In a recent document, titled What God Has Joined ..., the Archdiocese of Denver sets out the ideals of Christian marriage as taught by the Catholic Church, while addressing the pastoral challenges associated with widespread "shacking up" prior to marriage - a virtually universal situation in Western world dioceses.
The document notes that many involved in the Church's marriage preparation work identified premarital sexual activity and/or cohabitation as the most difficult issue they faced in bringing engaged couples to embrace a sacramental vision of marriage.
It had been found that 91 percent of engaged couples surveyed in the archdiocese were sexually active before marriage and 66 percent of them were cohabiting.
These statistics highlighted the crucial need for a "new catechesis" in human sexuality involving new methods and approaches "that convincingly demonstrate how the Church's teaching on sexuality corresponds to the deepest desires of the human heart for love and intimate personal union." Special attention, it said, should be given to parents who "play a critical role in preventing cohabitation and premarital sex in the lives of their children."
What God Has Joined ... points to a growing body of research firmly establishing that the prospect of divorce "dramatically increases for those who cohabit before marriage." Engaged couples, it said, "grow up in a society that has almost completely severed the inherent, God- given connection between sexual union and marriage." This severance had been largely brought about by the "contraceptive revolution" which separated sex from its "inherent connection with procreation."
In today's "contraceptive culture," sexual activity outside marriage is regarded as the norm. The Church, on the other hand, "in faithfulness to the teachings of Christ, which are always meant for our good and the safeguarding of authentic love", has consistently taught that non-marital sexual activity is always a grave objective evil. "Sound reason", the document says, "rejects the notion that premarital sex and cohabitation are helpful in preparing for marriage. Such behavior is, in reality, more often preparation for divorce."
Those involved in marriage preparation therefore had a serious obligation to challenge sexually active engaged couples "out of love for all concerned": the couple themselves, their future children, the Church, and society at large. "Downplaying the damaging effects of premarital sex does a service to no one," it says. "What is needed is full appreciation for and appropriation of the merciful, healing, love of Christ."
The desire of cohabiting/ sexually active couples to marry in the Church should be seen as "a teachable moment in the life of the couple." However, in this regard, "two extremes are always to be avoided: (1) immediately confronting the couple and condemning them for their behavior, and (2) ignoring the topic altogether." Neither of these approaches, it says, demonstrate "authenic Christian charity." But cohabitation/premarital sex should be discussed early in the marriage preparation process "in a non- prying, non-confrontational way."
What God Has Joined ... sets out the following pastoral goals:
* To impart with charity, patience, and understanding, not merely what the Church teaches about marriage and sexuality, but more importantly why she teaches it.
This responsibility should be undertaken by "thoroughly knowledgeable and trained pastoral workers and catechists who not only accept the Church's teaching and live it, but know how to explain it thoroughly and convincingly". The Church's teaching should not be seen as a set of "arbitrary" or "repressive" rules, since "the demands of chastity perfectly correspond with the deepest desire of the human heart for unconditional love." This teaching should "always be placed in the context of our need for redemption in Christ".
* Couples should be "charitably, gently, yet directly challenged to stop having sexual relations until they can be an honest expression of their marriage commitment."
It was the experience of many marriage counsellors that "a significant number of sexually active engaged couples seek to embrace the Church's teaching on sexuality once it is proclaimed in love and adequately explained, and, when they have been directly challenged to do so."
For example, of the 221 sexually active engaged couples surveyed in the Archdiocese of Denver, after the Church's teaching was presented and explained, and a direct challenge was issued to embrace it, 48 indicated they definitely planned on ceasing their sexual activity, while another 69 couples indicated that they were considering it.
However, the document recognises that "breaking long-established habits of sexual indulgence is difficult [and] without the help of grace ... impossible." Here, there was an opportunity to help couples "encounter the person of Christ and the power of his redemption in a life- changing way, perhaps for the first time." This was the Good News to be proclaimed to engaged couples "whose liberty seems dominated by the pull of sexual sin" - Christ can redeem them.
Cohabitors, beyond being challenged to cease sexual relations, it says, "should also be challenged to establish separate living arrangements." When this poses a real practical difficulty for a couple, "it presents the parish community with an opportunity to reach out in charity." In cases of real need, priests might appeal to their parishioners to consider opening their homes to engaged persons to facilitate their preparation for marriage. Living with a Catholic family from the parish "could serve as an additional means of formation for the engaged and facilitate a sense of belonging to the parish community."
US Bishops document
* To help the couple reflect on their situation and why they decided to cohabit and/or engage in sexual relations, providing them with tools to address various practical factors that put them at risk for later marital difficulties.
A document produced by the US Bishops' Conference Committee on Marriage and Family is then recommended and quoted:
"Individuals who chose to cohabit have certain attitudes, issues, and patterns that lead them to make the decision to cohabit. These same attitudes, issues and patterns often become the predisposing factors to put them at high risk for divorce when they do choose to move from cohabitation to marriage. The cohabitation experience itself also creates risk factors and bad habits that can sabotage the subsequent marriage. These attitudes and patterns can be identified and brought to the couple preparing for marriage for examination, decision-making, skill-building, change. Without creating 'self- fulfilling prophesies,' those preparing cohabiting couples for marriage can help them identify and work with issues around commitment, fidelity, individualism, pressure, and appropriate expectations.
"While all engaged couples should have adequate instruction in Natural Family Planning as a normal part of marriage preparation, there are additional reasons for pastors to require a formal class of instruction in NFP for those who are sexually active before marriage. Learning about and eventually practising NFP offer the couple a very practical tool for creating a new habit of life that respects the meaning of sexuality and serves to unravel the distorted pattern of relating that results from a non-marital sexual relationship."
* To help couples heal from the spiritual and emotional wounds they have inflicted upon themselves through their disordered behavior, which, if not properly addressed, will inevitably have a deleterious effect on their marriage.
"Misuse of God's great gift of sexuality", the document says, "always inflicts deep personal wounds. Even more than the tools needed to address practical issues brought on by irregular relationships, engaged couples need tools to help them heal from the spiritual wounds caused by sin. This healing begins with repentance on the part of the couple and a return to the sacramental life of the Church as soon as possible, especially Reconciliation and the Eucharist. It also requires that the couple ask forgiveness of each other for compromising their relationship and encouraging the other in a life of sin. None of this is possible unless the couple experiences a radical reorientation towards the person and message of Christ."
The document acknowledges that "cohabitation/premarital sex is not in itself a canonical impediment to marriage." Hence, a couple "may not be refused the sacrament solely on the basis of cohabitation or sexual activity prior to marriage." However, "a priest or deacon has the right and obligation to follow his conscience if he is convinced that marriage ought to be delayed."
What God Has Joined ... concludes: "It is the goal of the preparation process to bring the sexually active/cohabiting couple to realise the serious contradiction between sexual activity outside of marriage and the very meaning of the 'one flesh' union as a sacramental sign of Christ's love for the Church. A couple who, after having been given every opportunity for conversion, still refuses to acknowledge the contradiction of their behaviour, must realise that the course of action taken by the pastor [in delaying marriage] is not a 'punishment' for wrong doing, but the consequence of their own choices necessary to maintain the integrity of the sacrament and the avoidance of scandal."