Mulieris Dignitatem: The Vocation of a Wife and Mother in a Legal Covenant Marriage

By Spaht, Katherine Shaw | Ave Maria Law Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Mulieris Dignitatem: The Vocation of a Wife and Mother in a Legal Covenant Marriage


Spaht, Katherine Shaw, Ave Maria Law Review


INTRODUCTION

The obligations and rights of a wife and mother in a Louisiana covenant marriage coincide with the description in Pope John Paul II's apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem of a woman's avocation of motherhood in marriage. (1) Part I of this Article outlines the distinguishing features unique to covenant marriage. Part II of this Article compares marriage understood as a covenant in the legislation described in Part I and marriage as presented in Mulieris Dignitatem. Part III of this Article discusses the results of a 2008 study showing that a wife and mother in a covenant marriage lives for the most part in accordance with the description of her vocation as wife and mother in Mulieris Dignitatem. This result is no accident. Covenant wives participating in the study overwhelmingly were religious and educated. (2) In most cases, the covenant couples also received encouragement from their pastors and priests to choose the legal option of a covenant marriage. (3)

I. DISTINGUISHING FEATURES OF A COVENANT MARRIAGE

In three states--Louisiana, Arizona, and Arkansas--a couple who chooses to marry may choose a covenant marriage, which consists of a legally enforceable agreement between the spouses to adopt a more binding form of marriage than available under typical "no-fault" divorce statutes. (4) The three distinguishing features of a covenant marriage when compared to a "standard" marriage are: (1) mandatory premarital counseling by a member of the clergy or a professional marriage counselor; (5) (2) an agreement to take reasonable steps to preserve the marriage if marital difficulties arise; (6) and (3) limited grounds for divorce, ordinarily consisting of proof of a spouse's fault or lengthened time periods of living separate and apart. (7) Obviously, to the extent that legal marriage represents a serious commitment and mutual faithfulness, albeit an imperfect human reflection of God's love and eternal faithfulness, a covenant marriage from the time of its confection is closer to the Christian conception of marriage than a "standard" marriage. The appropriation of the adjective "covenant" in covenant marriage is intended to convey this understanding.

II. LEGISLATIVE CONTENT OF A LOUISIANA COVENANT MARRIAGE

Less well-known than the three distinguishing features of a covenant marriage is a feature unique to Louisiana covenant marriages. Louisiana alone has legislative provisions defining legal obligations and rights particularly imposed upon covenant couples-the content of a covenant marriage. (8) All married couples in Louisiana owe to each other fidelity (faithfulness that includes no sexual intercourse with another and submission to the reasonable sexual desires of the other), economic support, and assistance (help in any task that is required by virtue of a shared life in common, including personal care to an ill or infirm spouse). (9) Furthermore, all "[s]pouses mutually assume the moral and material direction of the family, exercise parental authority, and assume the moral and material obligations resulting therefrom." (10)

In 2004, seven years after the initial passage of the covenant marriage legislation, the Louisiana legislature imposed additional obligations on covenant spouses, many of which are merely hortatory in nature. (11) Yet, if one purpose of the law, in addition to constraining or punishing, is to teach (law's so-called "expressive function"), hortatory provisions serve a useful purpose--to communicate to married couples who have chosen a more binding commitment than other couples the type of behavior that is expected of them. (12) Consider the following obligations explicitly imposed on covenant spouses but not on "standard" spouses. (13) First, [s]pouses are bound to live together, unless there is good cause otherwise." (14) Second, spouses shall determine by mutual consent the family home "according to their requirements and those of the family.

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