Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Love, Truth, Cohabitation, and Marriage

Over at Historical Christian, a dispute arose in the comment box over whether priests, parishes, and dioceses should require cohabiting couples to stop living together before receiving the Sacrament of Matrimony. One reader thought that such a rule was "illogical and un-Catholic" in that it was unrealistic to expect couples to comply and that it was too judgmental, rather, "the fact that they want to be married, rather than continue living together says a lot."

We should remember that, while Christ established the sacraments, He gave them to the Church to administer or not administer. The Church does have the authority to say "no" sometimes if the person seeking the sacrament is not properly disposed or prepared. The Church does not do "altar calls" where anyone can simply come in off the street and be received into the Church.

The Church can, and rightfully does, demand a fairly extensive amount of preparation (except in cases of impending death). And more than once, the Church has said "no, you cannot be baptized at this time." Or, "no, you cannot receive absolution at this time." Or, "no, you cannot receive communion at this time." Or, "no, you cannot be confirmed at this time." Or, "no, you cannot be ordained at this time." If the disposition and preparation are not there, the Church should say "no, not at this time, you must first be properly prepared and disposed."

Unfortunately, the Church does not say "no, not at this time" with respect to marriage as often as She should. That is why we have a scandalous amount of annulments in the U.S. Every (legitimate) annulment is an example of a failed marriage preparation process.

If the priest can see before the wedding that the couple is not properly disposed, such that they would be able to claim that prior lack of proper disposition after the wedding as a ground for annulment (e.g. defective consent), then the priest should decline to perform the wedding. And cohabitation is pretty persuasive proof of a lack of full and proper preparation for and understanding of marriage, both as a state of life and as a sacrament, which thereby impairs the ability to give a full, knowing, intelligent, and voluntary consent.

Surely, we would expect a candidate for ordination to break-up with his girlfriend and/or to not cohabitate a fairly long period of time prior to being ordained! Well, cohabitation is as incompatible with matrimony as it is with ordination. True, in both cases, the wrong can be sacramentally confessed, but there must be an authentic conversion of the heart and mind, sufficiently demonstrated to the satisfaction of the Church, before receiving and entering into either sacrament of matrimony or ordination.

The same could be said of the couple that is not cohabiting or even sexually active, but merely wants a "church wedding" for stylistic purposes with absolutely no intention of living their marriage within the Faith. And, sadly, there are quite a few folks who want to use the Church as merely some kind of prop. If the marriage is not going to be in the Church, there is no reason that the wedding should be. There is always the courthouse down the road for such farces. And if and when the couple does wish to bring their marriage and married life into the Church, and not merely the wedding day, they can always have it regularized, but not until then.

The Church and priests presiding at weddings do not do anyone any favors by marrying couples that are not properly disposed. They are setting the couples up for failure. Besides, I am no mindreader, but I would venture to guess that most cohabiting couples (and otherwise sexually active couples) know in their hearts that what they are doing is wrong, and they would appreciate someone (anyone!) calling them on it.

No one who is not properly prepared or disposed has any standing or right to demand that the Church administer a sacrament to him or her, any more that we have a right to demand that God let us into heaven. The sacraments and grace are gifts -- wholly gratitious. They can be given; they can be withheld. And Jesus specifically gave the Church the authority, not only to give, but to withhold the sacraments, including matrimony. If the couple is not properly prepared and/or disposed, the priest should say, "no, come back later when you are."

As the Holy Father has said, reception of the sacraments is not automatic; the Church demands that the recipient(s) establish and maintain a friendship with Jesus, who is Love and Truth. Cohabitation, by its very nature, is inconsistent with that Love and Truth; it is inconsistent with a full and complete friendship with Jesus.

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