Confronting Catholic Cohabitation

Cohabitation is bad, bad, bad.

Contrary to the popular notion that it provides couples a chance to “test drive” marriage, it actually results in lower marriage rates, more break-ups, harms women (who almost always get the short end of the deal), and generally creates a terrible human mess for a couple trying to live as one while not actually committing to live as one or to make the sacrifices that are necessary to become one in marriage. (Just look at this infographic.)

And yet, young Catholic couples will tell you how often in Catholic pre-Cana retreats and preparation the presumption of the staff who runs them is that the couples are already sleeping together (and cohabiting). Often the matter is not even raised seriously.

Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Sante Fe, NM, however, is trying to do something about this state of affairs (ahem). My father writes about it:

Abp. Sheehan has written a clear and concise letter on the ‘Pastoral Care of Couples Who Are Cohabiting’ (PDF). I understand that he had it read from the pulpits of his churches last weekend. I think it a solid summation of the Church’s teaching on Catholic marriage, Christian witness, and ecclesiastical participation.

Father Z has a helpful commentary on the Archbishop’s pastoral letter.

I would recommend reading the letter if you are a) contemplating cohabitation b) want to bolster your resolve not to move in with your boyfriend or girlfriend c) want to strengthen your courage to cease cohabiting d) want to discuss with Catholic pre-cana staff why the issue of cohabitation should be discussed or e) care about promoting a healthy marriage culture.

This isn’t about judging, this is about showing people the best way to be happy and fulfilled.



  • Joshua

    Good article and I think this is definitely something that all of us in American culture need to think about. But should this really be something that is dealt with in Politics? I JUST clicked on a Facebook link to this article (this is the first time I’ve seen this site), and I’m just wondering how this article pertains to Catholics in politics (the site IS called Catholic Vote). This is something that we should all be talking about but because this article is on this website, is the author (Thomas Peters) suggesting that we should debate this in politics?

    Just a thought. I agree that this is something we should be talking about, I just wnat to make sure we discuss the topic in the right public forum.

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  • Teep

    Ceterum Censeo, if you let people get married reasonably quickly without all the preparatory hoops and ‘waiting period’ engagements, you have fewer people sharing condos. Sounds radical, I know. The history of the Church is on my side with this. It’s high time adult education programs stop treating young believers like they’re idiots. Condescension is not pastoral.

    • Fr. Andrew

      You may be right, but pretending cohabitation isn’t destructive to marriages is also not pastoral. Is there a pastoral approach somewhere between speeding up prep and treating couples like idiots?

      • Teep

        I believe there is. Part of the solution is more vocations; more priests means more people knowing their priests well. Another part of the solution is to have a much more flexible schema in place for priests and lay ministers to use prudential judgment in how they handle each couple. It places more responsibility on ministers and prospective couples alike. There are some very good marriage preparation courses and weekends out there that I’ve seen and heard of, and and there are many bad ones from what it sounds like. All of the ones I’ve seen that were meritorious have incorporated some very personal, hands on spiritual direction all the way through the wedding itself. I think giving couples some honest options over both time AND intensity of their preparation (where those two items are inversely proportioned, I think) even within one parish is optimal(though probably a lot of work).

  • zach b

    I’m sure there was more than one priest that wished he didn’t have to read this letter to his flock. Most of these six points have been ignored for decades by most priests. I can think of at least a half a dozen couples who went through pre cana classes in a state of “mortal sin” and went to the altar in the same state. Does that invalidate their Catholic wedding by making it a sacrilegious event?

    I keep wondering why it is that the hierarchy has insisted that people be perfect Catholics before they can access the sacraments. I’ve come to the conclusion they don’t believe sacramental grace actually works the way Jesus said it would, as balm for healing souls and hearts. Sheehan’s letter leaves no place for God’s grace to work in this way within the institutional church. I suspect this failure to believe and trust has an awful lot to do with the fact that in their dictated sacramental lives it doesn’t work for them. And then things get all convoluted and the assumption is it won’t work for laity either, unless laity are living perfect Catholic lives, and then it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work. Sacraments are not prizes awarded only to those who follow doctrine and church law to the letter.

    How tragic that the church is willing to cut off so many of its faithful from the sacraments in order achieve the conformity it needs to achieve its political goals. The hierarchy’s deepening involvement in politics is symptomatic of religious leadership scrambling for power in reaction to a loss of influence and moral authority over its flock.

    It is also something hypocritical and disturbing in Archbishop Sheehan addressing the possible scandals the laity may cause given his actual participation in far worse scandals.

    As a comparison, this is so different from Native American tradition in which Native healers expect their prayers, rituals and ceremonies to be reality tested. Apparently Catholicism is above and beyond any kind of reality testing.

    If Jesus believed that anyone he met was in “great spiritual danger,” the first thing he would do would be to invite that person to his table. Jesus would want to learn the individual’s story. Jesus would invite that person into community and remind them that they are God’s beloved. Jesus also might have called the religious authorities hypocrites, as he does in Matthew 23:13, 28, for “locking people out of the kingdom of heaven” and for being like “white washed tombs . . . full of hypocrisy and lawlessness inside.”

    • Fr. Andrew

      Zach B…you might want to credit Jamie L. Manson at National Catholic Reporter and her article “Archbishop Sheehan: How to lose Catholics and alienate people” if you’re going to quote her verbatim.

      • Bruce

        Its always a dead give-away when the quote-marks fail to show up. :)

  • Josh

    Sadly, in many places the issue is not touched at all, so I’m very greatful that the Archbishop said something at all. My own marriage preparation program was a horrible experience (I’ve been married 5 1/2 years), where we rarely discussed the Church’s position on anything. In fact the two things that stand out most to me was the couple leading reaching the section in the book on birth control and literally saying “we know what the Church teaches, next chapter” and then her asking me to help her (knowing I was a theology teacher) on questions that might come up concerning the church’s teaching on marriage. While I acknowledge that nobody knows everything, shouldn’t those teaching this class be a little more prepared?

    On a different line, I want to also commend the Abp. for addressing, albeit briefly the possibility that some are in this situation but not engaging in sex. I want to also commend the comments concerning this “fourth category” that I think will become more of a reality, as a couple generations of Catholics who take the Church serious enough to marry in it allow the truths concerning chastity sink in, but are still fighting against a culture that sees nothing wrong with cohabitation in general, and something very wrong with sacrifice in specific. It will be a tough time, so thank goodness we have someone speaking out!

  • Cathy D

    My husband and I have been a mentor couple for Catholic couples preparing for marriage for a number of years. We have probably worked with 20 couples over this period of time. Of those couples only 2, maybe 3 were not living together. Most of the couples had already purchased a home together. We do present the Church’s teaching on cohabitation when we work with couples, but it would be helpful if this teaching of the church were reinforced from the pulpit. I doubt anyone has ever heard this mentioned in church. I know I have not.

    • Bruce

      When we counsel, we often mention the following: First, cohabitating couples are far more likely to end up in divorce. Is that what you want for your fiance? To be your future ex? Second, you obviously do not love your fiance, since you are leading him or her into mortal sin. You are willing to send your fiance to hell in order to satisfy your own selfish sexual and material desires. Is that what you want? Lastly, your fiance is willing to sleep with people he or she is not married to. Does that sound trustworthy?

      • NAB

        Bruce, wow, that’s good. How do you find the couples react? My parents have done FOCCUS in our parish for years and while they don’t talk to me about their experiences (they can’t) I imagine they confront this issue. It’s heartbreaking because I don’t think some of these couples really get it. One more thing to pray for I guess!



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