Marriage was recognized as a sacrament relatively late in the history of the church, around the beginning of the 13th century. According to the theology of the sacrament, the couple, not the priest, marry each other. Prior to the Council of Trent in 1545, marriage commonly had two ceremonies: the betrothal ceremony, which we now call engagement, and the nuptial ceremony, or wedding. The betrothal gave the engaged couple the right to live together. If the couple had a child, that was taken to be the consummation of their marriage, and a wedding ceremony might or might not follow after. The current tradition in Catholic weddings dates from the Council of Trent when the church decreed that it must be represented at the wedding ceremony in the presence of a priest.

Interestingly, the emphasis on the indissolubility of marriage, which started in the Middle Ages, came about because the church was trying to protect young people from the interference of their elders, said Lisa Cahill, a theology professor at Boston College. Especially in elite, royal families, young people were both married and divorced on the decision of their parents, Cahill said. Granting young people the freedom to make their own decisions as to marriage was a gradual process that happened over time.

Indeed, Gail Risch, a lecturer in theology at Creighton University and a researcher at Creighton's Center for Marriage and Family, noted that two or three generations ago some version of arranged marriage was still common among Americans. The romantic view of marriage as an arrangement that concerns the couple only is rather recent, said Risch.

Risch is investigating whether the increase in cohabitation before marriage seen during the past few decades in the United States represents a swing back to attitudes prevailing before 1700 when weddings routinely followed pregnancy and childbirth.

A recent positive development of the church's role in marriage is the marriage preparation that the Catholic church now demands of couples, William Lawler of Creighton University said.

A study the Center for Marriage and Family conducted in 1995 revealed that 70 percent of participating couples found marriage preparation useful to them. Respondents said what was particularly helpful was marriage preparation programs' application of psychology in terms of what's frequently called the five Cs: communication, commitment, conflict-resolution, children and career. Rated less successful was the program's explanation of sacramental issues such as the connection between marriage and church or the influence of religion on marriage.

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