When a couple is living together and approaches the Church for marriage a process of discernment begins. The pastor, deacon or pastoral ministers must be conscious of the tension between pastoral sensitivity and moral directives while examining with the couple the Church’s teachings, their reasons for cohabiting, their attitude toward marriage, and their readiness for marriage in the Church.
Cohabitation of itself may not be the reason for a couple seeking marriage in the Church, but it can be an influence on the couple’s decision. The couple’s parents and families may have difficulty with the couple living together without being married. The individuals themselves may feel personal anxiety, even if they do not admit it to each other. The couple may choose to marry to escape these problems which stem from cohabiting. The pastor, deacon or pastoral minister needs to explore these issues with the couple as part of their marriage preparation.
Premarital sexual intercourse violates an objective moral code that the Church officially teaches and is not a recommended or wise way to prepare for marriage. For this and for other reasons, the Church rejects cohabitation as appropriate behavior for Roman Catholics.
Upon completing the explanation of the Church’s teachings and the discussion with the couple, if the pastor, deacon or pastoral minister is satisfied that the couple is acting in good faith, the marriage preparation may proceed. A suggestion that the couple separate reflects the Church’s perspective and may give each partner some personal space to objectively consider their relationship. If the couple cannot or will not separate, preparation is to continue. However, a delay must be advised if the couple does not show sufficient awareness of the essential commitments in marriage. Each case must be taken on its own merits and each case must be dealt with pastorally.
Cohabitation in itself is not a canonical impediment to marriage. While canon law never supersedes conscience, those priests or deacons who choose not to witness the marriage of cohabiting couples must realize that they do not have canon law to support them. If a priest or deacon cannot, in conscience, continue with the marriage, he is to refer the couple to another priest or deacon.
For more information concerning cohabitation, see: Pastoral Approaches and Procedures with Cohabiting Couples. You can also read a compelling homily on cohabitation by clicking here.