Last fall I had the opportunity to delve into the issue of cohabitation as a feature article for the Couple to Couple League’s magazine, Family Foundations. The issue came out this month. Cohabitation is one of the greatest predicaments facing our society, and at the center of that issue is Archbishop Michael Sheehan of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.
In spring 2011 Archbishop Sheehan decided to take a firm and vocal stance on cohabitation by releasing a pastoral letter clearly outlining the church’s view. He not only reminded the people of his archdiocese that cohabitation goes against Catholic teaching, but he also noted that because living together before marriage is a sin, cohabitating couples should not be permitted to accept any of the sacraments, serve as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion or be appointed as a baptism or confirmation sponsor.
His black-and-white approach caused Catholics and non-Catholics alike across the country to lash out in print and digital media. Some claimed he was causing further division within the Catholic Church, while others cheered on his courage to openly address a significant issue in our society.
I spoke with Archbishop Sheehan on multiple occasions as I compiled information for the article, and I was impressed not only by his clear respect for the Church’s teachings but by his unwavering belief that his controversial letter was meant to be published and widely-circulated, even if it made him a media target.
“Marriage in our western society is in trouble,” he told me, “and cohabitation is not the answer.”
Here is an excerpt from my Family Foundations interview with Archbishop Sheehan:
FF: What kind of reaction did you get [from this pastoral letter]? What surprised you most?
AS: “I was surprised by the great interest from the secular press. It was a front-page story! There were quite a few letters to the editor, some saying ‘Right on, we need the straight truth and teachings of the church’ and others saying I will chase off the young people who do not believe in the church’s teachings. I received a lot of positive letters from other parts of the country and other parts of the world. The vast majority of the calls and emails I got were very supportive. It was covered positively in Catholic News Service. I was even speaking to Archbishop Dolan of New York, and he said that many rabbis in New York applauded my strong letter on cohabitation. It was amazing that the rabbis had heard about it all the way in New York.”
FF: What was the best response? Have you heard from any cohabitating couples who decided to stop living together, as a result?
AS: “There are 92 parishes in the archdiocese and almost all of them read the letter. Practically every priest I have spoken to has said that couples have come to them asking to regularize their lives with the church. People have come forward and said, ‘What we know now is what we’re doing goes against the church’s teachings and we want our marriage blessed by the church.’ So many couples are indeed getting married in the church and responding to the call to straighten out their relationships.”
FF: In your estimation, what percentage of Catholic young adults realize that cohabitating means they are not able to receive the Eucharist? Why is there so much ignorance these days?
AS: “I think it’s higher now as a result of my letter, that’s for sure. Sometimes our catechetical programs have not been clear on the teachings of the church and pastors have been reluctant to preach about this delicate area. And the secular society says it’s ok! Clearly our popular American culture is in conflict with the teachings of Jesus in many ways.”
FF: Do you believe you were called to write this letter?
“I think God wanted me to do this. Even though there’s flack, Jesus got flack. It hurts when someone attacks you in print, but it was in the service of the truth of Jesus. He got flack and if I don’t, maybe I’m not doing my job.”
CatholicMatchers, cohabitation continues to be a prevalent issue in our society, even among Catholics. Is this a difficult teaching to follow? Why do you believe the number of cohabitating couples is on the rise?
- Read Meg McDonnell’s original CatholicMatch post: “Bishop Sheehan: Cohabitating Couples Live In ‘Mortal Sin'”