In this his most recent book, Michael G. Lawler, Professor of theology and Director of the Center for Marriage and Family at Creighton University, puts forth the premise that "in the Western world, marriage is in crisis." He cites this crisis as evident on "both sides of the debate," i.e., those who regret the collapse of "traditional marriage" and those who see the passing of such traditional marriage structures as permanence and exclusivity as a positive development. At the same time Lawler notes a hope for overcoming this crisis, namely the contemporary resurgence of the "model" (à la Avery Dulles) of marriage as a "communion of life" or "interpersonal union" (cf. Gaudium et Spes 47-50, Code of Canon Law 1057.1-2, and Justinian's Digesta 23.2.1 and Instituta 1.9.1).
For Lawler, a crucial source of this hope is "the Catholic tradition, honestly, historically, and critically understood." This tradition, he states, "offers theoretical and practical meanings to shape a strategy for responding to the crisis and improving the well-being, directly of marriages, spouses, and families, and indirectly of society as a whole." In short, an exploration of Catholic tradition will aid in the appropriation of what Lawler calls "the contemporary Catholic truth" about marriage. He proposes "a normative, and critical, vision of Christian marriage and family, not how Christian marriage and family are or might be but how they ought to be."
The goal of Lawler's book is the delineation of this contemporary Catholic truth. He accomplishes this by dealing with several pertinent issues for contemporary marriage in a series of essays. What does it mean, for example, to say marriage is a sacrament? What models of marriage have functioned throughout the history of Christianity, and which function in the contemporary Catholic Church? What is required to transform marriage, which is primarily a social reality, into a sacrament? What are the primary bonds and relationships that function in marriage?
In chapters five and six, Lawler considers the issues of divorce / remarriage and interchurch marriage, respectively. The nature of Christian friendship and its contribution to marital stability is the focus of chapter seven, while chapter eight focuses on a retrieval of cohabitation to the Catholic marriage tradition. He concludes the book with a move toward the construction of a theology of the Christian family and its potential role within the broader contemporary marriage crisis.
Throughout the book, Lawler considers these issues in terms of the scholastic category of questio disputata. He uses each issue as a foil against which he can wield contemporary questions. Such a method is helpful in that it allows him to consider the marriage crisis in its complex historical, doctrinal, biblical, theological, conciliar, and socio-cultural contexts.
Several of Lawler's insights are destined to be controversial. He asserts, for example, that faith makes marriage a sacrament. A marriage in which one or both of the individuals is a non-believer, even if baptized, cannot be therefore sacramental (cf. Code of Canon Law, 1141-1143). He offers a convincing case for this position by means of a nuanced delineation of the often debated relationship between faith and sacramental efficacy. He also asserts that in the contemporary context there is no criterion for the indissolubility of marriage. Most potentially controversial is his proposal of a four-stage model of marriage that includes ritual betrothal, cohabitation, the bearing of children, and, when the partners are financially stable and have reached a "plateau" of emotional development, the actual marriage rite.
Seen in light of his method, starting point, and goal, however, Lawler's conclusions are actually quite traditional. For, as he notes in his epilogue, his vision of how marriage ought to be is "derived from the critically-examined founding documents and on-going tradition of Christianity...." If the implications of this vision are still potentially controversial and even a bit radical today, forty years since the inception of Vatican Council II, theologians and ministers are reminded that there is still much work to be done in the appropriation of the Council's insights to the whole of the Church. In a profound and even urgent sense, Lawler's book calls us to continue to work toward this appropriation.
As is to be expected of such a prolific academician, Lawler's scholarship is sound throughout. The book is, at the same time, provocative and accessible. It promises to be useful, not only for professors and students of the theology of marriage, but also for those involved in the marriage preparation process. Its essay format and the questions Lawler includes at the end of each chapter make the book appropriate for adult religious education. Pastors, if they are to provide guidance that is relevant to the contemporary situation, would do well to be sensitive to and well-versed in the issues Lawler raises. The book meets a present need in the Catholic Church in the U.S., to be sure, and can even serve as a model to the non-Catholic world. Americans want and need "a group of people who love and care for each other." In the quest for this group, "a vision of family that resonates with Christians' search for practical responses to Jesus' invitation to neighbor-love ... in which all are covenant brothers and sisters in Christ," can act as a paradigm.