Archbishop Sheehan Takes a Strong Stance Against Cohabitation

A few weeks ago, Archbishop Sheehan of Santa Fe released a letter entitled “Pastoral Care of Couples Who are Cohabitating,” on the problem of couples living in sin outside of marriage (h/t Michael Morris).  It’s really good:

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, 

We are all painfully aware that there are many Catholics today who are living in cohabitation. The Church must make it clear to the faithful that these unions are not in accord with the Gospel, and to help Catholics who find themselves in these situations to do whatever they must do to make their lives pleasing to God. 

First of all, we ourselves must be firmly rooted in the Gospel teaching that, when it comes to sexual union, there are only two lifestyles acceptable to Jesus Christ for His disciples: a single life of chastity, or the union of man and woman in the Sacrament of Matrimony. There is no “third way” possible for a Christian. The Bible and the Church teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman and opposes same sex unions. 

We have three groups of people who are living contrary to the Gospel teaching on marriage: those who cohabit; those who have a merely civil union with no previous marriage; and those who have a civil union who were married before. These people are objectively living in a state of mortal sin and may not receive Holy Communion. They are in great spiritual danger. At the best – and this is, sadly, often the case – they are ignorant of God’s plan for man and woman. At the worst, they are contemptuous of God’s commandments and His sacraments. 

Of these three groups, the first two have no real excuse. They should marry in the Church or separate. Often their plea is that they “cannot afford a church wedding” i.e. the external trappings, or that “what difference does a piece of paper make?” – as if a sacramental covenant is nothing more than a piece of paper! Such statements show religious ignorance, or a lack of faith and awareness of the evil of sin. 

The third group, those who were married before and married again outside the Church, can seek a marriage annulment and have their marriage blest in the Church. Please remember that divorce still is no reason to refrain from Holy Communion as long as they have not entered into another marriage or sinful relationship. Many Catholics are confused on this point. 

Christ our Lord loves all these people and wishes to save them – not by ignoring their sin, or calling evil good, but by repentance and helping them to change their lives in accordance with His teaching. We, as His Church, must do the same. In accord with this, I would remind you of the following:

He then instructs that those cohabitating (1) cannot receive the Sacraments (excluding Confession, of course); (2) may not serve as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, both to avoid scandal, and because it’s sacrilegious to administer the Eucharist while in mortal sin); and (3) are not permitted to be Godparents or Confirmation sponsors. For other parish ministries and organizations, it’s up to the pastors discretion. Then he says:

Many of these sins are committed out of ignorance. I ask that our pastors preach on the gravity of sin and its evil consequences, the 6th and 9th Commandments of God, and the sacramental nature and meaning of Christian marriage. Our catechetical programs in our parishes – children, youth, and adult – must clearly and repeatedly teach these truths.

A Church wedding does not require some lavish spectacle and entertainment costing vast sums of money (Indeed, how often we have seen the most costly weddings end in divorce in but a few months or years!). While beauty and joy should surround a Christian wedding, we must remind everyone that it is a sacrament, not a show.

Amen! Double Amen! This gets rid of two excuses for cohabitating: (a) we didn’t know better, and (b) weddings are super-expensive. Finally, he urges those individuals who need an annulment to seek one.

All of this is the medicine the Church badly needs. More bishops willing to take unpopular stands against the culture, to stand up and say in no uncertain terms: “That’s wrong, so stop doing it.”  In response to this, as Fr. Z notes, Heidi Schlumpf wrote a snarky response for the liberal National Catholic Reporter.  The title, “Sheehan’s threats to cohabitating couples,” says it all.

From my reading, I genuinely don’t see any threats.  I mean, I see understand what Schlumpf is saying: the bishop is saying not to present yourself for the sacraments in a state of mortal sin.  This is nothing more or less than what the Church has always taught, from 1 Cor. 11:27-29 to Canons 915 and 916, and everywhere in between.

But being denied the sacraments while you’re in a state of mortal sin isn’t really a punishment, or a threat. Paul explains the rule in 1 Cor. 11:28 because “those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves” (1 Cor. 11:29). So it’s not about Catholics saying, “We think we’re better than you, person living in sin.”  It’s about Catholics saying, “we don’t want you to be liable for the Body and Blood of the Lord in judgment.” That’s why Paul cautions that you can’t receive in an “unworthy manner.”

Think about it this way:  if someone has a deadly allergy to peanuts, it’s not a punishment not to share your peanut-butter sandwich with them. It’s simply a recognition that if they eat this, they’re gonna really regret it.  The charitable Christian thing to do (outside of an emergency, where the person is dying of starvation) is to say, “Sorry, you can’t have this, it’ll hurt you.”  That’s not a threat.  If we care enough about the physical well-being of a person not to give them something they’re deathly allergic to, why in the world wouldn’t we do the same for their spiritual well-being?

Abp. Sheehan is mature enough to recognize this, but Schlumpf has some learning to do on this front.  Either she doesn’t know or believe that receiving the sacraments unworthily sacrileges the Lord and provokes His Judgment, or she doesn’t care enough about the folks living in sin to act upon it.  Either way, she’s in hardly the position to write article judging Sheehan for doing what God called him to do.


  1. Great post, Joe. Archbishop Sheehan should be commended for helping out his people and priests. I might actually do my annual post from nowhere now!

    Your last paragraph is especially important. We have generally lost a terror of sin. Expect a post sometime this weekend from me…I’ll get into this whole cohabitation/concubinage mess.

  2. Ha! Will this be the annual post for 2010, or are we jumping into 2011 already? 🙂

    Thanks, Father. I think that if we understood the reality of sin, and what it does to our relationship with God (to say nothing of the reality of Hell), the real scandal wouldn’t be bishops and priests who proclaim the Gospel, but those who act like everything’s okay.

  3. Ok, Joe seeing the hat tip to me was awesome. It made my day, which has seen a lot of hospital time for my three year old end on a high note.

  4. On the whole lavish spectacle business — in canon law, you can get married without a priest if one can not be obtained in a reasonable time, which I have heard canonists say is three months. Yet dioceses require to be told six months, or a year, before the happy day. What does this time buy them that could not be done in a shorter time? (And if a couple obtained a civil marriage, it would have witnesses. Would the insistence of the bishop on that year qualify the delay as unreasonable?)

  5. Off the top of my head (always dangerous and certainly fallible), I think each ordinary is well within their rights to require the 6 months and whatever preparation they deem appropriate. Couples also only have the right to get married if they are properly disposed to the sacrament. My guess is that the bishops require the time/prep to ensure a couple is properly disposed. It’s certainly a worthwhile discussion about the length of prep and kind of prep required though.

  6. Honestly, I don’t have a good response to that. I had five years of focused discernment for the priesthood while the Church was discerning with me and a couple years before that discerning more on my own. I know comparing courtship to seminary might seem inappropriate, but it simply highlights the often overlooked point that the focused time of courtship is a unique and valuable time (like seminary, it’s not a vocation and not meant to be perpetual, but it also shouldn’t be neglected). If a couple meets and decides to get married, I really don’t see how 6 months of required prep is too much of a burden…it’s a once in a lifetime decision and the time of prep is an opportunity you don’t have after the “I do’s”.

    The challenge the bishops are dealing with in regards to marriage is huge: how do you make policy in the midst of so many destructive understandings of marriage that best cooperates with the Grace of God and the best desires of each couple? It’s a difficult call. Personally, I don’t think 6 months is necessarily the right time frame for every couple. Of course some could get by with less, but I don’t think that’s true for most couples (just based on my limited experience). The problem that the bishops have to weigh from my point of view is this: does the extra time of prep hurt the more prepared couples more than less time for prep would hurt the less prepared couples? I can see why they err on the side of 6 months versus less time. I also see how leaving it up to each priest isn’t the best option. Definitely worth discussing though.

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