Academic journal article Theological Studies

Quaestio Disputata Cohabitation: Past and Present Reality

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Quaestio Disputata Cohabitation: Past and Present Reality

Article excerpt

IN A RECENT SURVEY ARTICLE in this journal, Lisa Sowle Cahill offers a comprehensive look at developments in Catholic theology and ethics with respect to marriage. (1) In that survey, Cahill makes two statements about cohabitation with which I must take issue. The first statement was common wisdom in the social scientific community in the 1980s and early 1990s but is now questioned in that community and, therefore, no longer provides a sound scientific basis for any theological response to cohabitation. The second statement is so unnuanced that it is effectively incorrect. Since the majority of American marriages are now preceded by cohabitation, (2) and since unmarried heterosexual cohabitation has attained broad social acceptance, it appears that cohabitation is here to stay for the long haul. Because the reality of unmarried heterosexual cohabitation will undoubtedly continue to be part of the Catholic reflection on marriage, the search for a Catholic pastoral response must be serious, and only the surest and most current social scientific data should be permitted to inform that discussion and pastoral response. Pope John Paul II, in his 1981 apostolic exhortation On the Family (Familiaris consortio), insisted that "the Church values sociological and statistical research when it proves helpful in understanding the historical context in which pastoral action has to be developed and when it leads to a better understanding of the truth." (3) Scientific research, John Paul II suggests, can enrich our understanding of truth and inform pastoral action, but it can never do so alone. For any pastoral response to be genuinely Catholic, the discussion about cohabitation cannot be only social scientific; it must also be theological. It is for these reasons that I raise this short, corrective quaestio.

The first of Cahill's statements with which I take issue is "outright endorsement of a practice [cohabitation] that has been shown to increase rather than decrease marital [in]stability should be undertaken with great caution." (4) The data on which that statement is based, data from the 1980s and early 1990s, is now seriously challenged by data from more recent cohorts in a society which is now more accepting of pre-marital cohabitation. The greater social acceptance of cohabitation has altered the composition of cohabiting samples. In the 1980s, people who cohabited were generally more unconventional, younger, less religious, and frequently had a history of divorce in their families of origin. That is now no longer always true. The second statement concerns a proposal I have made for the reintroduction of a ritual of betrothal. Cahill writes that "Michael Lawler proposes a formal betrothal ceremony that can legitimize a cohabiting relationship and provide an opportunity for marriage preparation." (5) I have never proposed the legitimizing of a cohabiting relationship without distinction and, given the scientific data, I never would. I have proposed the reintroduction of the ancient ritual of betrothal linked to intensive marriage education for cohabiting couples already committed to marriage, perhaps even engaged to be married, and I have made that theological proposal on the basis of readily available social scientific data. I shall return to that in a moment. Since Cahill's statement misconstrues my position, any theological conclusion about or pastoral response to cohabitation derived from it would also be misconstrued, and I would share Cahill's hesitation to endorse any such conclusion. That theological and pastoral conclusions about unmarried heterosexual cohabitation can be drawn from erroneous statements and counter statements underscores the need for a serious, public, Catholic debate about cohabitation and its relationship to marriage.

Two social scientific facts about cohabitation are well known and frequently mentioned by Catholic theologians. The first is that unmarried heterosexual cohabitation increased dramatically in the United States, and elsewhere in the Western world, in the last quarter of the 20th century. …

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