July 29, 2011

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Church teaching on cohabitation reflects belief in dignity of marriage

(Listen to the archbishop read this column)

(Editor’s note: While Archbishop Buechlein continues to recover from a stroke, we offer some reprints of his various columns for your enrichment. The following column is from the Oct. 19, 2007, issue of The Criterion.)

I can’t tell you how many parents and grandparents confide their sadness and anxiety about young family members who have decided to “cohabit.”

Cohabitation is one of the most common and most sensitive problems our pastors face in their meetings for marriage preparation. Because it is so common among famous personalities of contemporary society, it is accepted by many without much ado. It bears serious consideration because it has serious consequences.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Marriage and Family Life recently published some background information on this complex though not uncommon phenomenon. Let me share some of this information. (For readability purposes, I leave aside references to the research documentation which is available to support the information.)

In 2004, more than 5 million Americans were cohabiting, living together in a sexual relationship without marriage. This compares to 500,000 in 1970. Currently, 60 percent of all marriages are preceded by cohabitation. Fewer than half of cohabiting unions end in marriage.

Many couples believe—mistakenly—that cohabitation will lower their risk of divorce. Since many are the children of divorce, or have other family members or friends who have divorced, this is a widespread and perhaps understandable misconception. Other reasons for living together include convenience, financial savings, companionship and security, and a desire to move away from the family of origin.

As a matter of fact, marriage preceded by cohabitation is 46 percent more likely to end in divorce. The risk is greatest for “serial” cohabitators who have had multiple relationships. Some studies indicate that those who live together with definite plans for marriage are at minimal risk; however, the same studies indicate there are no positive effects from cohabiting.

The USCCB committee paper notes that social scientists have tried to determine whether some of the risk for cohabitators is due to the selection effect, i.e., that those who live together are already those who are more likely to divorce. While research shows the selection influence, most social scientists emphasize the causal effect, that is, cohabitation itself increases the chance of future marital problems and divorce.

It had not occurred to me that cohabitation usually favors one partner over the other. Studies find that cohabitators are unequally committed. Apparently, often the more committed partner is willing to put up with poor communication, unequal treatment, insecurity and even abuse. Typically, women are more vulnerable, since they tend to be more committed.

Not surprisingly, cohabitation puts children at risk. Forty percent of cohabiting households include children. After five years, one-half of these couples will be broken up, compared to 15 percent of married parents.

Our Catholic Church teaching on cohabitation reflects our belief about the dignity of marriage. We believe that marital love is an image of God’s love for humanity, and Christian marriage is a sign of Christ’s union with the Church. This union can never be temporary or a “trial.” It is permanently faithful.

Every act of sexual intercourse is intended by God to express love, commitment and openness to life in the total, unreserved gift of husband and wife to each other. Premarital sexual intercourse is sinful because it violates the dignity of persons and the nuptial meaning and purpose of sexuality. It cannot express what God intended. Rather, it says something false—a total commitment that the couple does not yet have. This total commitment is possible only in marriage.

It is important to understand that the mutual self-giving of husband and wife enables them to become co-creators with God, to bring new life into the world.

Recall, the gift of sexual intercourse has two purposes: to express and strengthen marital love (we call this the unitive purpose) and to share that love with children (the procreative purpose). Clearly, only in marriage can children be raised with the secure, committed love of a mother and father.

As I mentioned, the prevalence of cohabitation is a difficult and sensitive concern for pastors. Acknowledging the fact of cohabitation, the late Holy Father, John Paul II, urged pastors and the Church community to become familiar with these situations on a case by case basis.

“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 in such a way as to smooth the path for them to regularize their situation” (Familiaris Consortio, #81).

Difficult as it is, cohabitation provides an opportunity for evangelization. Approached with understanding and compassion, it is a teachable moment.

The USCCB information paper concludes with the reminder that young people are searching for a soulmate in a marriage partner. They want an intimate and enduring relationship.

Our Church understands this quest for intimacy. Pastorally, we try to help ­cohabitators understand that their relationship undermines the very thing they most want. †

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