Sex and the engaged Catholic

“Most of the Catholics asking to be married in the Church today already have been living together.” Such is the … Continued

“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.

  • usapdx

    The old hell, fire and damnation just does not work as it did in the past. With the likes of ” saint ” Augustine as even today of the $3,000,000 damage award 12/2/10 of a priest abuse of a child as well as the silence the truth to protect the image by the RCC administration in these abuse cases, the RCC needs a new pope and then Vatican III to turn the church around and get away from CONTROL by the administration of the members but to make the members the real focus of the church, not the admistration other wise there will be more empty pews in the old church and they thought moveable type was bad. A bishop in Ireland in the 1990s said that the church must change for the young people.

  • usapdx

    Sorry, that awawrd was $30,000,000.00 of 12/1/2010 of the Delaware court as stated in the New York Times.

  • elizdelphi

    For sacramental marriage to be valid, the couple (or the Catholic member of the couple, if only one is Catholic) must be in good standing with the Church. Otherwise, it is not possible for them to genuinely enter a sacramental marriage, and there would be later grounds for annulment. An unmarried couple that is living together, fornicating and giving scandal, is simply not in good standing, regardless if this situation is common. That situation has to be resolved through sacramental confession and absolution, and (under guidance from the pastor) quite possibly a time of living separately and chastely, before it’s possible to marry within the Church.I heard of an instance locally, certainly not the only instance of this, in which a couple that had been living together was instructed by their pastor that they must go to confession before their marriage day (something which any devout Catholic couple would do anyway before their wedding). On the big day the priest arrives, the bride and groom are there and the families and guests, and the priest asks the young couple if they went to confession. “No Father, we firmly believe we did nothing wrong by sleeping together!” This good and brave priest went right out the door and went home. He would not witness a marriage that he KNEW was invalid.Catholic families where the parents are a real example of chaste married love, and the children are raised to value and understand chastity and the married vocation, are absolutely a treasure. These are happy families, too!Stevens-Arroyo is really misinformed about Catholicism. He seems to see there being some kind of “retro” Catholics to whom Catholic teaching on faith and morals is important, and his own kind of “Catholics” who are indifferent to those things, but into social justice. Actually the latter are those whom the Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to when it says there are some people who are bodily within the Church, but spiritually outside of it.

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    Elizdelph”This good and brave priest went right out the door and went home. He would not witness a marriage that he KNEW was invalid.”So what did the good and brave couple, insulted by the Catholic Priest and the Catholic Church, do?They got married anyway, in a Protestant Church. I have known practicing Catholics who did not feel comfortable getting married in the Catholic Church, so they got married in an Episcaopal Church or a Methodist Church. They continued going to Catholic mass, and everything was fine. People are not going to stop living their lives, for the tantrum of a single preist, insisting on compliance with antiquated and leaglistic rules. What about that doesn’t the Catholic Church get?

  • rromanow

    Sure there is real strength in the argument that “When a person says they are Catholic, it means (or ought to mean) they hold to the beliefs and teachings of the Catholic Church. If they don’t, then they’re not.” The Church is not only built around beliefs, but is backed by a fundamental list of rules and guidelines of which a Catholic must follow. While it makes sense that a person should not follow the Catholic Church if one of the Church’s rules does not particularly tickle his or her fancy, however I believe in this case being addressed the Church must address the situation. It’s easy to argue that premarital sex is a straightforward violation of Church doctrine and so there is no argument, if an individual does not wish to follow the law then they should simply leave the Catholic Church, however if every Catholic who disagreed with one rule of the Church decided to abandon the Church, the already declining numbers in the Catholic Church would take a tremendous decline. At this moment in time, almost every possible type of industry leads their marketing campaign to address a society that is rules by promiscuity and sex. Whether or not this is acceptable is fairly clear, however besides the point. What is important is the decision that the Catholic Church makes in addressing our society which is so open and acceptable of this. They can no longer choose to ignore the fact that over 40% of births today are out of wedlock and the Catholics are participating in premarital sex. I am not asking the Church to change any rules, I’m just asking them to be more accepting of new norms of society.

  • MarkfromPA

    This is a very interesting article. I knew a lot of this information so it reinforced somewhat, what I knew. It is sobering to think that most Catholics getting married in the Church are already living together. Some of the comments here are interesting. What happened with that couple where the priest left? Who ended up performing the ceremony?

  • MarkfromPA

    I made a comment about the Church opposing anti-bullying laws but I got an error message so I will post my comment here. I find it sad that US bishops will not speak out against the bullying of gay teens. It seems that when it comes to these young people, our Church leaders have an “I’m not my brother’s keeper attitude.” I wonder if the bishops are afraid of alienating the small group of Catholics that despises gay people. Perhaps they don’t want to face the anger of these people if they speak out against bullying. Maybe some of the bishops just don’t care about this issue and don’t really care about bullying victims.

  • lepidopteryx

    Bruce in Kansas: So in order to belong to an organization, one must be in agreement with every position that organization holds?

  • usapdx

    What percent of USA RCs know the teachings of the RCC and fully ( 100% ) agree with the teachings? A very SMALL percent which the average RC whould not think much of their reason of not to question the teachings.

  • jimwalters1

    “This good and brave priest went right out the door and went home. He would not witness a marriage that he KNEW was invalid.”No, that “good and brave” priest was being a total jerk. If he knew he would not be able to officiate the wedding he should have said so to the couple in no uncertain terms weeks, if not months, before the ceremony. Instead he chose to wait til the last minute and create the maximum possible distress for all involved, including all the innocents who came to what they thought was going to be a wedding.