Gone are the days when it was considered positively scandalous for an unmarried woman and an unmarried man to be living together.
To be sure, a sizable segment of the population still considers this to be morally wrong, but such cohabitation doesn’t carry quite the social stigma it did several decades ago. Living together is seen as the norm by many and, in fact, more than half of the couples who come to Father Robert Kennedy in the hopes of marrying at Blessed Sacrament Church in Rochester already are living together, the pastor said.
"There are couples that deliberately choose not to (live together before marriage), but I think in this day and age couples do have to deliberately choose not to live together," Father Kennedy observed.
No matter how socially acceptable cohabitation has become, the Catholic Church is still opposed to cohabitation of two unmarried people in a sexual relationship because the church never sanctions sexual activity outside of marriage, he said. Marriage is about the fruitful communion of two people in a committed relationship that is publicly sealed through the sacrament, and there is no place for sexual activity outside of a marital relationship, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
"Carnal union is morally legitimate only when a definitive community of life between a man and a woman has been established," according to No. 2391 of the catechism. "Human love does not tolerate ‘trial marriages.’ It demands a total and definitive gift of persons to one another."
Yet "trial marriage" is just what many people are seeking when they decide to move in together, said Father Kennedy, who believes this may stem in part from many young adults’ childhood experiences with their parents’ divorces.
"They are the children of the most divorced generation ever … and they do not want to go through that themselves, so they want to make sure they are fully compatible with this person," he said.
This line of thinking is valuable in a way because it means these people aren’t treating marriage as a disposable part of their lives; however, the relationship shared by two cohabitating sexual partners is not the same as a relationship shared by two spouses, he noted. Similarly, a marital relationship is not the same as a relationship of economic convenience, which is another reason engaged couples give for already living together.
Father Kennedy’s sentiments echo those expressed in 1999 by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Marriage and Family. In a resource paper released that year, titled "Marriage Preparation and Cohabitating Couples: An Information Report on New Realities and Pastoral Practices," the bishops presented pastoral ministers with cohabitation statistics and information, and outlined several American dioceses’ pastoral responses to cohabitation.
Statistics show that cohabitation does not prove a reliable training ground for marriage, since only 53 percent of cohabitation situations result in marriage, according to the document. Furthermore, the risk of divorce is 50 percent higher for those who live together before marriage than for their counterparts who don’t, the document stated.
Cohabitation flies in the face of church teachings, but is not in itself a canonical impediment to marriage, according to the same document. However, pastoral ministers may decide that postponement of the wedding is in order if additional preparation time is needed to address issues raised by cohabitation.
Pastoral officials who agree to work with and marry cohabitating couples are not tacitly approving of cohabitation, but rather are helping the couple to "regularize" their situation by marrying, the bishops wrote. Father Kennedy agreed, noting the "teachable moments" such situations provide.
"I think it is a very important moment of evangelization for young adults," he said. "They probably … have drifted away a little bit from what the church preaches, and this is an opportunity for us to welcome them, support them."
It also provides a good way for pastoral ministers to educate and engage them in discussions about faith, and for pastoral ministers and marriage-preparation ministers to listen carefully to the couples and judge their readiness for marriage, he said.
Father Kennedy often suggests that cohabitating couples either start to live separately until they’re married or, if that’s not possible, to abstain from sexual activity until after the wedding.
"I put it out there as a suggestion, but I don’t require it. It’s just to encourage in them a … reflection about what they’re doing so there continues to be a kind of vitality about their choice, (so they) really hunger for this choice again, and to be fresh and ready to take their vows on their wedding day," he said.