From Concubine to Spouse

Joe posted earlier about Archbishop Sheehan’s letter regarding pastoral care for cohabitating couples. It caught my attention as I’ve been engaged in a discussion over at American Papist about that very topic. I commend Archbishop Sheehan for providing such clarity to his people and clergy. It’s not an easy topic to discuss. As a still new priest, I tell my couples preparing for marriage that I don’t bring up cohabitation because I like to talk about it. I bring it up because I want them to be in the best position to receive all of the grace God wants to give them and I have to answer to God for my pastoral care. Our society is infatuated with cohabitation, but that can’t keep us from presenting the truth with love. I don’t assume I know why a couple is living together, but that doesn’t stop me from calling them to more. When it comes to preparing well for the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, cohabitation has no home. As I note over at American Papist:

The technical term is concubinage. While that might be what happens in certain cases where there are serious reasons the couple cannot separate and therefore opts to take the option to live as “brother and sister,” it’s still not ideal or encouraged. It’s hard to turn a concubine into a spouse. Cohabitation is not effective marriage prep. It wastes the honeymoon period and keeps the couple from founding their commitment on solid ground. Decisions about communication, finances, intimacy, prayer, and managing friends and family are made without the backing of the grace of the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Couples living together before marriage need prayers and real guidance. They should prepare as if this will be their only engagement. They need to take on a perspective of what is going to endure for the next 60 years, not what will get them through the next six months. It’s worth doing right since they will never have a time of focused preparation and formation for marriage again. It’s worth not adding the burden of turning a “Den of Temptation” into a real Domestic Church. Hopefully they are not simply “settling” for their choice of spouse. No need to “settle” for inferior marriage prep either.

“Concubinage” might sound harsh, but here’s how Merriam-Webster defines it:

1: cohabitation of persons not legally married
2: the state of being a concubine

And according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs 2390 and 2391, concubinage is still sinful and an offense against the dignity of marriage. Canon lawyer Ed Peters notes that concubinage alone is enough reason to abstain from Holy Communion. So does Archbishop Sheehan in his instruction.

Between the discussions at American Papist and over at National Catholic Reporter in a couple articles (here and here), there seem to be some common objections to letting cohabitating couples know that they should refrain from receiving Holy Communion: cohabitation isn’t that wrong, telling them to refrain from the Eucharist is not Christ-like, and they need the healing power of the Eucharist more than anyone.

My take:

  • Without having to get into the practical consequences of cohabitation (it leads to more divorce, etc.), making someone your concubine is serious business. It is an offense to marriage. It causes serious scandal. It willingly puts the other person and yourself in the near occasion of serious sin. It thwarts the progress of virtue necessary for a free, total, faithful, and fruitful lifetime commitment. Just because it might be commonly practiced does not change the fact that it is objectively evil. Christ calls us to follow him on the “narrow way” and cohabitation ain’t it.
  • When did we stop being horrified by sin? I don’t mean that we should run away yelling if we run into a couple cohabitating (though Padre Pio did that as a boy when anyone would use salty language), but if the person I am about to entrust my soul to to help get me to heaven encourages cohabitation I would consider it. Even if you don’t buy that cohabitation is an evil in and of itself (which the Church holds that it is), just the risk of leading your future spouse into sin should be terrifying. Sin keeps me from knowing full divine intimacy with God. No temporal intimacy should risk getting in the way of that. We should be disgusted with anything that puts our fiance, or anyone, at risk of committing even venial sin. Playing fast and loose with temptation is reckless. As Blessed John Henry Newman noted:

The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die in extreme agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, shall be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should will one venial untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.

  • Jesus encountered the woman at the well with five husbands “where she was at” (Jn 4:5-42). He also was charitable enough to tell her that the man she was currently living with was not her husband. Some take this scene to show that Jesus turned a blind eye to her living situation. I don’t get it. Why should we assume that Jesus somehow condoned a return to the woman’s sinful relationship? This is the same Lord who told the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no more (Jn 8:11). It’s the same teacher who pulled no punches when discussing irregular sexual relationships (Mt 5:31-32). He even seems to take any occasion of lust pretty seriously (Mt 5:27-30). If the man the woman at the well was living with was not her husband, it’s hard to make the case that Jesus favored or condoned their continuing an illicit living arrangement.
  • If we really want to play “WWJD”, we should also look to the saints. The life of a saint is the life of Christ at a particular time and place. Fortunately, we need look no further than St. Paul when it comes to what is required to receive Holy Communion. He did not invite everyone to eat at the table (especially if you weren’t properly disposed). Paul is extremely clear in his First Letter to the Corinthians about the severity of reception (1 Cor 11:26-29). Besides, Joe covers it really well in his initial post.
  • I tried the following analogy out on a pregnant woman today and she liked it. I ran it by a priest and he of course tried to come up with a better analogy. I’ll state it now because I think it’s appropriate. Just as the birth control pill strips the womb’s ability to house the miracle of conception, mortal sin strips the soul’s ability to house the miracle of the Eucharist. Of course Jesus came for the sick and not the well. However, if we are in a state of mortal sin, the Eucharist is not the healing that we need. We need the Sacrament of Penance first to restore the ability to be filled with sanctifying grace back to the soul. If we instead go first to the Eucharist, we commit a sacrilege and make no room for Jesus under our roof. Christ wants to be invited into the wounds caused by the use of others first in Reconciliation in order to restore the conditions necessary for the miracle of the Eucharist to find a receptive home in a soul. Cohabitating couples are missing out on the freedom to be found in a firm resolution to abandon the House of Sin and Death in order to become a home for the Lord of Life.
  • Finally, cohabitation undercuts the formation of a couple for marriage in a serious way. I love marriage and that’s why I dread the practice of cohabitation. Married couples get to show Christ to the world in a unique and beautiful way. They get to sanctify the home and society. Instead of preparing hearts to be selfless stewards of the grace of Holy Matrimony, cohabitation sets up an environment of compromise and temptation. Heroic virtue is not a prerequisite to get married, but that doesn’t mean a couple should start with a foundation that makes developing virtue more difficult. Couples should take every opportunity to grow in dependence on God’s grace. Cohabitation is devastating when it comes to effectively preparing for a grace-filled marriage. As St. Josemaria Escriva claims:

Christian couples should be aware that they are called to sanctity themselves and to sanctify others, that they are called to be apostles and that their first apostolate is in the home. They should understand that founding a family, educating their children, and exercising a Christian influence in society, are supernatural tasks. The effectiveness and the success of their life — their happiness — depends to a great extent on their awareness of their specific mission. – Conversations, 91

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