This past Saturday Pope Francis presided over a Mass during which several couples celebrated the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony (aka, Marriage). What made these couples “unique” according to social understanding of the Catholic faith is that all of these couples were either living together or who have had annulments. It seemed odd to the media and the secular world that the Catholic Church would celebrate a Sacrament for people who have “so obviously broken the rules and sinned.” But really, he wasn’t doing anything too extraordinary. The Pope was just doing what the Catholic Church is called to do for everyone: help us right our wrongs, deepen our faith and holiness and enter more fully into communion with the Catholic Church.
In recent years I’ve encountered more and more couples who, through various circumstances, have come into the Church or back to the Church and seek to celebrate the Sacrament of Marriage. It’s a beautiful thing in any circumstance to witness someone growing closer to God, whether it’s in the Baptism of a baby or in seeing a freshly cleaned soul step out of Reconciliation or in the celebration of the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony for a couple who is re-entering into full communion with the Church. And that’s what Pope Francis has done. He has provided a witness for the world of how, even if you’ve “broken rules and sinned,” you can and should be welcomed back to God and the Catholic faith with open arms.
Yes, Catholic teaching still holds that cohabitation is “objectively and morally wrong.” That won’t be changing, despite what secular media may be saying. Often thought of and referred to as “the step before marriage,” the step of cohabitation can often be a damaging or even a fatal blow to a marriage even before it begins. Among the statistics and information to note about cohabitating couples, studies have shown that couples who cohabitate before marriage have a higher rate of divorce than those who do not.
Even back in 1999 the U.S. Bishops took note of the trend of cohabitating couples amongst Catholics preparing for marriage and wrote a document, Marriage Preparation and Cohabitating Couples, addressing this topic. It includes statistics of the time as well has how to address the topic pastorally. Of note, it does not say cohabitating couples should not be married, “Since cohabitation is not in itself a canonical impediment to marriage, the couple may not be refused marriage solely on the basis of cohabitation… Pastoral ministers can be assured that to assist couples in regularizing their situation is not to approve of cohabitation. (Part II, Section 5).” But instead, the document notes, that at times marriage can be delayed or postponed for additional catechesis of the couple.
Yes, even the U.S. Bishops believe that cohabitating couples should be married within the Catholic Church and brought back into full communion within our faith. They’ve been expressing this publicly for over 15 years.
So while media and society continue to think that what Pope Francis did is signaling a change in the Church, much of the perspective is coming from the outside looking in. It is seen from a perspective of a lack of understanding of what the Catholic Church is called to do and asks of us. We are called us to holiness and a life in Christ. The world needs more Catholic Christian witnesses of living lives of holiness in Christ. And Pope Francis and these couple are providing the Church and the world with this witness. And reminding us all that no matter what we think we may have done wrong, there’s always a way back to Christ and His Church.