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On marriage.


I decided to marry my fiancé the first time I spoke to him on the phone, about a month before we met in person. This call came after an exchange on—yes—Twitter led to a week of frenzied letter-writing, during which time we exchanged some twenty thousand words. As I paced around Princeton’s campus variously discoursing and giggling with this near-stranger in Madison, Wisconsin, I said: “You know, it’s probably a good thing we don’t live any closer—if we did, I think we’d meet up and get married tomorrow.” He concurred.

That was last year, in April. We met in person in May, and a week later, he sat on the back porch of my childhood home and asked my father for his blessing. My family was understandably shocked. They raised many questions and objections, all of which were fair, earnest, and compassionate. “You barely know each other!” (We knew all the important things, I said, and had faith in the rest.) “Are you pregnant?” (I was not.) “Well even if you aren’t, everyone will think that you are!” (They can do the math later on to satisfy their salacious curiosity.) “What is the rush? Why do you have to get married right now? Why not wait to make sure?”

While our situation was perhaps atypical, all couples considering matrimony, which is to say, all Catholic couples, must negotiate this framework of dating, engagement, and marriage. These decisions are in a sense personal—solely between man, woman, and God—but marriage also represents a union between pre-existing families and the foundation for a new one, and therefore affects more than two people. Moreover, because the family exists in relation to other families and to the state as well as the Church, the decision to marry is at once individual and collective, private and public. It is therefore jointly governed by personal conscience, religious teaching, and broader social norms. However, it now seems to me that Catholic doctrine and contemporary social custom offer different and increasingly incompatible approaches to these decisions, and that competing pressures are placed on young people by the Church and the people in the pews.

What, indeed, was the rush? Why did we have to get married so fast? Why not wait a while? It was not that we took the commitment lightly. But we felt that we would be no more prepared to offer our vows to one another if we dated for a more conventional year or two than we were at that very moment. We were as certain as one can ever be about such things, though I believe we cannot truly “make sure” that we are marrying the right person any more than we can “make sure” that God is real. The beauty of both relationships is that our participation and sacrifice are sourced from our faith, not our certainty.

After much reflection and discussion (and some crying and arguing), the answer, nearly tautological in its simplicity, emerged: we wanted to get married because we wanted to be married. We wanted to live life as a married couple, to be joined as one flesh. More than “wanted,” I think. We met with a priest and dear family friend who helped us articulate this: “If it is God’s will that you be married”—we both nodded vigorously—“then there is only one thing to do: let God’s will be done.” I wept with joy.

Marriage is one thing; weddings, another. Noah moved out of his Madison apartment in early June, and when we stopped at my parents’ house on our drive to New Jersey, I proposed an August wedding. This would allow time for preparations, I reasoned, and give our many out-of-town guests at least some notice. Enter social custom: it became clear almost immediately that this would not be feasible. Every imaginable church and reception venue was booked for months and months, dresses could not be ordered and tailored in time, people’s summer calendars were already filled to the brim.

Perhaps with greater ingenuity we could have overcome these challenges, but there remained one insurmountable obstacle: so little about our meeting and engagement had been conventional that adding the additional burden of a hastily thrown-together wedding would have posed a legitimate difficulty for my family, especially my parents. I wanted them to feel happy and proud welcoming their friends and my other relations to the wedding of their daughter, not anxious or troubled by the raised eyebrows and exchanged whispers that would inevitably have accompanied this plan. Moreover, while Noah and I had come to know each other very well through hours and hours of searching conversation and through scores of letters, the same was not true of my family. He and I had experienced something transformative, and we struggled to telegraph our faith in one another, and in the call we had heard, to those around us. 

Instead we moved in together. We had to—it no longer made sense to either of us to conceive of our lives separately. Sharing a home before marriage, while not expressly forbidden by the Church, is not exactly encouraged, either, on the view that it dramatically increases the likelihood of premarital sex. We found ourselves caught between these conflicting traditions, both often upheld simultaneously by Catholics: we were doctrinally and socially obligated to abstain from various forms of intimacy until we were married, but we could not get married too quickly, as it would seem scandalous, improper, and rash.

I should add that understandable questions about propriety are hardly the only factor contributing to ever longer engagements: expanding wedding planning checklists, balloon arches, s’mores buffet, drone video coverage, and, of course, money. (A recent study found that the cost for a comparable wedding has increased nearly four hundred percent since 1974, adjusted for inflation.) Meanwhile, longer engagements mean that vendors and venues are booked further in advance. All of these things prolong the period between the establishment of a couple’s intention and freedom to marry and the sacrament of matrimony.

During the last two years, many couples found themselves forced to shorten their lists of invitations, to host simpler outdoor receptions in public parks when their venues canceled. In the course of this, they discovered that it was marriage that mattered, not the party. As I write this, wedding magazines are touting the “micro wedding” as the latest trend. Trends come and go, but I wish that shortened engagements and less formal weddings would become normal for couples who are ready to become husband and wife.

One reasonable response to all of this is that we are called to follow God’s commandments regardless of whether doing so is difficult or not. In fact, sometimes the difficulty is the point. “It was too hard” is not an acceptable excuse for failing to live in the way God asks us to do, and there is no defense for privileging one’s social reputation over the health of one’s soul. But shouldn’t we try to make it at least slightly easier to model both piety and propriety by observing different customs? I am not advocating for the construction of drive-through chapels—marriage is joyous but very serious business, and requires contemplation and spiritual preparation—but a respectable wedding should not require more than a year of planning: not for social, financial, or logistical reasons.

In his Confession, Leo Tolstoy observed that when “religious doctrine is professed in some other realm, at a distance from life and independent of it,” faith will decline. If Catholics wish to encourage young people to live in line with the Church’s teachings, it seems to me that some of our current social practices around weddings must change. And unlike many aspects of Catholic life, this change must be bottom-up. The hierarchy cannot directly alter how we apply the precepts of our religion to our social lives. While social customs restrict the choices of individuals, it is these such choices in the aggregate that create and ultimately revise the customs themselves.

We’ll be married in June.

Meredith McDonough is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Princeton.

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Meredith McDonough is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Princeton.