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Cohabitation, and the Church’s Redefinition of Marriage

Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe has written a strongly worded pastoral letter about Catholics who are living together in cohabitation, those who are married, but only by civil law, and those who have remarried after divorce. He writes:

First of all, we ourselves must be firmly rooted in the Gospel teaching that, when it comes to sexual union, there are only two lifestyles acceptable to Jesus Christ for His disciples: a single life of chastity, or the union of man and woman in the Sacrament of Matrimony.

Archdiocese of Santa Fe

There two totally extraordinary things hidden in this statement. The first, as Jamie L. Manson has observed at National Catholic Reporter, is that this is emphatically not the message of the Gospels.

In fact, there is only one passage in one of the gospels on marriage, in Matthew 19: 1-12. Sadly, the rest of Jesus’ teachings in the four gospels seem lost on Sheehan.

National Catholic Reporter

That one passage from a single Gospel may be taken as a condemnation of divorce, but there is definitely nothing, anywhere, to suggest a prohibition on any state other than full marriage or total chastity. Our bishops, sadly, are remarkably fond of claiming authority from “the Gospels” for views which are in fact rooted in nothing other than their own tradition.  (In this case, he is not even being true to the full tradition- as I will return to later).

Sheehan used this fraudulent claim of Gospel authority to argue for the exclusion of people in such relationships from full participation in the church, and specifically from communion. As Jamie Manson points out, it is this, not living in relationships that have not received church sanction, that is more clearly contrary to the clear teaching of the Gospels, when read as a whole, and with due consideration of context – as the Pontifical Biblical Commission advises:

If Jesus believed that anyone he met was in “great spiritual danger,” the first thing he would do would be to invite that person to his table. Jesus would want to learn the individual’s story. Jesus would invite that person into community and remind her that she is God’s beloved. Jesus also might have called the religious authorities hypocrites, as he does in Matthew 23:13, 28, for “locking people out of the kingdom of heaven” and for being like “white washed tombs . . . full of hypocrisy and lawlessness inside.”

National Catholic Reporter

The second extraordinary feature is that in this case, the claim is not even based on the full traditional teaching, but only on relatively modern practice. The lay Catholic theologians Todd Salzmann and Michael Lawler, in their book “The Sexual Person“, devote a full chapter to the subject of cohabitation –  and show clearly how the position presented by Sheehan has been standard doctrine only since the Council of Trent (one of the many ways in which the Church has been involved in a constant redefinition of marriage, throughout its history).

Weddings: The culmination, not the start, of the traditional marriage process

The most important part of this, for the present context, is that the practice of solemnizing marriage in a public, sacramental wedding that begins a licit sexual relationship completely reverses the practice over more than half of Christian history. For the early Christians, marriage was a purely secular affair, with no church involvement at all. For the Romans, marriage was a legal contract to govern property and inheritance rights of the rich, while in Northern Europe, marriage became valid with sexual penetration after consent.  Neither of these required Church approval.

When the Church did begin to take an interest in marriage, it was still not seen as a universal requirement, nor did the church solemnization begin the process. Initially, church weddings became a possibility (especially for the wealthy), but not a requirement – except for priests. Where they were held, they did not mark the start of the marriage, which was seen rather as a process that began with betrothal and cohabitation. The wedding did not take place until much later, to mark the conclusion of the wedding process – quite often, precipitated by the onset of pregnancy.

The pre-Tridentine sequence has been well-documented  in sociohistorical sources. Remy describes the situation in France. In the sixteenth century, the Churches began to lead a campaign against premarital sex. Previously, the engagement or betrothal carried great weight. If the Church frowned on the unblessed marriage she did not forbid it. Very often, above all in the country, the Church marriage took place when the the woman was pregnant, sometimes toward the end of her pregnancy. He also points out that in a society in which fertility was central to the meaning of marriage, sexual intercourse took place as a test of the required fertility. His statement justifies the pre-Tridentine sequence against the backdrop of its cultural context.

Similar arrangements applied elsewhere. In England and its Empire,

Before the tightening up of religious controls over society after the Reformation and Counter-Reformation in the mid-sixteenth century, the formal betrothal ceremony seems to have been at least as important, if not more important, than the wedding. To many, the couple were from that moment “man and wife before God”. The Church recognized this situation… in the Deanery of Doncaster in 1619 betrothal was a successful defence ..against an accusation of premarital sex. Macfarlane emphasizes that “the engaged lovers before the nuptials were held to be legally husband and wife. It was common for them to begin living together immediately after the betrothal ceremony.

So, let’s repeat. In the beginning, the Church had no interest in marriage at all. Not until Aquinas was it accepted as a sacrament – which was publicly celebrated only after a period of cohabitation, that began with the betrothal.

In my view, the way in which the Church gradually inserted its own involvement in marriage as a religious obligation was yet another of the ways in which the Church sought to extend its power over the ignorant and uneducated laity. By steadily extending the realm of sin, they were able to extend the necessity to be absolved by the clergy – and increased the demand for the indulgences they could sell.


Salzmann & Lawler: The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology (Moral Traditions)

Related Posts

“The Sexual Person”

The Evolution of Catholic Teaching on Sex and Marriage.

The Myth of Clerical Celibacy, Revisited

Theologians’ Revolt Exposes a Vatican Myth



2 Responses

  1. Archbishop Sheehan is incorrect in another way. The marriage between a Catholic and an unbaptized person is not a sacramental marriage; it is considered a “natural marriage.” So there is “third lifestyle” which is accepted by the Church.

    • Right, Mark – an astute observation I had not thought of.

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