Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

A Pastoral Letter on Cohabitation

by Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan


This pastoral letter by Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan addresses the issue of engaged couples living together and the dangers that accompany this practice.

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The Priest



Publisher & Date

Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., November 2000

Marriage is a sacrament of Jesus Christ and a sacred vocation given to us by God. Consequently, it is a means to holiness in the life of the spouses.

Those married in the Church receive a special sacramental grace that helps them live a life of love and fidelity. The Church wants to help engaged couples prepare well for marriage so that their union will be lasting and fulfilling.

Consequently, I encourage the use of the Premarriage Inventory, Sponsor Couple Program and community experiences such as the Engaged Encounter. The premarriage preparations contain not only practical suggestions for a good marriage but also encourages the spiritual readiness of the couple.

The best preparation for a Christian marriage is to live a truly Christian lifestyle, with Sunday Mass, the sacraments, prayer and works of justice and charity and chastity as hallmarks of a life in Christ.

Unfortunately, many couples who ask to be married in the Church come confused and are already living together. Even though cohabitation is widely accepted in our society, it is clearly contrary to the teaching of the Word of God. St. Paul says that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. "Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters . . . will inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor 6:9-10).

The Church teaches that cohabitation and sexual union between the unmarried is sinful (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 2350-2400), and as such undermines the very holiness of life one seeks in the Sacrament of Matrimony. Cohabitation is scandalous and detracts from the sacredness of marriage.

This failure to grasp the essence of holy matrimony is cause for serious pastoral concern. Enlightening a couple as to the ways they sell their relationship short and cheapen the richness of the sacramental grace found in marriage demands that diligent guidance and caring instruction be given such couples. The Church urges all engaged couples who are living together to separate and those who are engaging in sexual relations to stop.

To live such false lives undermines the most fundamental aspects of married life — integrity, commitment and self-communication. Those who are Catholic should seek to be reconciled with God by receiving the Sacrament of Penance. In this sacrament, God's forgiveness and strength is always available to us.

The love of man and woman is so sacred a gift from God that we come to understand its real depth in the chaste love of husband and wife. This kind of love is only learned through encountering the challenges one faces in forgoing conjugal pleasure outside the sacred covenant of marriage.

The lessons of spousal love — patience, kindness, forbearance, trust, hope and endurance (see 1 Cor 13) — are learned in a period of courtship which acknowledges the desire for the other but forgoes its pleasure so that an even greater love may grow. Too often, couples are lead to believe that if they sleep together these essential qualities will follow automatically. They may even be convinced that since they love each other, they should sleep together.

But the love sought in the Sacrament of Matrimony requires a trust established in chastity and self-control. It is a time in which the couple learns intimacy apart from sexual expression. Marriages do not fail because of poor sex; they fail because of poor communications.

Cohabitation is a bad way to prepare for marriage, as it leads to a lack of real commitment to each other. Couples living together before marriage have a higher divorce rate and incidence of domestic violence.

The pastors are urged to be pastorally sensitive to the needs of such couples, but also to be clear and truthful about Catholic teaching. The integrity of Christ's sacrament is to be safeguarded both for the Church and for every couple seeking the sacrament. Consequently, it might be more fitting for cohabiting couples to celebrate their sacramental marriage in a more simple manner. Our popular American culture is often in conflict with the teachings of Jesus and His Church. Married life can be trivialized by the media and given an unreal understanding through its commercialization by the wedding-related industries.

It should be noted that a church wedding need not be expensive. Costs can be kept to a minimum. Christian courtship and marriage are counter-cultural, and our young adults need the support of the Church in order to live up to the challenge of the Gospel. We urge engaged couples not to go away from the wisdom of the Church's 2,000-year tradition of teaching about the sacredness of human sexuality and marriage. We ask Mary the Mother of the Lord and the holy men and women who have gone before us to pray for young couples that they may choose marriage in the Church and prepare well for it.

Archbishop Sheehan is the archbishop of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, N.M. This pastoral letter was promulgated in June 1999.

© The Priest, Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, In 46750.

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