needs to be definitive; "it cannot be an arrangement 'until further notice'" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1646). Even if the couple chooses not to separate, they can be encouraged to live chastely before marriage. "They should see in this time of testing a discovery of mutual respect, an apprenticeship in fidelity and the hope of receiving one another from God" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2350).
The challenge to separate or, if continuing to live together, to live chastely, can be fruitfully posed at the end of a process in which the church's teaching on marriage and sexuality is carefully explained. This approach has been adopted by the bishops of Kansas, among others. They point out that during marriage preparation couples must make decisions. One of these concerns living together. Priests and pastoral ministers point out the many good reasons not to cohabit and invite couples to follow the teachings of the church. As the Kansas bishops stress: "Ultimately, the engaged couple must make the decision to follow Christ and his church" ("A Better Way," 1998).
The Diocese of Peoria follows a similar approach. After suitable instruction, the priest must ask the couple to consider chaste and separate living and give the couple time to reflect on their decision ("Pastoral Care of Sexually Active/Cohabiting Couples Before Marriage, Appendix E).
Priests and pastoral ministers report that couples who separate often benefit from the experience. "Priests say that many couples return ... expressing amazement at new insights through living separately. The couple's experience has changed their hearts" (Sioux Falls). Separation can give the couple new perspectives on their relationship; it is also a tangible sign of the couple's free, loving decision to accept the church's vision of marriage and sexuality.
Some couples are not normally asked to separate, e.g. those with children. Ideally, before challenging a couple to separate, the minister knows their particular circumstances and why they decided to live together. A couple may have what seem to them good reasons (e.g. finances, safety) for living together. A change in living arrangements can pose practical problems. The Diocese of Sioux Falls, recognizing this situation, notes that "parishes may be challenged to help couples cope with such difficulties so that they can live apart" ("Preparing for Marriage in the Diocese of Sioux Falls").
5. If a Couple Is Cohabiting, Can Marriage Be Denied or Delayed?
1. Denial of marriage: Since cohabitation is not in itself a canonical impediment to marriage, the couple may not be refused marriage solely on the basis of cohabitation. Marriage preparation may continue even if the couple refuses to separate. Pastoral ministers can be assured that to assist couples in regularizing their situation is not to approve of cohabitation.
2. Delay or postponement of the marriage: Some diocesan policies note that in certain circumstances a postponement of the wedding might be in order. In these cases additional time might be needed to address the issues raised by cohabitation. For example a concern for the impact of cohabitation on the couple's freedom to marry could be a reason to delay the marriage until this issue is sufficiently explored as part of marriage preparation (Archdiocese of Detroit; Archdiocese of Miami).
A few dioceses point out that cohabitation may prolong the marriage preparation process because of the need to evaluate the couple's attitudes and understanding of the church's teachings on marriage and sexuality. One policy states: "If there is not sufficient awareness on the couple's part of the essential elements of Catholic teaching on the sanctity of marriage and sexual relations, and of the commitment, fidelity and permanence needed in marriage, then the marriage should be postponed until such awareness has developed" ("Preparing for Marriage," Diocese of Rapid City).
Since couples have a natural and canonical right to marriage, any delay beyond the normal waiting period for all couples is a serious matter. Care must be taken to ensure that delay is not used as a punishment for a couple's continued cohabitation. (See Bishop John D' Arcy's letter to priests of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Origins, Oct. 1, 1998.)
6. Should Cohabiting Couples Be Encouraged to Celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation Prior to Their Wedding?
With all couples, celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation is properly encouraged as part of marriage preparation for the Catholic party or parties. The catechism states, "It is therefore appropriate for