A liberal Catholic magazine, U.S. Catholic, published by the Claretian order, has an article saying the Catholic church needs to get with the times and approve of cohabitation. Michael G. Lawler and Gail S. Risch are both on the staff of the Center for Marriage and Family at Creighton University in Nebraska (“a university in the Jesuit tradition”).

Recent focus groups of young Catholic adults on “problematic aspects of church teaching” found that they disagreed with church teaching on premarital sex and cohabitation and do not see a fundamental difference in a loving relationship before and after a wedding. Our experience with young adults leads us to doubt the claim that they are living in sin. It would appear closer to the truth that they are growing, perhaps slowly but nonetheless surely, into grace. …

Although only non-nuptial cohabitation is linked to an increased likelihood of divorce after marriage, the fact that many Catholics believe otherwise leaves current pastoral responses to cohabiting couples both uninformed and outdated. It also raises questions about church documents based on old research and the pastoral approaches they recommend. Church documents continue to lump all cohabitors together, focus narrowly on the sexual dimension of relationships, and ignore the variety and complexity of the intentions, situations, and meanings couples give to cohabitation and its morality.

Their solution? Let’s just go ahead an bless their cohabitation! Here’s their proposal:

In the canonical words of the received tradition, their engagement or betrothal initiates their marriage; their subsequent ritual wedding, before or after the birth of a child, consummates their marriage and makes it indissoluble. Since their betrothal—however expressed, preferably in a public ritual—initiates their marriage, their cohabitation is not premarital. It is certainly pre-ceremonial, though that could be remedied by the introduction of a church betrothal ceremony. … For those nuptial cohabitors who do not proceed to a wedding, their martial relationship begun at betrothal would not be consummated and would therefore be dissoluble according to Canon 1142.

Guided by society, justified by legal loopholes, not a mention of what Scripture says.

Fisking by Carl Olson and by Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Denver. The latter dubs the authors’ approach “bafflingly naïve.”

If the Church, in her reflection on the Gospel, has always taught that sex outside marriage is morally wrong, then for the Church to now bless “nuptial cohabiters” amounts to colluding in sin. Ritualizing a sinful behavior, or calling it a nicer name, does not change its substance. The very last thing we need in a society already awash in confused sexuality is a strategy for accommodating it.

The greatest irony of the U.S. Catholic article comes in a comment by the authors that many young adults “cite confusion about Church teaching because Church leaders send mixed messages about sex, contraception, and divorce/annulment.” I very much agree. And one of the sources of that confusion might be Catholic publications, theologians and researchers who help feed it.

We need more support for marriage in society and the Church, not alternative arrangements. Cohabiting couples deserve the understanding and patience of the Catholic community, but above all they need to hear the Christian truth, persuasively offered, about the nature of marriage, the meaning of their sexuality and the importance of the family. We waste words and time when we focus on anything else.

Rutgers gives us a summary of recent research on the subject.

Between 1960 and 2005 … the number of unmarried couples in America increased more than tenfold. Unmarried cohabitation—the status of couples who are sexual partners, not married to each other, and sharing a household—is particularly common among the young. It is estimated that about a quarter of unmarried women age 25 to 39 are currently living with a partner and an additional quarter have lived with a partner at some time in the past. Over half of all first marriages are now preceded by living together, compared to virtually none 50 years ago.

For many, cohabitation is a prelude to marriage, for others, simply an alternative to living alone, and for a small but growing number, it is
considered an alternative to marriage. Cohabitation is more common among those of lower educational and income levels. Recent data show that among women in the 19 to 44 age range, 60 percent of high school dropouts have cohabited compared to 37 percent of college graduates.2 Cohabitation is also more common among those who are less religious than their peers, those who have been divorced, and those who have experienced parental divorce, fatherlessness, or high levels of marital discord during childhood. A growing percentage of cohabiting couple households, now over 40 percent, contain children.

The belief that living together before marriage is a useful way “to find out whether you really get along,” and thus avoid a bad marriage and an eventual divorce, is now widespread among young people. But the available data on the effects of cohabitation fail to confirm this belief. In fact, a substantial body of evidence indicates that those who live together before marriage are more likely to break up after marriage. This evidence is controversial, however, because it is difficult to distinguish the “selection effect” from the “experience of cohabitation effect.” The selection effect refers to the fact that people who cohabit before marriage have different characteristics from those who do not, and it may be these characteristics, and not the experience of cohabitation, that leads to marital instability.

There is some empirical support for both positions. Also, a recent study based on a nationally-representative sample of women concluded that premarital cohabitation (and premarital sex), when limited to a woman’s future husband, is not associated with an elevated risk of marital disruption. What can be said for certain is that no evidence has yet been found that those who cohabit before marriage have stronger marriages than those who do not.

The Rutgers study also notes that though the national rate for divorce is 50%, not all marriages are the same; not all carry the same risk factors.

… [I]f you are a reasonably well-educated person with a decent income, come from an intact family and are religious, and marry after age twenty five without having a baby first, your chances of divorce are very low indeed.

So the “recent research” is not as black and white as the authors of the article state, and their pastoral approach fails to deal with the human reality and the teachings of Scripture.

Update: An article yesterday says that the Archdiocese of Omaha has severed ties with the Creighton Center for Marriage and Family.

2 thoughts on “Cohabitation

  1. Has the Center disassociated itself from those statements? I think I read that they did, any way of finding out? Does it matter?

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