“Most of the Catholics asking to be married in the Church today already have been living together.”
Such is the testimony from priests working at the front lines in our parishes today. A new document on Catholic marriage proves the American bishops are listening. The awareness is especially noticeable among Catholics in the pews, who seem less and less shocked at women five-months pregnant walking down the aisle in a white dress. We now shrug our shoulders and content ourselves that at least they are marrying within the Church. In sum, Catholic America faces a new reality: The semi-traditional marriage.
There is dissension in theological circles about what this new social reality means. Retro-Catholics argue strenuously that the contemporary culture must be rejected if we wish to return to the day when (supposedly) there was no premarital sex. The role of the priest, some say, is to force an admission from the couple seeking a church wedding that they are living in sin.
Purpose-driven Catholics, in contrast, stress the stabilizing union brought by sacramental marriage. If the primary motivation for marriage among people already living together is to raise children in the Catholic faith, why stress the past over the future? Better to emphasize the ways in which the sacrament enshrines the family and permanence than to berate past behavior.
The dilemma for parish priests is how to satisfy both the traditional and the semi-traditional. On the one hand, you don’t want to cheapen the chastity of those who have followed Catholic tradition to the letter. On the other hand, you don’t want to chase away those whose goodwill is belated but real. No sense losing a whole family to the Church because of anger over spilled-milk.
An award-winning book by Creighton University professors Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler, The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology (Moral Traditions) looks at the theology of marriage as a disputed question, paying considerable attention to the issue of premarital sex. The authors advocate a rethinking of the meaning of the sacrament from the ground level of experience in the grass-roots rather than to await Solomonic pronouncements from on high.
The fallacy addressed by the theologians is how traditional teachings equate the sacrament of marriage with permission for the first physical act of intercourse. The authors note that in human history, having sex and getting married were seen as two different acts. After all, what is the world’s oldest profession? Even during the Christian dispensation, society expected men to have sexual experience before marriage. Canon law in the past recognized the rights of concubines, i.e. mistresses, and their children to receive the sacraments. And straying males like St. Augustine could go to heaven as canonized saints along with his son born out of wedlock.
There is little incentive to go back this far in history, mostly because it set up a dual standard for the genders: men to be “practiced” and women to be virgins. But if society’s norms have changed, should not theology have responses? A generation ago in 1960, only 5 percent of U.S. births were out of wedlock.: today it is nearly 40 percent. About 26 percent of children now live with a single parent–up from 9 percent in 1960. In that same decade two-thirds of adult Americans were married. But in 2007, those percentages had dropped to little more than 50 percent.
The professors may have gone a step too far for the bishops when they argued that traditional Catholic teaching on marriage is “obsolete and inadequate.” However, they do make the case that the theological meaning of the sacrament of marriage rests upon a personalized commitment between two people to form a permanent union in the model of Christ’s love for his Church. The bishops’ official critique of the book highlights points of theological disagreement but does not offer a solution to changing social views of marriage.
Marriage is the sacrament performed by the two people getting married, not by the priest-witness. I think the rival theologians and bishops should listen to the laity about Catholic marriage. Now is the time to engage the laity in a “Year of the Married Vocation” to refocus prayer and pastoral practice on this vital issue.