EWS OUTLETS EVERYWHERE are reporting the story that today, in Rome, Pope Francis is officiating at the marriage of twenty couples, including some who have been cohabiting and some who have children. Predictably, the reports seem to dangle these details as if to suggest that, by so doing, the Holy Father has declared cohabitation acceptable. (This is not true, of course; “living in sin” is still living in sin.)
What to do with cohabiting couples preparing for marriage is a problem that parish priests deal with on an incessant basis. Depending on the area in which one ministers, the percentage of cohabiting couples going through Pre-Cana sessions can range from 30% to 50% to 80% or more. Some priests abjectly refuse to perform marriages for couples who are cohabiting. Others try to have a conversation with the couples to demonstrate the ill effects (moral & practical) of “living together,” asking them to live as brother and sister until the marriage takes place.
There is no canonical impediment presented by cohabitation, but it remains contrary to the moral teachings of Jesus. The pastoral practice of priests—even the Pope—does not change these moral teachings.
NOTHER MAJOR RECENT CHALLENGE to the meaning of marriage is the conundrum of the divorced and remarried. This topic has garnered incredibly widespread interest in the last year, sparking discussions internationally in journals, newspapers, and on the web. The most significant voice to have weighed in thus far is Walter Cardinal Kasper, who has championed the idea of admitting remarried divorcees to Holy Communion since the 1990’s. Notably, Pope Francis has highly praised Kasper’s recent book, Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life. In an address at a consistory during February 2014, Cardinal Kasper made an explicit call for something to be done that could permit such persons to receive Holy Communion.
In response, a new book is due out from Ignatius Press next month. Entitled Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church, the volume is the work of five cardinals and four theologians. The cardinal contributors include:
1. Gerhard Cardinal Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
2. Raymond Cardinal Burke, Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura
3. Walter Cardinal Brandmüller, President Emeritus of the Pontifical Committee of Historical Sciences
4. Carlo Cardinal Caffarra, Archbishop of Bologna
5. Velasio Cardinal De Paolis, President Emeritus of the Prefecture for Economic Affairs of the Holy See
This sort of public debate among cardinals is an uncommon occurrence (at least in the 21st century). According to Ignatius Press, the contents of the new book “lead to the conclusion that the Church’s longstanding fidelity to the truth of marriage constitutes the irrevocable foundation of its merciful and loving response to the individual who is civilly divorced and remarried. The book therefore challenges the premise that traditional Catholic doctrine and contemporary pastoral practice are in contradiction.”
This will surely be a topic of discussion during the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family this October 5-19. It will also likely be addressed during the World Meeting of Families next September here in Philadelphia. How the Church chooses to proceed matters a great deal.
The Church teaches that marriage effects an unbreakable bond between husband and wife, such that the two become one; no person, moreover, who has entered into a prior bond possesses the freedom to enter into a subsequent bond with another spouse. The bond of marriage, we teach, lasts until the death of one of the spouses (or until the marriage is annulled). Only thereafter does one become free to marry another spouse. To enter into a new contract before the death of one’s spouse would place one in the state of sin, which would have the further effect of making one unprepared to receive Holy Communion.
Either what the Church teaches concerning the bond of marriage is true or it isn’t. If it is true, then simply overlooking the canonical implications of one’s marital status will not produce a useful resolution. It would, instead, alter the meaning of Christian marriage.