The pope continues: "Each of these elements presents the church with arduous pastoral problems by reason of the serious consequences deriving from them, both religious and moral... and also social consequences…The pastors and the ecclesial community should take care to become acquainted with such situations and their actual causes, case by case. They should make tactful and respectful contact with the couples concerned, and enlighten them patiently, correct them charitably and show them the witness of Christian family life in such a way as to smooth the path for them to regularize their situation" (F amiliaris Consortio, 81).
In the discussion below we attempt to take the pope's advice and apply it to concrete questions that arise during marriage preparation with cohabiting couples. Our goal is to work through the challenges - "smooth the path" - so that cohabiting couples will be able to celebrate a sacramental marriage.
1. How to Work With Cohabiting Couples Who Approach the Church for Marriage Preparation
Faithful to Each Other Forever notes that two extremes are to be avoided: (1) immediately confronting the couple and condemning their behavior, and (2) ignoring the cohabitation aspect of their relationship.' In the decade following the document's publication, pastoral experience and diocesan policies have borne out the wisdom of this approach. The majority of policies and practices follow a middle way between the two extremes, one that integrates general correction with understanding and compassion.
The U.S. bishops' plan for young-adult ministry, "Sons and Daughters of the Light," points out that during marriage preparation the church connects with more young adults than at any other time outside Sunday Mass. "For some this may be their first step back into church life" (p. 30). Marriage preparation is an opportunity for evangelization and catechesis. The Gary Diocese points out that "this is a 'teachable moment,' and the parish priest must be cautious lest he alienate the couple from the church community. This calls for pastoral support in the couple's plans for the future rather than chastising them for the past" ("Guidelines for Marriage as a Sacrament," Diocese of Gary, 1996).
While couples need to be welcomed with the Gospel values of love, understanding and acceptance, they also need to be challenged by the Gospel message of commitment and faithfulness. Faithful to Each Other Forever points out that in the past pastoral ministers often overlooked the cohabitation, not pressing the couple too hard for fear of alienating them from the church. Because of the awkwardness of dealing with the situation, some chose to ignore the entire issue. Increasingly, however, pastoral ministers have abandoned this approach in favor of addressing the cohabitation gently but directly.
The church has consistently taught that human love "demands a total and definitive gift of persons to one another" that can only be made in marriage (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2391). Since cohabitation violates the church's teaching about sexual love and marriage, church ministers must speak and teach about it. Doing so "is an act of love for the couple in the process of spiritual growth" ("Pastoral Care of Sexually Active/Cohabiting Couples Before Marriage," Diocese of Peoria, 1997).
How can pastoral ministers know if a couple is cohabiting? This can be a delicate situation. Very few diocesan policies offer suggestions for surfacing this issue during marriage preparation. Given the potentially harmful effects of cohabitation on marital stability, however, pastoral ministers are beginning to recognize a responsibility to raise the issue.
Certain tipoffs (e.g. giving the same address and/or telephone number) can alert the pastoral minister that the couple may be cohabiting. Some couples are quite open about their living arrangements. A pastoral minister who is sensitive but straightforward can encourage a similarly candid attitude on the part of the couple. Some pastoral ministers discuss cohabitation in general terms, noting the issues it raises and the potentially harmful effects on the marriage.
However it surfaces, cohabitation should be discussed early in the marriage preparation process. If it is not possible or advisable to discuss it immediately, it should be flagged as an issue to be addressed at a subsequent face-to-face meeting.
Some marriage preparation programs use the premarital inventory FOCCUS (Facilitating Open Couple Communication, Understanding and Study). FOCCUS now includes discussion questions for cohabiting couples, and the FOCCUS manual includes additional material on facilitating discussion with this group.