. Three conditions may be named under which they may be permitted, namely, that they should be begun for a good purpose, that the intercourse must take place within proper bounds, and that the necessary precautions be employed.

1.  They must be begun with a good purpose, in other words, with the intention to contract marriage soon, i.e., within a relatively short time.... Owing to the danger of mixed marriages, inquiries should be made as to whether the other party is of the Catholic faith, and if not the person should be seriously warned against further intercourse and against a marriage promise.

2.  Intercourse shall take place only within proper bounds, i.e., not too frequent and not too long visits. A greater frequency may be allowed if the wedding is to take place in a short while, say in a month or two; a lesser, the farther off the wedding seems to be. A greater frequency may be tolerated if the young girl is never left alone with the yoimg man, but always under vigilant care; a lesser, when the young people are usually left alone, or when the girl is not under the care of parents or relatives who watch over her.

3.  At these visits the necessary precautions must be taken: The young people must not be in each other's company without the parents' knowledge, and not without their silent or expressed approval; as far as possible not be left alone, and they must fortify themselves against temptation by spiritual means.

Where these three conditions obtain, such relations and courtships are not unlawful, even if a grave danger were present, because they are morally necessary conditions for to demand that one should marry a comparatively unknown person would be unreasonable, and if one would not admit this reason the confessor would accomplish nothing else than that the young couple would now... surely sin. For these reasons such visits may not be forbidden even if the parties fall into sin on account of them. The confessor will in such cases accomplish more, if he seeks by appropriate means to make the occasion a remote one; if he, for instance, advises that they never be left alone, that some one be always present, even if only a little boy or girl; in their presence grievous exterior sins could not (easily) take place; excessive marks of affection will not easily occur; he will counsel them to restrict demonstrations of affection in their frequency, duration and manner.... It is to be ccmsidered which is more promising, to demand that the couple employ other and more effective means or that they omit entirely their visits, marks of affection, etc., and this is to be imposed upon them in confession....

When the parties in question do not intend marriage, or if they, on account of drctmistances, will never be able to get married, or if only after a long time (this must be left to the prudent judgment of the confessor), then the keeping of such company is occasio proxima voluntaria absens (non in esse) and if the parties have been warned a few times by their confessors, without result, then they are not to be absolved until they obey. This is to be enforced so much more strictiy if they have been sinning grievously one with another, or if their conduct has given scandal. In this regard the parents, too, especially the mothers, should be earnestly exhorted in confession, so that they will not permit their daughters to be absent from the house at evening and night, to associate with young fellows, in which case sin is often not far off. This strict proceeding is all the more necessary if such acquaintances were already begun with no good intentions.


A.Lehmkuhl, Casus conscientiae (1902)

Getulius is passionately in love with Anna and wants to marry her, but his parents are opposed to the marriage.  Nonetheless, he hopes that their opposition will fall away with time, and he continues to court Anna.  He often visits her in order to ensure that she remains faithful to him, but does not do so openly for fear of offending his parents.  He confesses that he has sometimes tried to take their relationship to a more intimate level, but the girl has consistently refused....

Since very many men, in accordance with divine providence, are to live in the married state, it is clearly lawful for them to look for a partner and to get to know her beforehand.  Therefore, one cannot forbid young men and girls from seeking and pursuing a certain association with each other, arising out of a serious intention of getting married....  Nevertheless, associating together alone and secretly is not only dangerous to them (as it is to every other person) but it is even more dangerous to the extent that a mutual love has begun to be kindled.  For this reason, even people who are to be married and engaged couples are to be forbidden from doing this, and it must be insisted that, when they visit each other (when this is necessary) they should do so under the eyes of other people, in particular those of their relatives or parents or other upstanding people who stand in the place of their parents, or at least that they should do so openly, in a place where it is never guaranteed that other people will not come....

When, however, the possibility of marriage is not yet at hand, or the intention of getting married is absent, mutual association between young men and girls for romantic reasons should be forbidden, since it either is or soon will be a near occasion of sin....  [A confessor] will urge engaged couples not to defer getting married for long, and will not allow them to continue associating frequently and without purpose....

Getulius could and can promise to marry Anna unless his parents have a just cause for objecting.  However, if his parents have a serious reason to object, his engagement to Anna is invalid....


P.Gasparri, Tractatus canonicus de matrimonio (1904)

[Engagement] usually and more properly means a contract to enter into marriage at a later date.  It is best defined as a mutual promise of future marriage....

A valid engagement has two effects: namely, it raises the impediment of publica honestas [this is a technical concept from canon law] and the obligation and right to marry.  The first effect is a matter of ecclesiastical law, the other of natural law....

An engagement, by the natural law itself and by reason of justice, confers on both parties both the right and the obligation to marry....

The right and obligation is to enter into marriage; therefore one party cannot, against the wishes of the other, either demand anything or release himself from anything by virtue of the engagement contract....  Things which are not lawful for single people are also unlawful for engaged people, e.g. kisses, embraces, etc, except in cases where this is in line with custom and all danger of pollution and sexual pleasure is absent....  It is therefore clear how dangerous cohabitation is, as well as excessive and lengthy familiarity between the couple.  It is therefore very desirable that the couple do not spend time alone, but that they always have relatives or others present.  This matter is to be considered to be of very grave importance.


The Casuist (1906)

Courtship and company-keeping can not be condemned at random; young people must have an opportunity to become acquainted before they become linked together for life.

Courtship and company-keeping is, however, permissible only where there is the intention and the possibility of ultimate marriage. Where one or both of these is lacking, such relation must not be tolerated. In other words the one starting or indulging in a courtship must have the will and the ability to marry the courted person.

The so-called company-keeping... between persons of opposite sex is in itself not immoral, provided that there exists between [them] a proper and sincere intention, and a not too remote prospect of marrying, and provided further the relation... appears to be free of impropriety....

In fact, in case of contemplated marriage, a previous consociation is judicious, and even necessary, because the young people should get knowledge of each other so as to convince themselves that they can respect and love each other.


A.Meehan, "Betrothal", Catholic Encyclopedia (1907)

Betrothal, in the Catholic Church, is a deliberate and free, mutual, true promise, externally expressed, of future marriage between determinate and fit persons. It is a promise, compact, or agreement — not merely an intention; and, like all contracts, it must be entered into with deliberation proportionate to the obligation which it begets.... The betrothal is a promise of future marriage, and hence it differs from the marriage contract itself, which deals with that state as in the present....

A valid betrothal begets chiefly two effects. There arises first an obligation in justice, binding the contracting parties to keep their agreement; viz. to marry at the time specified; or, when the date of marriage is not agreed upon, whenever the second party to the compact reasonably demands the fulfillment of the marriage-promise. Marriage, consequently, with a third party is forbidden, though not invalid.... Engagements very frequently, though not always, are rather proposals of matrimony than promises as explained above, and in them an essential element of the betrothal is wanting....


Slater and Martin, A manual of moral theology for English-speaking countries (1908)

[Engagement] is a mutual promise or a bilateral contract between a man and a woman....

[N]o betrothal between Catholics or in which one of the parties is a Catholic is valid or has any canonical effects unless it is contracted in writing and is signed by the parties, and also signed either by the parish priest, or by the local ordinary, or at least by two witnesses....

[The couple] must marry at a reasonable time after the engagement has been concluded. As grave inconveniences are likely to arise from a too prolonged betrothal, it is the duty of those who have the cure of souls to admonish those engaged that they should marry if without just cause they defer doing so too long. A delay of over a year without good reason seems excessive....

The consent of the parents of the parties is certainly not necessary for the validity of marriage.... Nor is it necessary per se for the lawfulness and the validity of betrothal, because in the choice of a state of life every man is his own master. It does not follow, however, from this doctrine, that children need not consult their parents about marriage and about a partner for life. In a matter of such importance for the future happiness of the child, and because the marriage of a member of the family concerns not merely the individual, but the whole family, and especially the head of it, a dutiful child will ordinarily consult his parents before entering on an engagement to marry. If a child wishes to contract an unsuitable marriage... the parents have a right to object to such a marriage; and if they forbid it, the son is bound to obey.... An engagement contrary to the reasonable commands of one's parents is unlawful and therefore invalid....

One of the betrothed may resile if a circumstance of importance be detected or happen which if it had been known before would have prevented the contract being entered into.... The innocent party may resile if the other commit fornication with some one else, and certainly the man is free if he find out that the woman was corrupted even before betrothal. The same rule may be applied in favor of the woman when she finds out that the man committed fornication before betrothal, at least if in the particular case it is a sign of inconstancy or is very much resented....

People who are only engaged to be married have not the rights of married people, and if they attempt to use them they are guilty of sin against the sixth commandment....

It is... as a rule morally necessary for [a couple] to become acquainted with each other, and they are justified in showing to each other those marks of affection which are not wrong in themselves and which are usual in the circumstances. It is to be desired that they should not be much together alone, especially at night, and if they are left alone they should not show greater familiarity toward each other than they do when a mother or sister is with them.


A.Devine, The law of Christian marriage according to the teaching and discipline of the Catholic church (1908)

[W]e shall take the liberty of using Sponsalia, or betrothal, indifferently to signify one and the same thing namely, for a mutual promise of future marriage....

The promise must be made seriously, deliberately, and freely. It must be a true and real promise....

It must be a mutual promise, that is, made and received by both the parties. Theologians tell us that for Sponsalia it will not be sufficient that the promise be made by one, and simply be accepted by the other party to the contract, but that the promise must be repeated or in some way signified by the other....

Generally speaking, in matrimonial engagements the man proposed or promised and the woman accepted, and this was considered sufficient for even canonical betrothal. As this was understood to be sufficient for the contract by the parties themselves, and tacitly, at least, admitted by the Clergy and sanctioned by established custom, it would be rash to suppose that they were not valid.... In future, however, as the new legislation prescribes that the Sponsalia must be in writing, and signed by both parties and by witnesses, provision is made for securing in all cases an explicit promise from both parties to the engagement....

Sponsalia may therefore be fully defined as a mutual promise of future marriage expressed in writing and duly signed, given and received by two persons who are free to contract marriage with each other.


T.J.Gerrard, Marriage and parenthood, the Catholic ideal (1911)

Courting time is a preparation for a great Sacrament....

On the one hand the young people who have arrived at this interesting stage may be expected to take it seriously, but on the other hand they must not be expected to deport themselves as if they were preparing for a funeral. Company keeping is one of the happiest times of life, and if it is not attended with joy and brightness there is something wrong somewhere. At the outset, then, let it be known to all parents that there is nothing sinful in their grown-up children looking for partners.... Of its nature it involves a certain amount of modesty and shyness. Still, from its earliest signs and movements it is something which ought to be perfectly aboveboard, known to father and mother, acknowledged in the presence of the family....

The first qualification that a Catholic would look for in a partner for life would be that the partner should also be a Catholic. Mere acquaintances feel that they have a common and lasting bond between them if they are both Catholics. This feeling must be indefinitely intensified between two who are to live together in the intimate life of holy matrimony.... It is part of the solemn duty of parents to watch over the children in an affair of great consequence.... With reason, then, does the Church oblige children to consult their parents in the matter. Of course, cases may and do arise in which the consent of the parents is unjustly held back.... In case of dispute, however, the children will not go against the wishes of their parents without first consulting their confessor....

Character or virtue will be the first quality to be sought for in the choice of a mate. The predominant and essential virtues expected from the man are honesty and sobriety. These are especially manly virtues.... The predominant virtue expected from the woman is chastity. This will be measured by the care which she takes in avoiding occasions of sin. Here it is not a question of having sinned grievously, but of a constant observance of all those habits of modesty, reticence, sobriety of language and gesture, and, above all, utmost decorum in all necessary intercourse with members of the opposite sex....



Additional Note (added 5 May 2011)

The appropriate time for marriage seems to have been, very roughly, the 10-year window between early adolescence and one's early-to-mid twenties.  An instruction from the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Propaganda) issued on 9 May 1877 stated that one ground for allowing a mixed marriage was:
The advanced [superadulta] age of the woman.  This applies if she has already passed her twenty-fourth year, insofar as she is not able to find a man of the same condition whom she can marry.
Pacati wrote in 1906 that marriage could not normally take place before the beginning of puberty, which was set at 12 for girls and 14 for boys.  The normal minimum ages were set at 16 for boys and 14 for girls by the 1917 Code of Canon Law.