Betrothal Not Answer to Cohabitation before Marriage

I just read a very interesting article in U.S. Catholic magazine, "A Betrothal Proposal" by Michael G. Lawler and Gail S. Risch. In it, Lawler and Risch argue that modern marital "practice" (cohabitation, then marriage) resembles ancient marital practice (betrothal, then marriage), and that as a Church we should return to a marital "rite" wherein couples become betrothed, then live together as husband and wife, then celebrate the wedding.


These people are Catholic, but it seems to me they know very little about the Catholic understanding of human sexuality.
Risch and Lawler open by making a distinction between what they call "nuptial cohabiters" (couples living together with the intention of marrying) and "non-nuptial cohabiters" (couples living together with no intention of marrying). They refer to research (never cited) which apparently shows that non-nuptial cohabiters show a much higher likelihood of divorce than nuptial cohabiters. Since nuptial cohabiters show a higher level of commitment to each other, Lawler and Risch are proposing that the Church scrap it's entire teaching on cohabitation and instead somehow ceremonialize the practice of premarital cohabitation.


Apparently "focus groups" have revealed that many young Catholics disagree with the Church's teachings on premarital sex. (I wonder how many focus groups they had to conduct to make that startling discovery.) Existing Church teaching is thus "based on old research" and needs to change.
Here's the problem: the Church's teachings aren't based on research. They aren't based on sociology, or on the statistical likelihood of divorce among a certain subset of the population. They are based on the unchanging truths of God and the human persons He created. Our pastoral approach may change. But the fundamentals remain the same. And this is a fundamental.
According to Lawler and Risch, some ancient marriage rites consisted of a "betrothal" period, in which a couple made some kind of formal commitment to marry at some point in the future, followed by consummation and cohabitation, followed at some point months or years later (hopefully) by a wedding. Apparently this practice continued sporadically among Catholics until it was halted by the Council of Trent in the 1500s.They are proposing a return to this system, in which couples somehow becoming "betrothed" before shacking up, and then later marry in a wedding with all the trimmings.


It is not difficult to see the problems inherent with the betrothal/wedding system, and why the council would see fit to move away from it. Such a convoluted system created "chaos" according to one author, who went on to say of the distinction between "future" vows and "present" vows, "this kind of hair-splitting bordered on incomprehensible." (cf. Kristi S. Thomas, "Medieval and Renaissance Marriage: Theory and Customs.")
Betrothal is essentially a commitment to make a commitment later. It isn't the commitment itself. It isn't binding. A union which ended anywhere between betrothal and marriage would be fully dissoluble.
Here's the crux of the problem. "Betrothal" isn't permanent. But sex is. We believe that speaks a language - the language of "I give myself to you forever." It speaks of total, unconditional, permanent self-donation. That is what the body says, and that is what the heart hears.
Everything about sex is oriented to permanence - not the least of which is the procreative element. Sex often leads to pregnancy. This is more than just a biological reality. It brings us back to that deep meaning of sexual union: "I'm not just giving you my body. I'm giving you my entire life, my fertility, my future children."


But the commitment inherent in "betrothal" isn't total, unconditional or permanent. It's dissoluble. Heck, under Lawler and Risch's plan, marriage preparation wouldn't even commence until after the betrothal. So you have two people who have given themselves to each other physically in the most intimate, permanent way possible, and now they're going through classes to make sure that getting married is actually a good idea? And all the while flirting with the possibility of pregnancy that would bring a very permanent child into a still much-less-than-permanent situation?
I know that's exactly what's happening now, as a vast majority of Catholics preparing for marriage are cohabitating. It's a problem. I just don't believe the solution lies in essentially sprinkling holy water on the current practice and pretending it isn't problematic.
How many couples would bother to go through this "betrothal" ceremony before joining their toothbrushes on the bathroom vanity, anyway? And among those who did, how many would see "betrothal" as "marriage lite" - an easy way to get some Church-sanctioned sexual action? How many would use it to placate a marriage-minded partner? After all, it requires only a vague commitment to marry sometime in the future. And if that doesn't happen - well, it's fully dissoluble.


There is a reason that the Church teaches marriage is a sacrament, and that marital sexual union is reserved until afterward. The mutual self-donation of a husband and a wife is a renewal of that sacrament. It doesn't involve just the two of them. It's the two of them, plus God. And His sacramental grace shows up at the wedding, not at the betrothal ceremony where they promise that they'll probably make a promise later - if they still feel like it.


Look, I've known plenty of couples who have lived together before their weddings - some chastely, some not-so-chastely. These are for the most part good people who genuinely love each other and are genuinely committed to each other. Many of them regret it today. Many more don't fully understand or haven't been fully exposed to the beauty of the Church's teaching on the meaning of marital sexual union. Lawler and Risch say that couples like these aren't "living in sin," but are rather "growing into grace."
That may very well be. But they will never have the opportunity to grow the rest of the way if we use "focus groups" as an excuse to withhold the truth from them.Bonacci is a frequent lecturer on chastity.

(c) Copyright 2007 by Arlington Catholic Herald

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