As I addressed in an earlier article, cohabitation is one of the leading cultural assaults on the institution of marriage. What was once a great scandal and derided as “shacking up” is now accepted as the norm.
The physical, psychological and emotional dangers of cohabitation have been clearly outlined by writers as diverse as Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse of the Ruth Institute to Dr. Sharon Sassler writing in the pages of the New York Times.
Those who cohabitate suffer more depression, are more often victims of domestic violence, and report a poorer quality of relationship than do their married counterparts. Marriages that are preceded by cohabitation are more likely to end in divorce. That is why I am always saddened to see the adult children of family and friends casually move in with a boyfriend or girlfriend with little regard for the damage they are doing to marriage in general and to their future marriages in particular.
In response to this growing trend, several years ago the pastor of my parish instituted a policy that requires those who wish to have a formal wedding with all the flourishes to live apart for at least three months prior to the wedding. Those who are cohabitating may still be married in the church, but it will be a simple ceremony. There will be no procession, no string of bridesmaids, no special music, and no Mass. They are welcome to invite friends to the ceremony, but it will be so simple that a rehearsal is unnecessary.
When I have relayed this policy to others, I am often met with incredulous stares and responses like “How unfair!” or “That will drive young people from the Church!”
What such responses fail to appreciate is that this policy is actually more just than turning a blind eye to cohabitation. It is true that the bride who chooses to cohabitate before marriage will be denied the dream wedding she has been visualizing for years. But what about the bride and groom who respect the dignity of marriage and wait until after the wedding to live as husband and wife? Should not the Church differentiate their wedding from those who make a mockery of marriage by cohabitation?
My pastor is not denying the Sacrament of Matrimony to anyone. He is acknowledging that the full Nuptial Mass is a grand and solemn celebration to mark a transition in the lives of the couple. It is only fair to recognize the very real and distinct differences between those who make this transition after the wedding and those who make it before the wedding.
I have no doubt that many couples, who would like to be married in our parish, but are cohabitating wander down the road to a parish that is less restrictive in its wedding policies. It is truly unfortunate that more priests do not have the courage to face the problem of cohabitation head on and there is definitely no doubt they will need courage.
Parishioners may very well leave the parish, threaten to withhold financial contributions, or call the bishop to complain about such a policy. Many a mother-of-the-bride has been mentally planning her daughter’s wedding since the day she was born. A priest risks the wrath of such a mother when he tells her that imagined wedding is not going to happen because her daughter has chosen to cohabitate. Hopefully, bishops will universally support their priests who stand firm in their defense of marriage.
Clergy cannot be expected to shoulder the entire burden of defending marriage. It is crucial for parents to actively join the opposition to cohabitation. This is not an easy task and it takes both great faith and grace.
How many parents are willing to look their daughter in the eye and tell her that if she eschews marriage to move in with her boyfriend, there will be no long white dress or a wedding with all the trimmings?
Do we love our children enough and care about their eternal salvation enough to tell them in no uncertain terms that cohabitation is an affront to the true nature of marriage and we will not ignore this with support for a lavish wedding?
In his encyclical on marriage, Arcanum, Pope Leo XIII did not mince any words on the seriousness of the sin of cohabitation:
We well know that none should be excluded from Our charity, We commend, venerable brothers, to your fidelity and piety those unhappy persons who, carried away by the heat of passion, and being utterly indifferent to their salvation, live wickedly together without the bond of lawful marriage. Let your utmost care be exercised in bringing such persons back to their duty; and, both by your own efforts and by those of good men who will consent to help you, strive by every means that they may see how wrongly they have acted; that they may do penance; and that they may be induced to enter into a lawful marriage according to the Catholic rite.
It is time that we take Pope Leo XII’s words to heart. We cannot afford to be complacent about the dangers cohabitation poses both to individual marriages and to the institution of marriage as a whole.
The wedding industry has sold us on all the secular party accoutrements attached to contemporary marriages, but a Catholic wedding needs to reflect Church teaching about marriage.
Charity demands that cohabitating couples be told of the risks and consequences of their choice. Those who publicly and flagrantly depart from Church teaching should not then expect the Church to celebrate their wedding in the same fashion as those who are faithfully obedient to Church teaching. Failure to make such a distinction demeans marriage and is an injustice to those who wait.