My post last week sparked a few e-mails questioning whether or not there has ever been a perfect Catholic couple and if perfection is even possible. My responses have generally been two-fold. First, yes, there was a perfect Catholic couple, Joseph and Mary. Second, just because we know or suspect that we will sometimes fall short of the Catholic ideal from time to time in our relationships does not mean that a virtuous relationship is not worth pursuing. In similar fashion, Catholics pursue the ideal of perfection articulated and lived by Jesus Christ while knowing full well that there are times in which they will fall short and need Confession. The Catholic Gentleman does this because pursuing perfection is virtuous in and of itself and because by setting his sights on perfection he might obtain saintliness.
Joseph and Mary were the perfect Catholic couple and still stand as monuments of the model Catholic relationship for married and dating couples. The Catholic Gentleman can apply the previously articulated framework of respect, prayer, and chastity to the relationship of Joseph and Mary and learn from the examples of these two foundational saints.
First, it is clear both in Tradition and in the Bible that Joseph had the utmost respect for Mary from the time of their courtship through the completion of their marriage. Pictures of the Holy Family always depict Mary and Jesus sitting on the donkey, which is being carefully led by Joseph. Even in the Nativity plays put on by Catholic school children Joseph is always the one running from inn to inn inquiring about whether there is any room for his wife and child. The Scriptures paint a similar picture, the most striking of which occurs in Matthew 1:19, where Joseph learns of Mary’s pregnancy and resolves not to put her to public shame even before learning of the origin of the child in the dream described in Matthew 1:20. Of Joseph’s decision not to reveal Mary’s potential shame, St. Jerome writes “This may be considered a testimony to Mary, that Joseph, confident in her purity, and wondering at what had happened, covered in silence that mystery which he could not explain.” Both Scripture and Tradition paint a picture of deep respect in the Holy Family, a respect in which the Catholic Gentleman, Joseph, extended every courtesy and chivalrous behavior to his beloved spouse.
Second, Joseph and Mary were close to Christ in a unique way because of his physical presence in their home. As their only child and sole responsibility, their focus on Him must have been the rock upon which their marriage was built. The Catholic Gentleman similarly needs to focus his relationships on Christ, using him as the base of the friendship he develops with his spouse. No matter how difficult their lives were, we can rightfully speculate that the presence of Jesus was a unique and satisfying joy, making their many sacrifices and sufferings for Him wholly worthwhile.
Third, there is little question that Joseph and Mary avoided lust and practiced chastity. Their situation was unique due to the fact that the marriage was continent, but this is not to say that the two did not experience all of the temptations that the normal Catholic couple would experience. Their holiness and proximity to Christ did not immunize them from temptation and lust. They turned from it out of their own free will. Again, this is not to say in any fashion that the Catholic Gentleman should not be attracted to his wife or the woman he is courting. On the contrary, even though Love is a free choice and not a feeling, sexual attraction for the other is something which should be felt if the courtship is to succeed. Lust, however, is something beyond sexual attraction. It is a disordered sexual attraction which the Catholic Gentleman must always reject.
The Catholic Gentleman does not give in to the despair which suggests that perfection is impossible. As fallen beings, we will likely fall short of perfect from time to time but our love for Christ and His Church encourages us to stand up and try harder next time. The pursuit of virtue is almost never a straight rise to heaven, and will have many traps carefully laid by the adversary. The pursuit of virtue, however, should give meaning to our lives, inform our actions, and encourage us to improve.