Throwing Out 2000 Years of Catholic Teaching
Michael J. Lawler and Gail S. Risch writing in U.S. Catholic Magazine, a publication of the Claretian Missionaries, propose that living together (and being sexually active) before marriage is not living in sin. I don't think so.
The authors begin their discussion by citing some of their research. First, they conducted focus groups:
Recent focus groups of young Catholic adults on “problematic aspects of church teaching” found that they disagreed with church teaching on premarital sex and cohabitation and do not see a fundamental difference in a loving relationship before and after a wedding.
Young Catholics disagree with the Church? I suppose it is time to change 2000 years of tradition to accommodate the desires of the young and poorly catechized.
But wait, there is also a recent study that pre-marital co-habitation may not be as destructive to marriage as was once thought:
The most recent and respected marriage research identifies two kinds of cohabitors: those who are not committed to marriage, whom we name “non-nuptial cohabitors,” and those already committed to marriage, perhaps even engaged, whom we name “nuptial cohabitors.”
Although only non-nuptial cohabitation is linked to an increased likelihood of divorce after marriage, the fact that many Catholics believe otherwise leaves current pastoral responses to cohabiting couples both uninformed and outdated.
Even if this most recent research is true, why should it affect Christ's teaching on marriage? The belief that the practical consequences of pre-marital cohabitation may not be as dramatic as we once thought does not change the spiritual consequences of sin. It also has no bearing on the multitude of other good reasons to save sex for marriage.
On this shaky ground, the authors propose reinstating a 12th century catholic betrothal ritual:
Our pastoral proposal is straightforward: a return to the marital sequence of betrothal (with appropriate ritual to ensure community involvement), sexual intercourse, possible fertility, then ritual wedding to acknowledge and mark the consummation of both valid marriage and sacrament.
The authors claim this is acceptable because the couple gives their consent to marry. The only difference between this and traditional marriage is that the couple is giving their consent in the future tense. Nice wordplay. "No really sweetie, we'll make this official soon. Now let's have sex."
In their view this is not a sin:
Since these couples will have already initiated their marriage through betrothal, their intercourse would not be premarital but marital, as it was in the pre-Tridentine Catholic Church.
Let's grant them that point for now. The authors further claim their proposal is well grounded in 12th century theology and Canon Law:
In the 12th century, Gratian, the master of the school of law at the Catholic University of Bologna, introduced a compromise in the debate between the Romans and the northern Europeans over what brought about marriage. That compromise, still embodied in the Code of Canon Law (canon 1061), is that mutual consent makes a marriage ratified and valid, and sexual intercourse makes it ratified and consummated and, therefore, indissoluble. [emphasis mine]
So let me get this straight. Couples declare their consent to marry (in the future) which makes their marriage valid. Then they have sex which makes their marriage indissoluble. It sounds like normal marriage to me. Why not just get married?
The answer is sneaked in after a long stretch of rationalizations. Betrothal is different because it is dissoluble:
For those nuptial cohabitors who do not proceed to a wedding, their martial relationship begun at betrothal would not be consummated and would therefore be dissoluble according to Canon 1142.
There lies the authors' fundamental contradiction. According to Gratian, the authors' 12th century theologian hero, consummation of a marriage happens during sexual intercourse, not during a wedding ceremony. Sex within marriage makes the marriage indissoluble.
Either a betrothed couple's sexual relations are martial or non marital. I believe the latter, but let's assume the former for the sake of argument. If two betrothed couples have marital sexual relations, then their intercourse consummates the marriage (even a future marriage) and makes it indissoluble at that point. To claim otherwise would be to admit that their sexual relations were non marital and therefore a sin.
The authors cannot have it both ways. Either sex makes the betrothal indissoluble, or sex makes the betrothal sinful. The former sounds a lot like traditional marriage. The latter is living in sin.
Despite their rationalization to the contrary, the authors' proposal is far from modest. They seek to take a sacred act of sexual intercourse outside the indissoluble bond of life-long marriage. The good news is that this immodest proposal is not likely to gain traction within the Catholic Church.
It should not come as a shock that the authors "are researchers at the Center for Marriage and Family at Creighton University, Nebraska, where they also teach theology." Creighton University is a school "in the Jesuit tradition."