Are cohabiting Catholics always "living in sin"? Two respected family ministry researchers argue "no" and suggest the recovery of an ancient ritual for those moving toward marriage.
Consider two unmarried couples who are living together. The first couple, 25-year-old Tom and 23-year-old Sharon, have no plans to marry. He lived with two previous girlfriends, while she lived with her ex-husband before they married, which was just before their first child was born. The second couple, 28-year-old Frank and 24-year-old Molly, are engaged to be married. They are living together for six months while engaged.
Many Catholics believe living together before marriage is "living in sin" and associate premarital cohabitation with an increased divorce rate, but recent research reports a more detailed picture of the relationship between cohabitation and marital instability.
If the first couple, Tom and Sharon, were to get married, they would be at far greater risk for marital instability than the second couple, Frank and Molly. Couples who live together with no definite plan to marry are in a completely different situation from cohabiting couples already committed to marrying one another. Those already committed to one another and planning to marry look and act like already-married couples in most ways. For committed cohabiting couples, living together is a step on the path to marriage; for couples who are not committed, cohabitation is a social arrangement inferior to marriage.
The sharp increase in premarital cohabitation is one of the most fundamental social changes in Western countries today. Between 1960 and 2004, the number of unmarried couples living together in the United States increased tenfold from less than 500,000 to more than 5 million. Cohabitation has become, even for Catholics, more and more a conventional and socially endorsed reality.
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.
The most recent and respected marriage research identifies two kinds of cohabitors: those who are not committed to marriage, whom we name "non-nuptial cohabitors," and those already committed to marriage, perhaps even engaged, whom we name "nuptial cohabitors."
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.
Given the current research that demonstrates that not all cohabitors are alike, we propose the re-introduction of an ancient ritual of betrothal for nuptial cohabitors, followed by intensive marriage preparation in the Catholic pastoral tradition.
Committed for life
In his 1981 encyclical Familiaris Consortio (On the Family), Pope John Paul II taught that conjugal love "aims at a deeply personal unity, the unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul; it demands indissolubility and faithfulness in definitive mutual giving; and it is open to fertility." This describes the commitment not only of married spouses but also of nuptial cohabitors who have definitively committed to a loving relationship with one another but who have not yet celebrated their wedding. They come to the church to be married precisely to celebrate the gift of their love for each other and to give it a religious, sacramental permanence.
We define commitment as a freely chosen and faithful devotion to a person. Applied to relationships, including marriage, commitment as dedication is twofold: commitment to the partner and commitment to the relationship. Commitment to the partner entails those characteristics John Paul lists or implies, namely love, fidelity, loyalty, and fortitude in the trials and messiness of the relationship. Commitment to the relationship entails exclusivity, indissolubility, and fertility as fruitfulness.
Couples who share this double commitment manifest it in various ways, including a strong couple identity, a strong sense of "us" and "we," the maintenance of their partner and their marriage as a high priority, a protection of their relationship against attraction to others, a readiness to sacrifice for one another without resentment, and an investment of themselves personally in building a future together. Such double commitment is the surest path to marital intimacy.
Couples with such double commitment reveal their deepest desires, failings, and hurts to one another. They do not think about possible alternatives to their partner, and they are satisfied with their relationship in general and their sex life in particular. They are willing to give up things important to them for the sake of their relationship, and they report higher levels of happiness and stability than do couples who do not regularly sacrifice for the sake of their relationship. These happy couples have a strong sense of their future together and they are more likely to speak of that future than of their past conflicts, failures, and disappointments.
It is such commitment, we suggest, that nuptial cohabitors exhibit, albeit in seed at the beginning of their cohabitation but in full flower when they come to the church to be married. It is precisely the seedling love and commitment becoming flower that needs to be ritually celebrated and realized in the betrothal.
Marriage's mixed history
In the 12th century, Gratian, the master of the school of law at the Catholic University of Bologna, introduced a compromise in the debate between the Romans and the northern Europeans over what brought about marriage. That compromise, still embodied in the Code of Canon Law (canon 1061), is that mutual consent makes a marriage ratified and valid, and sexual intercourse makes it ratified and consummated and, therefore, indissoluble.
Consent could be given in either the future tense or the present tense. When it was given in the future tense, the result was called betrothal or sponsalia, that is, the couple became spouses. When it was given in the present tense, the result was called marriage or nuptialia, that is, the couple became wedded. The first sexual intercourse between the spouses usually followed the betrothal-a fact of the Catholic tradition that has been obscured by the now-taken-for-granted sequence of wedding, marriage, sexual intercourse.
It was not, however, until the Council of Trent in the 16th century that the Catholic Church prescribed that sequence and decreed that marriage resulted from the nuptials or ceremonial wedding. But for over half of Catholic couples in the modern West, the sequence has reverted to the pre-Tridentine sequence: cohabitation and sexual intercourse, then the wedding.
The parallel between the pre-Tridentine and the modern practices is striking. Pre-Tridentine betrothal led to full sexual relations and pregnancy, which then led to indissoluble marriage. Modern nuptial cohabitation leads to full sexual relations then to indissoluble marriage, with or without pregnancy.
We underscore again that we are focused only on nuptial cohabitation, cohabitation grounded in the commitment to marry. Nothing we say applies to non-nuptial cohabitation. The sexual intercourse practiced by betrothed couples in pre-Tridentine times was firmly grounded in the intention to marry. It is only those nuptial cohabitors with an equally firm intention to marry who are our concern here.
A modest proposal
Our pastoral proposal is straightforward: a return to the marital sequence of betrothal (with appropriate ritual to ensure community involvement), sexual intercourse, possible fertility, then ritual wedding to acknowledge and mark the consummation of both valid marriage and sacrament.
Since these couples will have already initiated their marriage through betrothal, their intercourse would not be premarital but marital, as it was in the pre-Tridentine Catholic Church. We envision a marital process initiated by mutual commitment and consent lived in love, justice, equality, intimacy, and fulfillment in a nuptial cohabitation pointed to a wedding that consummates the process of becoming married in a public manner. Such a process would meet the legitimate Catholic and social requirement that the sexual act must take place only within a stable relationship.
The process would be:
Betrothal: The couple's betrothal, which would involve a public ritual highlighting free consent to wed in the future, would be witnessed and blessed on behalf of the church community. The betrothal ritual would differ from the present wedding ceremony in that the consent would be to marry in the future. Such betrothal, as it did in earlier Catholic tradition, would confer on the couple the status of committed spouses with all the rights that the church grants to spouses, including the right to sexual intercourse.
Nuptial cohabitation: During this period the couple would live together as spouses, enjoying the approval and support of the community, and continuing the lifelong process of establishing their marital relationship as one of love, justice, equality, intimacy, and mutual flourishing. During this time the church would assist the couple with ongoing marriage education aimed precisely at clarifying and deepening their relationship.
Sex/Fertility: This is the part of our proposal that may cause the most unease. Catholics who believe that all premarital sex is wrong believe that the ritual requirement of a wedding has always been the norm in the Catholic tradition. It has not. Since betrothal is already part of the Catholic tradition, it cannot be argued that it is antithetical to the tradition.
Today those couples whom we call nuptial cohabitors are beginning their stable, marital, sexual relationship prior to their wedding ceremony. They fully intend to marry when the restrictions-social, economic, educational, and professional-that contemporary society imposes on them are removed. Their nuptial cohabitation is the first step available to them toward a future marriage.
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.
Wedding: There will come a time when the committed nuptial cohabitors have overcome the issues that compelled them to cohabit rather than to marry-issues related to economics, career, and experience or fear of divorce-and when their relationship has reached such a plateau of interpersonal communion that they will decide to ceremonialize it. That is the time for their wedding.
With their families, friends, and Christian community, they will affirm their consent and celebrate their union for what it has become, namely, a symbol or sacrament of the loving union between God and God's people, between Christ and Christ's church.
Their wedding can then be considered the consummation of their marriage, the consummation of a relationship that they have sought to make as humane and as Christian as possible. The process of marrying would then be complete. In the legal words of canon law, their marriage would become both "ratified and consummated." Again, according to canon law, the marriage initiated in the betrothal ceremony would be valid but not yet indissoluble. Indissolubility would follow from its consummation in the wedding 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.
Happily ever after
Since the most recent research shows that all cohabitors are not alike and that nuptial cohabitation prior to a wedding does not lessen the stability of marriage, in our experience with young adults, nuptial cohabitation fits into the process of their becoming married. And if it fits into the process of becoming married, it fits also into the process by which their marriage becomes sacrament.
Church teaching is sometimes slow to respond to social change and to sift out its beneficial aspects and thus sometimes can appear detached from real experience. That is what young adults tell us and what they also told various focus groups.
We invite the Catholic Church to be a leader, rather than an adversary, in acknowledging and nurturing nuptial cohabiting relationships as just and loving relationships and pathways to grace. We also invite Catholics to be ready to assist cohabiting nuptial couples to discover the presence of God in their lives and to live into that grace throughout their present cohabiting and future married lives.
This article appeared in the June 2007 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 72, No. 6, pages 18-22).