Chapter 27, Marriage Preparation and Cohabitating Couples: Information Report
in Sex and Marriage in the Catholic Tradition: An Historical Overview
Letson, Douglas R.(Ed.), Novalis, 2001.
[Note: From the U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1999. This is over a decade old, but my guess is that the trends continue and the figures are still useful as indicators of the prevalence of behaviours in North America.]
Today almost half the couples who come for marriage preparation in the Catholic Church are in a cohabiting relationship.(1) Cohabitation means living together in a sexual relationship without marriage. Living together in this way involves varying degrees of physical and emotional interaction. Such a relationship is a false sign. It contradicts the meaning of a sexual relationship in marriage as the total gift of oneself in fidelity, exclusivity and permanency.
Over the past 25 years cohabitation has become a major social phenomenon affecting the institution of marriage and family life.(2) It is also an extremely perplexing issue for priests, deacons and lay pastoral ministers who help couples prepare for marriage in the church.
In 1988 the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Pastoral Practices published Faithful to Each Other Forever: A Catholic Handbook of Pastoral Help for Marriage Preparation. The intent of that volume was to be a resource for those involved in marriage-preparation work. It remains a very useful and comprehensive pastoral tool.
Faithful to Each Other Forever discussed the question of cohabitation under two headings: (a) input on cohabitation from personal experiences and the behavioral sciences, and (b) pastoral approaches to cohabiting couples. In this latter section the handbook drew upon the written policies of a few dioceses to present a range of possible options for working with cohabiting couples who come seeking marriage in the church.
Now, nearly 12 years after the original work of Faithful to Each Other Forever, the cumulative pastoral experience of ministering to cohabiting couples has broadened and deepened. This is reflected, at least partially, in the increased number of dioceses that now include a treatment of the issue within their marriagepreparation policies.
In this present resource paper the NCCB Committee on Marriage and Family builds upon the foundation provided by Faithful to Each Other Forever when it first treated the question of cohabitation. The paper adopts the same two-part structure: empirical data and pastoral approaches. Its purpose is twofold:
1. To impart information that is current and relevant to all who participate in the church's ministry with engaged couples, including those in diocesan leadership who might be in the process of revising their marriage preparation policies.
2. To offer a descriptive overview of common pastoral approaches now being taken in u.s. dioceses to the various situations and issues connected with the phenomenon of cohabiting couples.
This paper is neither an official statement of the Committee on Marriage and Family nor of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. It does not offer formal recommendations for action. It is intended as a resource paper, offering a compilation of resources and a reflection of the present "state of the question" regarding certain issues of cohabitation.
In this way, it wishes to help:
1. Bishops and diocesan staff who are reviewing and possibly revising their marriage-preparation policies.
2. Priests, deacons, pastoral ministers and lay volunteers who want to become more informed and effective in working with cohabiting couples who come to marriage-preparation programs.
3. Those who are responsible for in-service and continuing education of clergy
and laity who carry out the church's ministry or marriage preparation.