Magazine article on cohabitating couples ‘bafflingly naïve’
One of my vivid memories as a young priest was watching the United States exit Vietnam after claiming to win at the bargaining table. Less than two years later, Saigon collapsed, and the war ended.
I knew plenty of serious Catholics who opposed the war. I knew many others who supported it. But no one on either side believed that we left because we had “won.” Americans have a genius for marketing, and one of the things we’ve learned from experience is that we can often make bad news look better by giving it a different name. The problem stays the same, but at least we feel happier about it — for awhile.
I remembered this as I read a recent article in U.S. Catholic magazine. Since the 1960s, premarital sexual activity has greatly increased. So has the number of couples living together outside marriage. In some dioceses today, as many as 90 percent of the couples who present themselves for marriage preparation already live together and have sexual relations.
But “A betrothal proposal,” written by two marriage researchers, argues that a big difference exists between sexually active couples who casually cohabit, and “nuptial cohabiters” who intend marriage. The former couples are, say the authors, far more likely to split up than the latter, should they marry.
This makes sense. The intent to marry and the intent to enjoy sex as a kind of recreation are very different motives. Nor is pre-nuptial sex “news” to any confessor. Love and human nature being as they are, engaged couples have always had a difficult time refraining from sexual intimacy. This doesn’t make sexual relations between engaged persons morally right. It merely explains the behavior. It also highlights the need for Catholic couples to have strong support and guidance in waiting until they marry.
The U.S. Catholic article goes beyond identifying a problem, though. The authors argue that “current pastoral responses to cohabiting couples [are] both uninformed and outdated” and that “Our experience with young [cohabiting] adults leads us to doubt the claim that they are living in sin.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 authors also examine the history of Catholic thought about marriage and suggest “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.”
I believe in the intelligence and good will of the authors. I also believe that their argument is 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. Denver Catholic Register H/T Catholic Parents Online