Emily Barnak remembers a term that one of her cousins devised years ago to refer to a common reality among young adults and their significant others: LIS. Short for "living in sin." As in, "Are you LISing?" It comes in handy at family gatherings, when the 20-and 30-something cousins catch up on one another's lives and relationships but don't want to distress older relatives who would surely disapprove if they knew.
Barnak, 27, is engaged to be married. She met her fiance, Casey, when they were serving in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. According to plenty of statistics, Barnak is like the majority of her peers in a few important ways: She pursued her education and career before marriage, and she expects to have a good marriage and family life. After graduate school necessitated a long-distance relationship for a few years, Barnak made a crosscountry move to be with Casey.
And like the majority of engaged couples in the United States--Catholic and otherwise--the two moved in together, at least for a while. When she finally found work as a physician's assistant several months after relocating, her new job was too far for a daily commute from their home in Denver, effectively keeping her from "LISing" during the week.
While Barnak and her fiance have been contemplating their coming marriage, the U.S. bishops have also been doing a lot of contemplation about the institution as a whole. They launched the National Pastoral Initiative for Marriage in 2004. And just last November the bishops issued "Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan," a pastoral letter that focuses on the meaning of marriage, the challenges the institution currently faces, how marriage is a blessing for all society, and how the sacrament and vocation of marriage can lead to greater holiness in individuals, couples, and families.
Not surprisingly, most young adult Catholics didn't get the letter, so to speak.
Barnak, for instance, disagrees with or questions several church teachings about marriage: the prohibition of artificial birth control, the naming of cohabitation as objectively sinful in nature, and the impossibility of same-sex marriage.
"What it comes down to, for me, is Jesus," she says. "The Jesus I know through prayer and Bible study is one who welcomes everyone to the table. It seems the church has a lot of rules about who is welcome and who is not."
A failure to communicate
She's got a lot of company, according to Gail Risch, who has taught the theology of marriage to hundreds of Catholic college students at Creighton University in Omaha. Most know coming into the course what the church teaches--no sex before marriage, no birth control, no same-sex unions--but they want to know why.
"Today's young adults ask questions," says Risch. "They want to know the rationale behind the teaching. They do not settle for 'because I said so.'"
When her students delve into the church's argument against contraception, for instance, the typical response she hears is, "'You've got to be kidding!' They would say it's reasonable and responsible to use reliable contraception. The large majority outright reject official church teaching in Humanae Vitae."
And when it comes to teaching on homosexuality and marriage, "Most of them are appalled--they have friends or family members who are engaged in same-sex relationships, and [the church's teaching] is terrible discrimination from their perspective."
The fact that many young adult Catholics disagree with some aspects of the church's teachings likely disappoints the bishops, but Risch does have some good news: When her students read what the church has to say about love and marriage in Gaudium et Spes, "they buy that 100 percent. They're delighted to hear that official church teaching. They're totally into commitment."
As to whether cohabiting couples are truly "into commitment," Risch says in her experience most who identify as Catholic are either already engaged or are considering marriage, as opposed to cohabiting couples that have no plans to marry. …