Let's stop harassing couples who finally commit

EVERY CATHOLIC PRIEST OUGHT to see the film High Fidelity. I offer this advice not because it stars Chicagoans John and Joan Cusack and not because it's filmed in Chicago—the Chicago of driving rain and somber elevated tracks. Rather, priests should see it so that they might understand the commitment terror of superannuated adolescent males. Parents should see it so they might have sympathy with their sons and daughters. Spies

Priests are exercised today about how they should respond to couples who have been cohabiting when they come into the rectory to arrange for marriage. Some of us say that it's none of our business, that we have no right to pry into their private lives, and that canon law forbids us to deny them the sacrament of Matrimony. We should treat them like everyone else, celebrate their courage in deciding to get married, and make the wedding ceremony such a happy event that even the crustiest of fallen-away Catholics will have some second thoughts.

Others, however, say that we ought not to let young people "get away" with living in sin. They should be punished for their sinfulness and denied the sacrament until they reform their lives. They insist on measures that will cause the couple to seek a church wedding elsewhere. One of them should move out of the apartment, they should not sleep together in the time remaining before the marriage, they should go to Confession the day before the marriage so they don't receive the sacrament in the state of mortal sin. Some priests even advocate delaying the sacrament until the couple shows some signs of repentance.

Some parents, it is much to be feared, agree with the priests. They don't want their son to marry a "tramp" that lived with him before they were married.

Priests argue that sociological data show that there is a correlation between cohabitation and future divorce. Therefore we have to "get tough" on people who are cohabiting. Sure, everyone knows that if you deny the sacraments to enough young men and women who have cohabited, then everyone else will stop cohabiting, right? Moreover, the correlation is probably spurious. Most likely those who cohabit as a "preparation" for marriage seem already to have the kind of family backgrounds that incline them to divorce.

According to the survey

1. Allowing cohabiting couples to get married with no questions asked gives tacit approval of the church to cohabitation.
35% agree
53% disagree
12% other

Priests who prepare couples for marriage...
71% Should ask whether they are living together and then respond in the best way for that couple.
22% Shouldn't even ask if they are living together.
1% Should ask and, if so, refuse them marriage in the church.
6% Other

I think most couples are having premarital sex, even if they're not living together.
85% agree
7% disagree
8% other

I think the growing postponement of marriage throughout people's 20s...
53% Is a healthy thing for most young people.
25% Shows an alarming fear of commitment.
22% Other
Representative of "other":
"It reflects their economic, sociological, and employment lives," says Marq Rogers of Bishop Hill, Ill.

I think young women today have almost as much trouble making a commitment as young men do.
67% agree
24% disagree
9% other

I have...
43% Some moral qualms about cohabitation.
41% A lot of moral qualms about cohabitation.
10% No moral qualms about cohabitation.
6% Other

John Cusack is perfect as the 26-year-old adolescent male who drifts through life without goals or commitments, mortally afraid of closing off his options by making a commitment to anyone, much less the "high fidelity" of marriage. He is capable of hesitant love and fierce jealousy, but, alas, not of choice. To choose to commit yourself to one woman is to foreclose the option of someday finding someone else who would make an even better wife. He imagines that young women always end their relationships with him when in fact it is the other way around. He is a pathetic sad sack, and, worse yet, he knows it.

You have children like that? Your son is living with a beautiful young woman like the Cusack character is? She's not Catholic either? (How can she be when she's Danish!)

This is the kind of young man who is likely to wash up on the rectory steps these days. He has taken the big leap toward marriage and eventual parenthood, but is terrified. He needs understanding and encouragement rather than draconian rules.

One may lament the culture that has created the dilemma that it is possible to have sex regularly without commitment. One may argue that adolescent men like the Cusack character deserve what they get. However, turning the sacrament of marriage into an obstacle course is not going to change that culture. He is trying, however belatedly, to become an adult. Exchanging cohabitation for marriage is a major step toward maturity. How in God's name, quite literally, can we punish him for wanting to make that step? Ought we not to celebrate the transformation of life on which he is cautiously embarking?

At the end of the film I sat in the theater and wondered about what the scene at the rectory would be when the Cusack character and his blond bride-to-be showed up. What if he encountered a priest who, persuaded that he was God, would want to punish the past instead of rejoicing in the future?

Maybe I'm wasting my time recommending the film to priests. Those who think they're God would not get the point.

In the film his mother is vastly relieved. She likes the girl and thinks she'll make a good wife and mother. In fact, she's on her side against her boy child. Sometimes it is that way in the world outside the movies (perhaps more often than not). But in other families the parents (and the siblings) make it clear to the bride-to-be that they think she's a whore and they will never like her. Never.

In defense of both of the young people, it must be said that they are caught in a terrible subculture in which marriage is delayed all through people's 20s. There aren't many young people who delay sex that long. Therefore it is predictable—though not praiseworthy—that there be many different kinds of premarital sex. One would very much like to see the subculture change, but one doesn't change it by being nasty to those who are caught up in it. Sympathy and understanding do not mean approval.

I think the subculture will change eventually—it always does. But it will change because those who live in it figure out that it is a hellish way to live.

Eventually, of course, marriages come about the same way they always do—the woman often demands closure and the man often discovers he doesn't want to lose her. It's a time for celebration in both the home and the rectory office. It is a happy ending and a new beginning. 

Father Andrew Greeley is a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and the University of Arizona, and novelist. This article appeared in the June 2001 (Volume 66, Number 6) issue of U.S. Catholic.

And the survey says...

Q: Why do you think people choose to live together before marriage?
It's been said that you don't really know a person until you live with him/her. Living together presents an opportunity to determine compatibility in many areas.
Irene M. Zay, Chicago, Ill.

It's an incremental step in making a commitment. It's also practical economically.
Catherine McKenzie, Jackson, Wyo.

Premarital sex doesn't have the stigma it used to have, and if the couple is already having sex and no one minds, why not live together and save rent and living expenses?
Judy Baker, Aledo, Ill.

They want to have their cake and eat it too.
Name withheld, Riva, Md.

Convenience and lack of a taboo. Also, early 30s is a lot longer to remain virginal than late teens.
Name withheld, Avon, Ohio

I think it reflects the temporary nature of their life at the time: at school, beginning a new career, uncertain of their life plan. When people feel settled, I feel they are more ready to make commitments to marriage and in other areas of life.
E. Adducci, Homewood, Ill.

They're selfish.
Name withheld, Rocky Ford, Colo.

Young people continue to see marriages fail at alarming rates and think a trial period will answer all their questions as to suitability.
Brian Harrison, Billings, Mont.

They don't understand the difference between love and commitment. They think love is enough of a reason to live together.
Victoria Chargo, Jefferson, Iowa

They've been taught that it's OK by the media and by people like Father Andrew Greeley.
Name withheld, Brookfield, Wis.

Q: If one of my grown children decided to live with their partner before marriage, I would:
Have to accept it. I would not push for marriage unless I felt the choice of partner was a wise one.
Name withheld, Pasco, Wash.

Stay out of it. Grown children need to form their own moral decisions, and part of being a parent is unconditional love.
Name withheld, Hays, Kan.

Object strenuously and explain why—once.
Leslie Sholly. Knoxville, Tenn.

Welcome the significant other as if he/she were a spouse.
Mike Lamasney, Twain Harte, Calif.

Let them know it is completely unacceptable and there will be repercussions from the church and us.
Mark Fischer, Mableton, Ga.

Raise hell.
Name withheld, Anaheim, Calif.

Be disappointed, but I would stay in touch, keep communication open, but not allow them to sleep together in my house. When I visit them, I would stay in a motel.
Name withheld, Westown, N.Y.

Q: If I were a priest and a cohabiting couple came to me for marriage preparation, I would:
Ask questions to ensure this is not just the next step in a "convenient relationship."
Name withheld, Stamford, Conn.

Focus on the health and state of the relationship and their level of commitment to it, not on their living arrangements.
Father Brett Hoover, C.S.P., New York, N.Y.

Advise them to live apart, receive the sacrament of Reconciliation, then we'd talk marriage.
Marcia Tozer, Brazil, Ind.

I think there should be a different marriage preparation for them, just as there is for those entering a second marriage. One size does not fit all in these situations.
Margaret J. Richards, Columbus, Ohio

Encourage their honesty with me, and celebrate the reality of their union in the liturgy so that it doesn't feel like Father is the only one who isn't "in the know."
Father Mike Boutin, Stoughton, Mass.

Try to remember that the prodigal son left home for a lifestyle that his family considered undesirable, yet when he returned home, his father didn't give him a hard time or throw him out. He ran to him, welcomed him home, and gave him a party.
Patricia Pruitt, Oak Park, Ill.

Be more concerned about whether or not they were active Catholics and connected to the church.
Father Frank S. Salmani, Providence, R.I.

As Greeley says, "Cheer them on, not give them the third degree."
Maureen Theiler, Polson, Mont.

Q: If I were going to talk with my teenage kids about the cultural acceptance of sex without commitment, I'd tell them:
How beautiful sex can be when it is not just a pleasurable experience but also the deepest expression of lasting love. I would also talk about the pain of rejection that comes from giving oneself to someone who only uses you.
Lucy Fuchs, Brandon, Fla.

Sex without commitment is dangerous to your mental, emotional, and spiritual health.
Claire Skilton, Point Arena, Calif.

It's wrong!
Catherine Phillips, Fayetteville, Ark.

I don't believe in casual or recreational sex. I believe sex should occur between two people who love each other. Sometimes that experience happens outside of matrimony.
Name withheld, Indianapolis, Ind.

To read Father Greeley.
Thomas F.X. Casey, Garnerville, N.Y.

General Comments
Priests and religious women make their final commitment after years of education, training, and living in community. The vocation of marriage is certainly as profound; perhaps people are creating their own style of preparation and formation.
Bob McCarty, Laurel, Md.

Cohabitation and casual sex are not the same. I believe most couples who cohabit are expressing a commitment to one another. The term "living in sin" is outmoded and expresses the church's obsession with all things sexual. Morality involves far more than abstaining from sex before marriage.
Anne Coppinger Paine, Avon Lake, Ohio

I am in my 70s and must admit that if the means of birth control and prevention of sexual disease existed in my youth, I may not have been able to wait for marriage.
Clarence B. Neumann, Racine, Wis.

Priests should give one-on-one advice in the confessional, and only if the "sin" is admitted and advice sought. "Don't ask, don't tell" is the way they deal with other questionable behavior, why not this?
Name withheld, Shady Cove, Ore.

You're focusing too much on sex. Commitment, whether in marriage or cohabitation, depends on more than this. One moral licitness.
Chris J. Donofrio, The Woodlands, Texas

Perhaps I am too old to understand the values young people have today, but it seems like most of them are only for "me, me, me."
Mary J. Reeves, Citrus Heights, Calif.

This is a multifaceted issue that requires the compassion of Jesus Christ, the moral integrity of Pope John Paul II, the wisdom of Solomon, and the faith of Saint Paul. We must err on the side of kindness while reflecting and proclaiming the traditional teaching of the church.
Father Charles R. LeBlanc, East Hampton, Conn.

I sympathize with our young people today. They are being bombarded from every single angle by a "me first" subculture. I have always had a great deal of confidence in our young people, and I continue to pray that with God's grace they will make the right decisions.
Deacon Joseph H. Goodrow, Jacksonville, N.C.

I think there's a correlation between the high divorce rate and the fact that a lot of those couples married in their 20s. We don't want to make the mistakes our parents or our friends' parents made. I feel like the generation just before us didn't take it as seriously, and multiple marriages were more common. We'd rather wait and get it right the first time.
Megan McGrath, Chicago, Ill.

I think Father Greeley has been a real prophet in the modern church, especially with his stance that sex is a gift revealing God's love. I think the church has alienated and lost many souls on this issue.
Name withheld, Palm Beach, Fla.

We encourage our children "not to marry too young" and to "live and experience life." Yet when they do that, we call them immature and lament their inability to make a commitment.
Name withheld, Newton, N.J.

Cohabitating does not let you learn if you and your mate are compatible, because the biggest part of marriage cannot be "tried." What is missing is the commitment of marriage, the most difficult part.
Joyce Donovan, Orlando, Fla.

When young people who are mature and committed to marriage in the future decide to live together, it might be good for the church to develop a ritual based on the marriage vows that would enable them to invite God into the commitment they are making.
Helen Ackermann, Rothschild, Wis.

I think Greeley's article was sexist. He talked as if all women want to get married and men are all immature and afraid of giving up their ability to sleep with many other women.
Name withheld, New York, N.Y.

Who says couples who don't cohabit are better prepared for marriage? Some very "chaste" men and women are ignorant about adult relationships.
George Splane, Santa Rosa, Calif.

I agree with Father Greeley. The times of "getting tough" with people are over. They will just find a more loving and welcoming church.
Patricia Kjellgren, International Falls, Minn.

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