The recent beatification of Luigi and Maria Beltrame Quattrocchi, the first husband and wife to be beatified as a couple, highlights the greater emphasis placed on the sacredness of marriage in the last four decades or so. In the years since the Second Vatican Council, a richer theology of marriage has developed in the Catholic church, theologians say. The new theology is based on an understanding of marriage as not just a biological relationship but as a union of two people for whom marriage is a path to holiness.

The church has long regarded marriage as a covenant between husband and wife, one that reflects the covenant between Christ and his church and which in turn harks back to the covenant God established with Abraham in Genesis. Daniel Finucane, who teaches theology at St. Louis University, notes that the idea of covenant is deeply rooted in Judaism and in the Christian church that developed out of it. While the notion of, marriage as covenant is not new, Finucane said the church prior to Vatican II tended to emphasize more the legal and contractual aspects of marriage.

With Vatican II, a deeper understanding of marriage emerged. In promulgating the 1965 document Gaudium et Spes ("The Church in the Modem World"), the church erased a previous distinction between the primary and secondary aims of marriage. For the first time, the good of the couple was placed on equal footing with procreation, paving the way for a more personalist view of marriage. The creation of children had been formerly understood to be marriage's primary aim.

Since the 1960s, the topic of marriage has earned increasing attention in theological circles, particularly as the viability of marriage itself has become open to question. "My parents' generation probably had a decent theology of marriage, but they would never have called it that," Finucane said. "But now more and more people are consciously talking about it, which has a lot to do with the crash-and-burn style of marriage in our culture. There's a fear of marriage and a fear of failure of marriage."

With the older model of marriage in force for some 1,800 years, from 200 to 1965, the new theology of marriage is still struggling to make itself heard, said William Lawler, a professor of theology at Creighton University and director of the university's Center for Marriage and the Family. The center conducts research on marriage and families.

Theologians are addressing the new theology of marriage in their writings, but it hasn't consistently made its way into the official teachings of the church, Lawler said. "Change is always difficult," Lawler observed. "The church finds it challenging; the magisterium finds it challenging to come to terms with."

In this country greater theological attention to marriage coincides with high divorce rates that are raising concerns about the fragility of marriage. "There's been a larger effort to reclaim marriage," said Sidney Callahan, a psychologist and educator who writes a column for Commonweal. "With the growth of feminism, there was a s1 fighting of marriage and seeing marriage as bad for women." Now, Callahan said, the cultural pendulum has swung back, with some recent books arguing that married people live longer, make more money and are happier.

Callahan called the personalist approach to marriage a very high view of marriage, and one that carries some drawbacks in that it makes it harder to accept staying in a marriage once the personal relationship between a couple has broken down. "The higher valuation of marriage as a personal union does bring problems with accepting the church's view of divorce--that there isn't any," Callahan said.

Lisa Cahill, a theologian at Boston College and the author of Sex, Gender and Christian Ethics, said the Second Vatican Council's affirmation of the centrality of the marriage relationship as a relationship of love was clearly a positive step but not without pitfalls. "One of the potential downsides of this, however, is that one of the reasons for divorce today, and for the huge rates of divorce, is that people do look at the marriage relationship as a relationship of support," Cahill said. "They put a huge burden on themselves to have the perfect relationship. They will sometimes tend to give up when they reach the point of friction and difficulty. "Some more traditional societies put a lot more emphasis than we do in North erie and -Europe--on community supporting the marriage," Cahill said. "It's not just about the couple, it's about the whole family coming together."

Cahill said one of the remaining ambiguities in Catholic tradition is that there are still many moral teachings that uneasily fit together with this emphasis on the personal relationship of marriage--the teachings on birth control, for example, or the indissolubility of marriage.

But while Catholics who grew up around the time of the Second Vatican Council tend to fixate on those issues, Cahill said such issues have become passe for many younger Catholics who do what they think right on those matters. "The official church doesn't have the control it used to," she remarked. "The real task of the church is to somehow keep the important focus on the relationship of the couple but also to find ways to link that couple to family, to society, to church in ways that will support that relationship. "It's not the teachings themselves that will produce that support," she said.