The Catholic Thing
The Sacrament of Marriage vs. Cohabitation Print E-mail
By David G. Bonagura, Jr.   
Tuesday, 29 December 2009

For years countless heroes, Catholic and not, sung and unsung, have labored courageously to save the institution of marriage from the onslaught of those who seek to redefine it. Behind this vociferous public attack from without, marriage is struggling against another, more insidious attack that threatens its continued existence from within: cohabitation. Unlike same-sex unions, which are visibly and obviously different from natural marriage, cohabitation shares many of the trappings of marriage: chores, bills, sex, and even children. The similarities have enticed many prospective brides and grooms to try cohabitation first: according to Our Sunday Visitor, today more than half of first marriages begin with cohabitation, which has led to a 1100 percent increase in cohabitation nationally since 1970.

But cohabitation is not marriage, and it is not a sacrament. The difference lies in the essence and purpose of each. Cohabitation is an at-will agreement to share a roof and a bed for as long as both parties are satisfied. Unlike traditional marriage, which requires legal registry and witnesses because of its public dimension, cohabitation is a private affair. While marriage publicly declares that two individuals have united to raise children for the common good, cohabitation, in the analysis of Prof. Robert George, values sex as an instrumental good – as a means to some other good for two individuals who remain autonomous in every way except their address. Due to the prevalence and tacit acceptance of cohabitation today, many couples who enter into this state do not have malicious intent; some do not even suspect that it is wrong. Nevertheless, the decision to cohabitate says that one has placed himself or herself and his or her sexual desires ahead of everyone and everything else, including the cohabiting partner.

The sexual revolution has labored mightily to discredit, dismiss, and bury the Church’s understanding of marriage and sexuality, the final societal bulwark against complete sexual libertinism. The revolution has seduced Catholics as much as the general population. It is no secret that most Catholics continue to ignore the Church’s teaching against birth control, that more engaged couples are foregoing a Church wedding, and that many of those who are married in the Church have consummated their union long before they approach the altar. Against such realities, the Church can do little more than put forward her vision of marriage in the hope that it will be heard. Thoughtful reflection may well find the Church’s teaching refreshing – and compelling.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes marriage as a creation of a loving God who has called men and women to love as the fundamental purpose of their existence. Since men and women are created in the image and likeness of God, “their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man.” The union of husband and wife reflects the union of God with His people, and, in the analogy of St. Paul, the union of Christ the bridegroom with His bride, the Church.

Marriage, then, is a sacrament established by Christ, who enabled married couples to overcome the burden of original sin by personally granting the couple “the strength and grace to live marriage in the new dimension of the Reign of God” (CCC 1615). The grace of the sacrament unites a couple by virtue of their mutual consent in an indissoluble bond so that they may “help one another to attain holiness in their married life and in welcoming and educating their children” (1641). From the grace of the sacrament comes the capacity to love, to forgive, to comfort, to support, and to nurture each other on all occasions, in every season. Like the grace of baptism and confirmation, both newlyweds and golden jubilarians can call upon and strengthen the grace of marriage through prayer, through the sacraments of reconciliation and Eucharist, and through natural activities – from romantic dinners to painting the house – done in a spirit of mutual love and charity.

The sexual union of the spouses, intended for procreation and for strengthening the bond between them, is the physical expression of the essence of marriage: the complete gift of oneself to another. In their wedding vows, couples freely promise to love each completely, exclusively, and faithfully in hope that their marriage will bear the fruit of children. Christopher West, who has synthesized for popular audiences Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body,” a profound meditation on the meaning of the complete gift of self in marital union, describes each sexual act of married couples as a renewal of wedding vows. For this reason the Church teaches that sex belongs only in marriage, for only then is the act free, total, faithful, and fruitful. This is also the reason for the Church’s condemnation of artificial birth control: it prevents, whether through physical or chemical means, the free and total giving of self that bears fruit in another human life.

The visions of sex and marriage offered by the Church and by cohabitation could not be more different. Pope John Paul II often said that the Church only proposes; she imposes nothing. We remain free to choose – or not – the revealed path to authentic love.


David G. Bonagura, Jr. is associate editor of The University Bookman. This is the fifth column in a series on the sacraments of the Church

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Comments (23)Add Comment
written by William H. Phelan, December 30, 2009
In the Traditional chapel I have attended for ten years (yes, before Summorum Pontificum), the priests in sermons and the confessional speak of mortal sins and HELL. This is particular to Traditional Catholicism and not to the Novus Ordo Catholicism where everyone is saved.
If co-habitation bothers anyone, they may want to consider the Traditional Church. It seems to have worked for two thousand years. Who knows?
Sexual Abstinence
written by blue8064, December 30, 2009
When discussing the morality of cohabitation, the possibility that the couple might abstain from sexual activity needs to be considered. Just because a man and woman share an address does not necessarily mean that they will engage in sexual activity with each other. In other words, what would be the moral status of an unmarried couple sharing an address, but abstaining from sexual activity? Of course, sexually active couples are doing wrong, but that would be true if they lived apart also.
Sin is sin
written by Joseph, December 30, 2009
Blue makes a good point. There's no difference between cohabitation and fornication outside of marriage other than the disproved notion that "two can live as cheaply as one." Sexual contact makes all the difference. If a relationship between a man and woman living under one roof was strictly platonic, then what would be the problem? Marriage is indeed a sacrament and represents, as the author, says total commitment to one each other, as we are committed to Christ.
written by Karl, December 30, 2009
The Catholic Church clearly prefers cohabitation to the valid Sacrment otherwise why does it encourage "living as brother and sister" with a "formerly adulterous partner" when THE REAL SPOUSE IS LIVING AND REMAINS FAITHFUL

If you think this IS NOT the OFFICIAL practice of the Catholic Church, think again. My wife and her lover have done this for years with the complete approval of the Catholic Church, officially, the two annulment decisions from Rome in favor of the marriage be damned!
written by debby, December 30, 2009
to blue8064,
it's wrong because it begs the sin of SCANDAL. i know, another teaching of the Church we never hear about. Scandal is serious sin because it can lead many uncatechized, unformed people away from Truth toward deeper sin. The payout for sin is DEATH so this is no small matter. We must avoid all near occasion of sin & we are "our brother's keeper." how we live can lead others to the Saving love & freedom that only Christ offers. Loving others requires holy living for everyones sake.
Christian Witness
written by Deacon Sean Smith, December 30, 2009
Christian marriage is, in part, a witness to God's faithfulness. Whether married or not, we cannot see into people's bedrooms, but it is not unreasonable to suggest that the witness given to couple's sharing an address, married or not, is that sex is a part of the relationship. I know couples that have lived together and practiced abstinence, but the truth is it is still a poor witness, because that is certainly not what the rest of the world sees.
What the Church CAN do
written by Greg, December 30, 2009
The author wrote "the Church can do little more than put forward her vision of marriage in the hope that it will be heard. Thoughtful reflection may well find the Church’s teaching refreshing – and compelling."

It can practice "tough love" by simply giving the reason to a couple about to be married why cohabitation is wrong, why they would need to separate before the marriage, and to think deeply about their response to God.
The sin of scandal?
written by Joseph, December 30, 2009
Debby, perhaps you would be willing to elaborate on the "sin of scandal" since I do not find this listed in the 10 commandments, although there is one on adultery and another on coveting. Scandalous activity is too broad a term to be labeled "sin".

Fictionalized, consider Uncle Al's excessive exuberance from drinking too much booze at his favorite niece's wedding, causing a family "scandal." An embarrassing episode but hardly to be called a punishable offense.
written by Lee, December 30, 2009
"The decision to cohabitate says that one has placed himself or herself and his or her sexual desires ahead of everyone and everything else, including the cohabiting partner."

Or, as my atheist friend says more succinctly, "Sex without marriage is exploitation."
To: Lee
written by Brad Miner, December 30, 2009
I'd say your atheist friend is our kind of atheist.
It must be Grace!
written by TeaPot562, December 31, 2009
How do you stay in love and appreciation of your mate through 54+ years, through illnesses, surgeries, children (some of whom disappoint your dreams and plans by their actions) and 12 grandchildren (we love them, but again, some disappoint) unless you pray, ask for and receive Sacramental graces to maintain your love?
written by Tony, December 31, 2009
Joseph: The classic meaning of "to cause scandal" is to engage in behavior that causes others to lose faith, or to reject the Gospel. I don't know where you got the idea that the Ten Commandments listed all possible sins. (Yet another argument against sola scriptura.) Uncle Joe's drunkenness might be merely embarrassing if he's Catholic; if he's Mormon or Moslem, however, it might be grounds for scandal.
Response to Karl
written by DB, December 31, 2009
Karl - your wife and her lover living together as brother and sister is with the intention of no intimate relations to be taking place. My husband and I lived this way after being married by a JP and realizing that we were not married in the eyes of the Church. We immediately filed for an annulment and 'lived as brother and sister' (i.e. with no sexual relations) for two years while the paperwork was processed. As such, we were able to receive Holy Communion during that time.
10 commandments 'only'?
written by Joseph, December 31, 2009
Karl, Scripture tells us that when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai, he had two tablets listing 10 Commandments. Maybe he dropped one on the way down that listed more (like in the Mel Brooks movie), but as far as I can read, there were only 10. The Israelites, who couldn't keep just 10, decided to add hundreds of more 'sins,' like cooking veal in a mother's milk, punishable by death. As for definitions, ah, there's the rub. As Voltaire said, if you want to argue with me, define your terms.
written by Karl, December 31, 2009
Marriage is a covenant imbibed with married personalism not simply a vow to exclude sex with another of the opposite sex. Careful analysis of "the brother and sister" option(heresy) shows that while sex MAY be excluded, one still shares the "personalism" PROMISED to THE SPOUSE ALONE. Consequently, this option crashes in the face of the very standards the Church uses to evaluate marital validity.

They know it
written by jack smith, December 31, 2009
People who live together without benefit of marriage know full well what they are doing. They only want to satisfy their lust without any form of commitment. They are extremely selfish and self centered. Their purpose today is to reap the benefits of marriage laws without a commitment of any kind. This is a result of a permissive society. Parents no longer teach their children because they are too busy enjoying their own lust and greed. May God forgive them for they KNOW WHAT THEY DO.......
Faithful Catholic Singles
written by Jack Scott, January 01, 2010
It is scandal that the Church every day marries those who are cohabiting until the morning of their wedding day. Meanwhile, faithful single Catholics who don't cohabit, don't engage in premarital sex, don't date non-Catholics, and won't use contraception within marriage can't get married, period. It's a barren wasteland out there for faithful single Catholics over 25. It's about time the Church paid attention to this problem too.
Church view 50 + marriage
written by David, January 01, 2010
Your comment about the true Church teaching of the value of marriage being
in it's "fruitfulness, means that the Church really has no positive view of those over 50 wishing to marry. Please correct me if this is erroneous.
Thank you. David
50 plus
written by ed, January 01, 2010
Marriages between people who are "50 plus" can certainly be fruitful. While they seem to be beyond the years of child-bearing, the spousal union of person still remains open to God's will concerning children (see Genesis 17:17-19; Luke 1:36). They can be fruitful by being a faithful Christian witness of God's love meant for a spousal union. Spouses who cannot have children, "can radiate a fruitfulness of charity, of hospitality, and of sacrifice" (Catechism, 1654).
Change the rules?
written by Jay Everett, January 01, 2010
Is it really a barren wasteland out there? Do you really think that the Church should change the rules of marriage simply because there are so many Catholics living in sin? Did God change his mind about the crucifixion ? Well, just maybe we should trust in God just a little more when it comes to temptation.
"To shirk the bonds of love for the irresponsible joys of lust is the Devil's choicest temptation"....
written by Joenick, January 04, 2010
"THE CHURCH ONLY PROPOSES, SHE IMPOSES NOTHING" The Church authority never imposes because salvation is a free gift and this gift must be accepted freely. But each one is bound to search for the Truth of salvation, and once found, is obliged to embrace it. Truth itself obliges us, but this obligation is not subservience but a guarantee of true freedom. "The truth will set us free" so to say. One is free to enter the Church or not, but once he entered, he is obliged to live its truth.
To Joseph
written by debby, January 04, 2010
hi joseph,
look at the words of Jesus regarding HIs Spirit of the Law: hate ur brother=murder, lust=adultry,working on the Sabbath,etc. children had no value in society but He said harm one & a milstone necklace will suit you.
in loving Love, each of us should long to respond to Him with the highest, best, most noble obedience & humility. we are not condeming anyone, just wanting Heaven for each one. Heaven forever is worth all the pain of dying to self & striving toward the goal. Pax Christi
Just My Two Cents Con\'t
written by Anna B., January 06, 2010
It's only when I came to know Jesus and the Catholic faith my views changed instantly on cohabitating! I refused to be judged by my past when I had no faith and didn't know Jesus. Repentent sinners are great and faithful, if only you could forgive them Jack Scott, because Jesus has!

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