In his weekly audience Wednesday, Pope Francis gave dating couples some radically countercultural advice, encouraging them to hold off on sex until they are properly married.
While the Pope’s words merely reiterated traditional Christian teaching on sex, they clash with a reigning mentality that advocates any and all sexual activity, provided it is consensual.
“In her wisdom,” Francis said, “the Church maintains the distinction between being engaged and being married—they are not the same.”
We should be careful not to dismiss this wise teaching lightly, which is borne out by the experience of conjugal love lived happily. The strong symbolism of the body holds the keys of the soul: we cannot treat the bonds of the flesh lightly, without opening a lasting wound in the spirit.
Courtship is a precious time for a couple to really get to know each other, Francis said, which isn’t the same thing as physical intimacy. “Many couples are together for a long time,” he said, “maybe even [sexually] intimate or living together, but they don’t really know each other.”
“It seems strange,” he said, “but experience bears this out.”
Francis complained that modern society undervalues the importance of courtship and preparation for marriage, while also failing to support young people ready to take this step. He said that “culture and society today have become rather indifferent to the delicacy and seriousness of this step.” And yet, he said, society “is not generous with young people who are really serious about making a home and having children! Indeed, often they pose a thousand obstacles, mental and practical.”
In the wake of the recent gay marriage referendum in Ireland, the Pope hit hard on the nature of marriage as a “covenant of love between man and woman,” which he also called an “alliance for life” and not merely a sentimental or sexual arrangement.
On Tuesday, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin also slammed the Irish referendum, calling it a “defeat for humanity.”
Parolin said that the family will remain in the center of the Church’s concerns, and “we must do everything possible to defend it, assist it and promote it, because the family is the future of humanity as well as of the Church.”
In his address Wednesday, Pope Francis called to mind the covenant between God and the people of Israel, which is often described in the Bible in terms of betrothal and marital love.
In the Book of Jeremiah, he said, God speaks to his people who had turned away from him, reminding them of when they were his “betrothed.” He also highlighted the Book of Hosea: “I will betroth you to me forever: I will betroth you to me with justice and with judgment, with loyalty and with compassion; I will betroth you to me with fidelity, and you shall know the Lord.”
“Marriage,” Francis said, “is above all the discovery of a call from God.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.