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
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
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
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