On your wedding day, you are asked, “Have you come here to enter into marriage without coercion, freely and wholeheartedly?” If you have, you can proceed to the exchange of consent, which is when the marriage actually takes place. This consent must be free, because as I wrote last week, no one can force you to love another person, just like God can’t force you to love him.
But, what does it mean to enter into marriage freely and without coercion? The obvious answer is not an arranged marriage against your will or because you feel you have to, perhaps for financial reasons or because you have a child together. You also cannot get married if you are validly married to someone else, which includes divorce without a Declaration of Nullity. You cannot be permanently impotent, directly related, or under age. You also cannot be under the influence of drugs or alcohol (including pot, you western states), which impairs your freedom in the ability to make rational judgments.
Yet there is still more to consider about freely choosing to love another person.
From our Marriage Prep course:
“You also need to have the emotional and psychological capacity. Emotional capacity means not fleeing a situation you haven’t addressed, for example abuse. Psychological capacity means knowing the implications of the commitment you are about to make and being aware of the responsibilities it implies. You must have realistic views of the covenant.”
“Having sex before we are married can also blind us and also possibly hinder our freedom. The hormones released in sex bond us to the other person, helping their faults to fade in the background while we are enamored with their more pleasant qualities. This is good after you are married, but when choosing someone to commit the rest of your life too, you need to be able to take the good and bad into account in order to make such a big decision. If you are in it because you like the sex so much and you don’t argue often, is it really the total gift of self that marriage requires?”
Note: Just because you had sex before marriage doesn’t mean you weren’t truly free. Also, the Sacrament of Reconciliation can remove these blinders and free us to love.
If there was an impediment to freedom, it would make the marriage invalid. This is where it gets tricky, and why the process of receiving a Declaration of Nullity (often wrongly called annulment) can take so long. It must be proven that at the time of the wedding, one or more of the requirements for a valid marriage wasn’t met. Either one of them wasn’t truly free, or had reservations, that made them incapable of truly giving themselves to one another. Note that a Declaration of Nullity cannot be called an “annulment” because the Church doesn’t have the power to nullify a marriage. The Church can only declare after investigation, that it wasn’t valid to begin with.
Since marriage is a covenant (an exchange of persons), it is a permanent life-long bond severed only by death, and to declare it null cannot be taken lightly. That’s why dioceses often require you to be engaged for a certain length of time and to take required courses before marrying, so you know what is being asked of you in the commitment to marriage.
Now let’s look at what true freedom means. In his talk “Who Am I To Judge?”, Dr. Ted Sri explains that, “True freedom is doing what we ought to do, and not being ruled by our passions or fears. Often today people use freedom as their excuse to justify their behavior, no matter how it hurts other people.
When we simply do whatever we want to, whenever we want to, we are actually slaves to our selfish desires and passions, and are not truly free. This is why to truly love we must grow in virtue. Virtue frees us from being a slave to our desires.
Dr. Sri uses the example of flying a plane or performing surgery. Just because you are enthusiastic about flying doesn’t make you a pilot. You could have a lot of frequent flyer miles and have watched “Sully” a dozen times, but I would not get in a plane with you because you don’t have the skills required of a pilot. Similarly, just because you’ve had surgery or feel passionate about performing surgery doesn’t mean you have the skills of a surgeon. I would not put my life in your hands just because you enjoy watching ER!
In just the same way, if you want to be a good spouse, it takes a lot more than just wanting to be a good spouse. You can’t say you love someone simply because you are attracted to them or have good chemistry. If you want to be free to love, you have to have the virtues – the life skills – to love someone well. Strong feelings don’t make a marriage last. Virtue does. You need virtues like self-control, generosity, and patience to have a happy, lasting marriage.
“If I don’t have self-control or courage, I will do things that will selfishly hurt you and let you down. Virtue gives us the freedom to love,” says Dr. Ted Sri. We can call it “freedom for excellence” because it’s the freedom to truly give yourself as a gift because you have the virtues (skills) that enable you to love.
So to be truly free to love, we must be willing to go beyond feelings, make sacrifices, and grow in virtue. You can’t just want a good marriage; you have to work at it. This is one of the reasons why we are asked to abstain from sexual relations before marriage. You must freely choose the other person for reasons other than passion, comfort, finances, or sexual compatibility (if that even is a thing). You can become free to truly love because you have cultivated virtue.