When I told my pastor last week that we were doing a module on matrimony, he shared with me about a delicate issue which often comes up in his work preparing couples for marriage. Cohabitation is not only extremely widespread in our day and age, among Catholics as well as non-believers; it is commonly understood in the secular culture to be the “responsible choice,” a prudent way to test your compatibility with your partner in the close quarters of common life, a kind of trial run before “tying the knot.” Most young people of my own generation would not dream of getting married without first having lived together as a couple. Father Nelson remarked that he often struggles to know exactly what to say to these couples, who come in good faith asking to be married in the Church, yet who have sometimes already been living together for months or years. The pastoral judgment required is whether to insist that the couple separate, at the risk of driving them away, or allow them to continue living together (emphasizing the need for them to live as brother and sister in perfect continence) and risk their falling into grave sin, as well as jeopardizing the future health and longevity of their marriage.
Although cohabitation per se is not a sin, Father Nelson mentioned that couples who live together before their wedding day may be less free in giving their consent to the marriage as a result of their cohabitation. Even if they live together chastely, the lives of a couple cohabiting before marriage necessarily become more “entangled.” They have the same residence; they share common possessions, and perhaps finances and debts. There may be a concern on the part of one or the other party of where they will live or how they will get by financially if the relationship should fail. It is, moreover, a matter of fact that most cohabiting couples are also fornicating couples (the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults actually defines cohabitation as “involv[ing] the serious sin of fornication”1) and that “many children are born to these relationships, which are not founded on a permanent commitment.”2 All these factors and more can weigh on the minds and hearts of the cohabiting couple and tip the scales of their discernment toward marriage, such that one or both may no longer find themselves entering into the matrimonial covenant in utter freedom.
Their prior living situation would also appear to shift the meaning of the sacrament from the beginning of a new life together as husband and wife to the mere “ratification” or “blessing” of an existing de facto union. Our Holy Father of happy memory, Saint John Paul II, stressed the following “basic principle: in order to be real and free conjugal love, love must be transformed into one that is due in justice through the free act of marital consent.”3 Apart from the risk of diminished freedom, which can put the validity of the marriage itself in doubt down the line, another subjective danger to the cohabiting couple is that the habits of mind they will have undoubtedly formed during their time cohabiting before marriage will then carry over into their married life as husband and wife, blurring “the essential difference between a mere de facto union—even though it claims to be based on love—and marriage, in which love is expressed in a commitment that is not only moral but rigorously juridical.”4 An unmarried couple living together are free to separate at any time if the relationship becomes difficult or inconvenient (albeit to the great psychological harm of the abandoned spouse and any children of the union5). Human nature being what it is, the couple who have become habituated during their period of cohabitation to thinking “in the back of their minds that if things become really difficult, they can always go their separate ways”6 are naturally more likely to divorce.7
If a cohabiting couple came to me as a priest for marriage preparation, I would apply the official pastoral guidelines of the Archdiocese of Portland: “Absent children, [cohabiting] couples should ready themselves for marriage by a time of domestic separation. Where a cohabiting couple already has children, the good of the young may require the couple to remain living together, but in chastity and continence.”8 If there are other special circumstances which make separation difficult or impossible in a particular case, I would allow them to continue living together (as brother and sister) as they prepare for marriage, but this would be exceptional. In general, I would require them to separate. I would take special care to impress upon all such couples (1) the need to be able to give their utterly free consent to the marriage and (2) the reality that, once married, their relationship will be permanently and essentially different. To this end, I would lead them through an examination of conscience to help them see if anything about their living situation is placing undue pressure on one or both of them to marry. I would also tell them unequivocally that cohabitation is by no means a kind of “trial marriage,” but a poor facsimile of married life which, far from preparing them well for their future as a couple, tends to set a couple up for future failure. I would tell them the best thing they can do for their marriage is to separate and “practice chastity until they are sacramentally or canonically married. They will find this challenging, but again, with the help of grace, mastering the self is possible — and this fasting from sexual intimacy is a strong element of spiritual preparation for an enduring life together.”9
- United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2006), 410, at https://www.usccb.org/sites/default/files/flipbooks/uscca/files/assets/basic-html/page-438.html.
- Archbishop Alexander K. Sample, “Pastoral Guidelines for Implementing Amoris Laetitia in the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon” (May 4, 2017), 6, at https://d2y1pz2y630308.cloudfront.net/14211/documents/2017/5/050417%20AL%20Guidelines%20with%20Letter.pdf.
- Pontifical Council for the Family, “Family, Marriage, and ‘De Facto’ Unions” (July 26, 2000), §22, at http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/family/documents/rc_pc_family_doc_20001109_de-facto-unions_en.html.
- John Paul II, “Discourse to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota” (January 2, 1999), qtd. in “Family, Marriage, and ‘De Facto’ Unions,” §22.
- Cf. Rick Fitzgibbons, M.D., “The pope seems to be missing the real dangers of cohabitation. It’s time for the Church to get serious” (November 18, 2016) at LifeSiteNews, https://www.lifesitenews.com/opinion/cohabitation-unions-a-risk-to-marriage-adults-and-children.
- Kansas Catholic Conference, “A Better Way: A Pastoral Letter to the People of God in the Province of Kansas Addressing Cohabitation before Marriage” (June 4, 1998), ed. Damian Lenshek, 8, at https://www.kofc.org/un/en/resources/cis/cis308.pdf.
- According to a study reported in American Family Association Journal, July 1993, couples who cohabited before marriage had a 50 percent higher chance of divorce than couples who did not cohabitate.
- Sample, “Pastoral Guidelines for Implementing Amoris Laetitia,” 7.