- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The increasing acceptance and practice of cohabitation poses numerous challenges for the Catholic Church, not the least being pastoral issues: how to prepare men and women for marriage in this environment, whether the couple live together or not.

Catholics are rising to address the challenge, and a leading American canon lawyer will address the topic next month at a conference in California.

The Rev. Kevin Quirk will deliver a presentation, “Cohabitation: Canonical and Pastoral Consequences,” to the annual Canon Law Society of America conference. Cohabitation, Father Quirk said, “is fast becoming an accepted stage between dating and marriage or an end in itself in the United States.”

He will discuss a 2002 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that studied the links among “marriage, divorce, contraception, infertility, and other factors affecting pregnancy and birthrates and women’s health” and how the findings of the CDC study affect Catholics from the perspective of church law and pastoral application.

The Oct. 10 meeting in Orange, Calif., will bring together officials of the Catholic Church’s internal legal system from around the world. Father Quirk, judicial vicar of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va., holds a doctorate in canon law from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

The widespread acceptance of cohabitation “presents pastoral difficulties since there is no formal commitment between the couple,” said Bishop Jean-Louis Plouffe of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. “So the church cannot accept this relationship because it involves sexual intimacy outside marriage.”

Nevertheless, Bishop Plouffe notices that many cohabiting couples are now seeking to marry in the church. “Family has become a trend again, which we find positive,” he said.

“We don’t live in a perfect world,” Bishop Plouffe said. “But it seems that more people are realizing the value of building a home and family within a committed family. These are sound reasons for marrying.”

Sister Josie McKechnie, a psychologist with the Sisters of St. Joseph and director of the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie’s Family Enrichment Centre, said she pays particular attention to cohabiting couples when overseeing marriage preparation for the diocese.

“The trend over the last five years is that about 60 percent of couples seeking marriage [from the diocese] are cohabitating, and about 25 percent of couples seeking marriage are either pregnant or bringing children into the marriage,” she says.

The key issue is to help cohabiting couples discern what is motivating them to marry after a period of living together.

“For example, if there are problems in their relationship and they think marriage is going to solve them, then you have a red flag,” said Sister McKechnie.

The Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie, like many other North American dioceses, uses a premarital inventory called Facilitating Open Couple Communication, Understanding and Study to help couples discern their motivation for marriage. The questionnaire is designed to help couples learn more about themselves and their relationship. It looks at important aspects of a relationship such as communication, problem-solving, expectations and values, parenting issues, religion and values, personal issues, their understanding of marriage as a covenant, sexuality, finances, readiness and compatibility, and extended family issues.

“It helps the couple,” Sister McKechnie said. “It also helps those of us who are working with the couple to identify potential problem areas. We use it to help them improve awareness of their relationship — where there is understanding and agreement in their relationship, as well as areas where there is disagreement and areas where there might be some critical problems or special issues.”

The Rev. John List is the judicial vicar for the Diocese of Lexington, Ky. Besides overseeing annulment cases in the diocesan tribunal, he is the pastor of St. Peter parish. His pastoral duties include helping couples prepare for marriage. He said his tribunal experience has reinforced his belief that good premarital preparation is vital to helping young couples succeed in marriage.

“I tell couples I’m interested in marriage preparation because I don’t want to see them at my other desk,” Father List said. “We put lots of resources into tribunal ministry, but we cannot put too much into marriage prep.”

Couples must approach marriage with a realistic sense of the depth of the commitment, Father List said. Of vital importance is that the couple understand the nature of marriage as indissoluble.

To this end, the Diocese of Lexington uses a program developed by moral theologian Christopher West. The program helps couples understand the four things Catholics believe are common to every marriage: permanence, faithfulness, openness to the procreation and upbringing of children, and the mutual support between spouses. The program also promotes sexual abstinence during the courtship and engagement as well as the practice of natural family planning during marriage. The last skill assists couples in spacing out childbirth and family size without the use of contraception.

Strengthening marriage-preparation programs is important to helping young couples, Father List said.

“What we’re finding from our anonymous surveys at the end of the weekend is that very often, [the] couple haven’t had a change of heart apparent at this time, but we’ve at least planted the seed,” he said. “However, sometimes couples will tell us that they’ve reconsidered the church’s teaching, and they need to talk about these issues.”

In seeking to improve the Diocese of Lexington’s marriage-preparation program, Father List works closely with Mike Allen, the diocese’s director of family life ministry. About 60 percent of couples are cohabiting and about 85 percent of couples are sexually active when they approach the diocese for marriage preparation, Mr. Allen said.

“So we cannot deny these trends are happening,” he said.

The solution, he said, is to persuade couples seeking marriage to accept the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage and human sexuality “not as rules, but as a vision.”

Mr. Allen said the diocese’s previous program focused mainly on building skills such as communication and management of household finances, leaving “a deficiency in helping couples to understand what marriage is.”

The West program helps plug this deficiency by giving couples “a spiritual vision of marriage whereby they see how marriage fits in within the wider context of the Catholic faith,” Mr. Allen said.

Phil Webb, a former Episcopal clergyman, serves as director of the Archdiocese of Denver’s Office of Marriage and Family Life. The Roman Catholic archdiocese was one of the first to strengthen its marriage-preparation program to reflect and counter the growing realities of premarital sex, cohabitation and divorce.

The archdiocese’s marriage-preparation program is required of all who seek a church marriage and includes teaching about natural family planning.

“The [natural family planning] component is important because it facilitates a kind of communication between a husband and a wife about one of the most important issues that brought them before the altar: why they’re having kids or why they’re not having kids,” said Mr. Webb. “It’s also healthy. No bad side effects, whereas many forms of contraception have side effects.”

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