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Focus Groups and Marriage: A Match Made for Heartache | Mary Beth Bonacci | IgnatiusInsight.com
The Church bases her teachings on truth, not market
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" (co-habitation, then marriage) resembles ancient marital practice
(betrothal, then marriage), and that as a Church we should return to a marital
"rite" wherein couple 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 cohabitors" (couples living together with the intention of
marrying) and "non-nuptial cohabitors" (couples living together with no
intention of marrying). They refer to research (never cited) which apparently
shows that non-nuptial cohabitors show a much higher likelihood of divorce than
nuptial cohabitors. Since nuptial
cohabitors show a higher level of commitment to each other, Lawler and Risch
are proposing that the Church scrap its 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
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
cohatibation, followed at some point months or years later (hopefully) by a
wedding. Apparently this practice continued sporatically among Catholics until
it was halted by the Council of Trent in the 1500's.They are proposing a return
to this system, which couples somehow becoming "betrothed" before shacking up,
and then later marrying 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." (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, which 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
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.
This article originally appeared on RealLove.net
on August 10, 2007.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Book Excerpts:
Entering Marriage with Eyes Wide Open
| Edward Peters
Human Sexuality and the Catholic Church
| Donald P. Asci | Introduction to The Conjugal Act as a Personal Act
Who Is Married?
| Edward Peters
the Family in Casti Connubii and Humanae Vitae | Reverend
Michael Hull, S.T.D.
Male and Female
He Created Them | Cardinal Estevez
and Necessity of Spiritual Fatherhood | Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers,
Chastity in an Unchaste Age | Bishop Joseph F. Martino
The Truth About Conscience | John F.
Kippley | An excerpt from Sex and the Marriage Covenant
Mary Beth Bonacci is internationally known for her talks
and writings about love, chastity, and sexuality. Since 1986 she has spoken
to tens of thousands of young people, including 75,000 people in 1993 at
World Youth Day in Denver, Colorado. She appears frequently on radio and
television programs, including several appearances on MTV.
Mary Beth has written two books, We're
on a Mission from God and Real
Love, and also writes a regular, syndicated column for various publications.
She has developed numerous videos, including her brand-newest video series,
also entitled Real Love. Her video Sex
and Love: What's a Teenager to Do? was awarded the 1996 Crown Award
for Best Youth Curriculum.
Mary Beth holds a bachelor's degree in Organizational Communication from
the University of San Francisco, and a master's degree in Theology of Marriage
and Family from the John Paul II Institute at Lateran University. She was
also awarded an honorary doctorate in Communications from the Franciscan
University of Steubenville, and is listed in Outstanding Young Women
of America for 1997. Her apostolate, Real
Love Incorporated is dedicated to presenting the truth about the Church's
teaching about sexuality, chastity, and marriage.
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