Last fall the Pew Forum found that marriage among young people is declining at an unprecedented rate. What is rising in its place is “new family forms,” including cohabitation.
Studies are producing mixed results on cohabitation and its effect on a successful marriage. However, for Catholics, the statistics don’t matter as much as the morality and spiritual effects of a couple living together before marriage.
We have three groups of people who are living contrary to the Gospel teaching on marriage: those who cohabit; those who have a merely civil union with no previous marriage; and those who have a civil union who were married before. These people are objectively living in a state of mortal sin and may not receive Holy Communion. They are in great spiritual danger.
At the best – and this is, sadly, often the case – they are ignorant of God’s plan for man and woman. At the worst, they are contemptuous of God’s commandments and His sacraments.
In his letter, Bishop Sheehan lays out how the decision to cohabitate has ramifications on one’s involvement in the life of the church, including reception and distribution of the Eucharist.
He advises couples who are living together to take swift action: “They should marry in the church or separate.”
His letter does not mince words or emotion, making it crystal clear that marriage within the church is more than a piece of paper, and its worth far outweighs the lavish costs that comes with weddings these days. Because for the Catholic, marriage in the church is the deliverance of grace, a gift far better than any KitchenAid or duvet cover one could register for.
But it is precisely in the spiritual realm of faith that there is so much confusion in society. As a mid-20s American, I can attest to the numerous peers of mine who claim to be “spiritual but not religious.” This, my friends, is a spiritual message from Bishop Sheehan, not just a religious one.
Marriage is difficult, and in this day and age with all the temptations and pressures, it’s even more difficult. The spiritually crippling effects of cohabitation make marriage all the more difficult. But the spiritual strength of a sacramental marriage can give us the ability to rise above these temptations.
Of course, Bishop Sheehan notes that education within the church is needed, as so many cohabitating couples have not been taught the spiritual gravity of their decision. This letter is a start; we can hope and pray it opens the door to more instruction and the conversion of hearts.