Marriage Instruction

Father Basil Gummerman, O.F.M. Cap., 1947

Wedding Doves

Instruction given by the priest
for a Catholic man and woman planning marriage

Dear Friends,

The fondest desires of your hearts will be fulfilled soon. You are about to enter into the most intimate union of body and soul possible between man and woman. The love which has led you together will be sanctified, consecrated, made a picture of the love between Jesus Christ and the Church. God Himself will unite you in holy wedlock for the rest of your days. He does this through a holy Sacrament, one of the seven great means of grace instituted by the Divine Savior. When you administer to each other the holy Sacrament of Matrimony, that is, give and accept each other in marriage, before the priest, a fountain of grace springs forth at the throne of the Most Blessed Trinity to flow over your married life.

Matrimony is a Sacrament of the living. To receive it while one is conscious of being in mortal sin is a grievous sacrilege. The purer your souls are, the happier you will be on your great day. The confession before the wedding should be especially sincere and contrite.

Holy mother Church obliged me to give you at least a short instruction on the duties of the married state. I sum up these duties under the following headings: towards God, towards one another, towards the children God may give you, and towards your parents.

I.  Duties towards God

The words of Josue should be the motto of every home: “As for me and my house we will serve the Lord.” (24,15). The family which fears and loves God enjoys peace and happiness. Negligence in the service of God is at the bottom of married unhappiness. “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.” (Ps. 126,1) Therefore:

1.  Pray: St. Augustine writes: “He who knows how to pray right knows how to live right.” Our Lord says, “Ask, and it shall be given you.” (Matt. 7,7). The daily prayers, devoutly performed, have a sanctifying influence on the whole day. The good intention of the morning prayers renders the lowliest labors meritorious, provided we are in the state of grace. By saying grace at meals we turn from our ordinary occupations to God, thank Him for His gifts and implore His blessing. In connection with night prayers an examination of conscience and an act of perfect contrition should be made. In olden times it was customary that husband and wife recited the daily prayers together. Jesus Christ says, “Where two or three are gathered together for my sake, there I am in the midst of them.” (Matt. 18,20)

2.  “Keep holy the Sabbath day.” (Ex. 20,8). Never miss the obligatory Mass through your own fault. Without Sunday Mass there is no blessing on the week. Forbidden work on the Lord’s day, unless it can be avoided, has never added to anyone’s fortune in the long run.

3.  Observe the laws of abstinence and fasting according to the interpretation of your bishop. By doing what the Church prescribes we have not only the merit of the good work, but also the merit of obedience.

4.  Receive the holy Sacraments frequently, at least once a month. Appoint your days and keep them if at all possible. Confession and Holy Communion lighten the cross which no one can escape.

It will greatly help you to live happily in the love and fear of God, if right from the beginning of married life you carry out the following recommendations:

a)  Have a real Christian home. Adorn it with crucifix and sacred images. Never be without holy water and use it. Keep and read a Catholic paper and at least such books as the New Testament and the Imitation of Christ.

b)  Support your parish, take an active interest in its welfare and join one or the other of its societies.

II. Duties Towards Each Other

A.  Conjugal Love. Your bridal love will be changed into conjugal, married love. This love must be rooted in God, not merely in sex or external attractions, in order to endure and grow stronger. God Himself laid down the general rules for its maintenance and practice.

1.  The husband. According to divine ordinance the husband is the head, the king, the support of the wife and the children. St. Paul writes in the fifth chapter of the epistle to the Ephesians, “Let wives be subject to their husbands as to the Lord; because a husband is the head of the wife, just as Christ is head of the Church … Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the Church, and delivered Himself up for her …Even thus ought husbands also to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife, loves himself.” From this it is clear that the exercise of his authority is not to be severe and cold, but considerate and kind. The wife is his partner and companion, not his servant.

Married love obliges him to take good care of his wife and children. Therefore he must be industrious and saving, plan and manage wisely. No company should be dearer to him than that of his family. The man who prefers the tavern or club to his home neglects serious duties and forgoes exquisite pleasures. It would be wrong to leave domestic affairs entirely to the wife. She is entitled to cooperation and recognition. He certainly bears a large share of responsibility in maintaining a wholesome atmosphere in the home and in keeping out dangerous influences. Finally, he owes it to his wife to provide for the uncertain future as well as he can by reliable insurance.

2.  The wife. She is the heart, the queen, the providence of the family. Happiness in marriage depends to a great extent on her. She should strive to be a delicious compound of sweet temper, courtesy, and self-sacrifice. Her kingdom is the home, where she reigns as queen of love, doing all in her power to make it cozy and pleasant. Many men seek outside distractions, because their wives neglect them and their homes. The wife must be reasonably economical in dress and housekeeping, see to order and cleanliness, have nourishing and well prepared meats ready at the right time, cheerfully accede to all reasonable wishes of the husband and be an example of piety. A real helpmate usually holds the affection of her husband.

My insistence on mutual love may surprise you. Does not your presence here show that you are in love with each other? Yes, but very likely your life will not be always as rosy as it is now. When the charm of living together has worn off, you will discover weaknesses and faults in each other. Even trifles are sometimes very annoying. You must be ready to make allowances and practice patience. Marriage is for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. Think of the words of St. Paul: “Bear one another’s burden, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal. 6,2)  If peace has been disturbed, restore it at once --- not with many words, but with a friendly handshake or hearty kiss. Forgive and forget and never speak of such painful incidents to others.

B.  Conjugal Fidelity.  Married love is exclusive. The husband cannot transfer it to another woman, nor the wife to another man. Our Lord says, “You have heard that it was said to the ancients, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that anyone who even looks with lust at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt. 5, 27-28) St. Paul writes of the married woman: “While her husband is alive, she will be called an adulteress if she be with another man.” (Rom. 7,3)  Conjugal infidelity is a heinous crime in the sight of God. The world makes little of it. Therefore, the married should be on their guard. Interior temptations and dangerous occasions are by no means impossible.

The mere appearance of unfaithfulness must be carefully avoided. Whatever savors of affection for other persons of the opposite sex might arouse suspicion and jealousy and turn love into hatred. Jealousy has wrecked many homes. While shunning every move that could give rise to suspicion, husband and wife must have implicit confidence in each other. They should banish every temptation to mistrust at once and also close their ears to whisperers.

C.  Conjugal Chastity.  As there is a chastity for the single, so there is a chastity for the married. St. Paul writes, “Let the marriage bed be undefiled.” (Heb. 13,4)  The priest would prefer to remain silent on this delicate subject, but as the guardian of the law of God and human happiness he must speak. The Church obliges him (Canon 1033). To fulfill my obligation I shall briefly tell you what is allowed and what is forbidden in marriage.

1.  What is Allowed?

a)  In general, whatever agrees with the God-given purpose of marriage. God blessed Adam and Eve saying, “Increase and multiply,” (Gen.1,28)  The first and principal purpose, the one that may never be intentionally excluded, is to people the earth with children of God and heaven with saints. The means to attain this noble end is the marriage act or conjugal intercourse. Therefore, the proper sexual union of husband and wife is in perfect harmony with the holy will of God. Besides the primary purpose, the begetting of children, marriage has two secondary purposes, namely, to foster mutual love and attachment and to provide a remedy against the sex passion.  The marriage act may be performed for any of these purposes.

b)  Conclusions. From the above we draw the following conclusions:

Firstly, the conjugal act is permitted when conception cannot take place, for instance, when the wife is pregnant.

Secondly, actions which render intercourse more satisfying may be performed. Marks of endearment, such as embraces, touches, and looks, are permitted, even when sexual union is not contemplated.

Thirdly, no sin is committed by dwelling in thought, imagination or desire on what is allowed.

Fourthly, the married must be careful when indulging in permissible familiarities or when thinking of such matters.  They commit an even more grievous sin than single persons by voluntary self-abuse or pollution. Only if it would happen unexpectedly and without intention and consent, there would be no sin. Married couples should bear in mind that God witnesses their lovemaking.

c) Moderation.  As to the frequency of the conjugal act there is one very important rule, that of moderation. Excessive indulgence strains nervous vitality, more so in the man than in the woman. It often produces disgust and leads to estrangement. Self-control is indispensable for health and happiness. It also renders abstinence easier when it is necessary or advisable.

2.  What is Forbidden?

Some married persons think that adultery is the only sin against matrimony. This is a great error.

a)  It is a sin to refuse the serious and reasonable request for the conjugal act, except for grave reasons. St. Paul writes: “Let the husband render to the wife her due, and likewise the wife to the husband; the wife has not authority over her body, but the husband; the husband likewise has not authority over his body, but the wife.” (1 Cor. 8, 3-4)  By God’s will marriage confers on each of the contracting parties the right to the conjugal act as well as the duty to grant it. The request is not reasonable when compliance would do notable harm, for instance, if it is made too often, or when the other is really sick, or when either has a contagious disease, or when miscarriage is sure to follow.  In such and similar cases refusal is justified. Mere inconvenience or disinclination is not a sufficient reason. To put difficulties in the way is defaulting on one’s grave duty and exposing the other to grievous sin. On the other hand, thoughtful regard for each other’s dispositions and desires renders marriage relations more agreeable and increases mutual affection. The conjugal act and other intimacies ought to be expressions of love rather than of passion.

Permit me to add a few words of advice. At certain times the use of marriage is inadvisable or injurious. During the first three months of pregnancy it is advisable not to use it on the days when the monthly periods would take place, because then miscarriage is more apt to occur than at other times. The danger of childbirth infection urges abstinence during the last six weeks. During the whole time of pregnancy the husband must be moderate in the use of his right and in the manner of using it. After childbirth the conjugal act is not advisable for about six weeks to give the mother time for recovery.

b) Mortal sin is committed by doing anything before, during, or after intercourse to prevent conception. The Book of Genesis says of Onan, who committed an act of birth-control, that “the Lord slew him, because he did a detestable thing.” (38,10)  No circumstance or difficulty can ever justify contraception. It is always a serious misuse of the sex function, a transgression of an important law of nature. The Church can no more approve of birth-control than she can of murder. If husband and wife want to enjoy the pleasures of marriage, they must also bear its burdens. To say that temporary abstinence is impossible or injurious to the married is just as much an insult to God’s wisdom as to say that total abstinence is impossible or injurious to the single. Respectful reserve towards one another and the fervent use of the means of grace will keep passion within bounds.

c) It is a still greater sin to do anything or have anything done in order to bring on an abortion. When a woman has conceived, or become pregnant, there is new life in her, a human body in its formation and a soul created by God. If the developing child is intentionally removed from the womb at any stage of pregnancy before it can live for itself, a murder of the worst kind is perpetrated. The child is killed and, not having been baptized, is forever deprived of the vision and possession of God. Because of the enormity of the crime of abortion the Church punishes it with excommunication reserved to the Bishop.

Counsel.   If doubts come to you concerning your rights and duties, or concerning what is allowed or forbidden, consult the priest in confession, and before you can do this, refrain from what you think may be wrong.

III.  Duties Towards Children

1.  Before Birth.  The care of the child begins already when the mother carries it under her heart. A wife who knows that she is pregnant must avoid everything injurious to the life of the child. Among such things are exhaustive work, heavy lifting, running and jumping, the use of strong liquors, and vehement excitement.  Ordinary housework and moderate exercise are beneficial.  It is advisable to follow the instructions of a competent physician. Great fear of the danger of childbirth is unfounded and harmful. Most deliveries take the normal course, and obstetrical science is so far advanced that even difficult cases usually turn out satisfactorily.

A good expectant mother prays much and recommends the child to God, the Blessed Mother, and her favorite Saints. She goes to the Sacraments frequently and, in order to be better prepared, receives them once more a short time before the important hour.

The husband also should pray for the child. At this time especially he must treat the mother with reverence and consideration, keep from her unpleasant affairs and worries, patiently bear moodiness which often accompanies pregnancy, sympathizes with her in the trials and sufferings of her condition, give her a helping hand in her work, and provide good care for the coming event. By any unkind treatment of the mother he also strikes his own child.

Note:  A miscarriage, if certainly alive must be baptized absolutely; in doubt as to life it must be baptized conditionally.  The way of baptizing a miscarriage is to tear open the membrane with the thumb and index finger and dip the mass into tepid water whilst pronouncing the form of Baptism, then extract it.

2.  After Birth.  When the child is born the parents have the grave duty to have it baptized soon. In infants the danger of death is much greater than in adults. The place of Baptism is the parish church of the parents. Good Catholics are to be chosen as sponsors. The Child is to be named after a Saint in order to give it a model and intercessor.

If the child’s life is in danger, Baptism must be conferred at once.  The father or mother should not perform the sacred rite, unless nobody else is on hand who can and will do it (Canon 742-743). The baptizing person pours holy water or common water over the infant’s forehead so that it touches the skin, and pronounces the words: “I baptize thee in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.”  If possible two witnesses, or at least one, should be present who can prove the conferring of the Sacrament (Canon 742-741). If the child recovers, the ceremonies are to be supplied in church. After her recovery the mother should receive the blessing known as “churching.”

There is no need of saying anything here about the bodily care of the infant except to mention the danger to which a mother exposes the little one by taking it to bed with her. Many children have been suffocated by their sleeping mothers.

The greatest care must be bestowed on the moral and religious training. Education begins long before the use of reason is acquired. The child must learn to conquer its evil inclinations, for instance, to anger and self-will. If it cries without reason, let it cry. Crying is healthy exercise. Mothers can easily find out whether something is wrong that needs attention.

As soon as the child is sufficiently developed, Christian parents endeavor to give it a religious turn of mind and heart, knowing that first impressions are usually lasting. They teach the child the Sign of the Cross and short prayers, point to sacred images and explain them, take the child to church, and frequently speak to the child of the Heavenly Father, of Jesus and His Mother, of the Guardian Angels, etc. Above all they accustom the child to obedience, modesty, truthfulness, piety and self-control. They are not afraid to use the rod, but they never do so in anger or for trifles or faults which the child tries to correct. Since the young are by nature imitative, parents must avoid every unbecoming word and action and set the example of a virtuous life.  It seems almost superfluous to add that it is a grave duty of parents to send their children to Catholic schools and, if this cannot be done, to provide for their religious instruction. They should prudently watch and guide them in their adolescent years, give them due liberty in the choice of a state of life or career, and foster higher vocations.

IV.  Duties Towards Parents

Although it is advisable that young married couples do not live with the parents of the husband or the wife, they nevertheless owe them reverence and love. This obligation never ceases.

1.  Father-in-law and mother-in-law should be treated with the same respect and love as one’s own father and mother.

2. Gratitude requires that married children bring cheer to their parents by doing them desirable favors, giving them agreeable surprises and remembering them with presents on suitable occasions.

3. It is becoming that they consult their parents on important matters. The parents are their best friends and counselors. As a rule the elders have more experience and a more mature judgment.

4. Children must patiently bear the faults and shortcomings of their parents, especially the bodily and mental infirmities of old age, and give them support if necessary. Very likely they will be treated by their own children as they have treated their parents.

Should parents attempt to sow discord, mistrust, and aversion between husband and wife, such things happen sometimes, they are not to be listened to. No one, not even father and mother, dare come between the two. “A man shall leave father and mother,” we read in the Book of Genesis, “and cleave to his wife.” (2, 24)


These are the most important duties of the married state. They are indeed numerous and difficult. Nevertheless, you have good reasons to rejoice and face the future with confidence. Your friends pray for you and wish you well. (Mother Church blesses your marriage. The Savior offers Himself in Holy Mass for you and comes into your hearts in Holy Communion.) True love will render the yoke sweet and the burden light. Through the Sacrament of Matrimony God will grant you abundant graces in all circumstances and at all times.  The more faithfully you fulfill your duties, the greater will be your happiness here and hereafter.

And now accept my best wishes and the assurance of my sincere interest in your temporal and eternal welfare. May your hopes come true! The Lord bless and keep you and be always with you! For this purpose I also impart to you the priestly blessing: “Benedictio Dei omnipotentis, Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, descendat super vos, et maneat semper. Amen.”