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National Editorials & Columns

Mattingly: Cohabitation becomes tricky in today’s society

It’s a hypothetical case, but one priests frequently face in an American culture transformed by the Sexual Revolution.

On the other side of the desk is a couple seeking marriage-preparation sessions before a church wedding. At least one of these young people is from a parish family and, thus, has been receiving Holy Communion. Neither has been to Confession in years.

The pastor has every reason to suspect that, like millions of Americans, this couple is already “shacking up.”

A Catholic priest knows that the catechism teaches that sex between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman is “gravely contrary to the dignity of persons and of human sexuality which is naturally ordered to the good of spouses.” He knows that it teaches that anyone “conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to Communion.”

So a painful question looms over these encounters: Don’t ask, don’t tell?

“What I have heard priests say is that if people come to us to get married, then we don’t feel like we can refuse them,” said Scott Stanley, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. The thinking seems to be that “getting these people married will solve the big problem that, from the church’s point of view, exists in their lives.”

But when it comes to addressing doctrinal issues linked to cohabitation, “you get the feeling that priests just don’t know what to do right now,” he said.

At the end of the 20th century, the U.S. Catholic bishops were circulating materials noting that nearly half of all couples seeking Catholic marriage-preparation sessions were already cohabitating. A set of 1988 guidelines, entitled “Faithful to Each Other Forever,” warned priests to avoid two extremes: “(1) Immediately confronting the couple and condemning their behavior and (2) Ignoring the cohabitation aspect of their relationship.”

Ever since, priests have been asked to view marriage-preparation sessions as chances to welcome couples back into the life of the church. However, they are also supposed to communicate that sex outside of marriage is a grave sin.

Clergy must be willing, he said, to “stand up and tell people that there is good evidence and good research indicating that God had your best intentions in mind when he came up with this whole marriage thing and set some standards for how you prepare for it. ...

“Cohabitation isn’t teaching people how to be committed to each other for a lifetime.” Stanley said. “Instead, it’s teaching them how to pack up and move on.”

• Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.

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