Living in Sin: How do you handle a cohabiting couple coming to the Church for marriage?

A big problem affecting the average parish—and one that does not get discussed openly or often enough—is that of cohabiting couples who come to the Church to make wedding arrangements.

We must be realistic. Most young couples presenting themselves at the door of the parish house, with music lists and The Dress all planned, are living together. For their good, for the good of the Church, for the avoidance of dishonesty, and for the integrity of the sacrament of marriage, it is vital that we develop a coherent and workable strategy to deal with this.

For several years I have been involved in marriage preparation covering a number of London parishes. Back in the early 1990s, a young priest found that the marriage preparation scheme in place was unhelpful to the couples he was meeting. He could not in conscience send them along to sessions where they would hear speakers who did not support Church teachings and/or be invited to take part in embarrassing and trite activities (such as delving into a box and picking up an item—a child’s toy, or a tea-bag—and saying what it meant to them).

When he began, with the support and encouragement of other priests, a series of marriage preparation days, I agreed as a Catholic married woman to come and talk about the Church’s message on this subject. As things grew over the years and spread to other parts of London, the format of the days we planned varied. We learned by our mistakes: for example, that a “panel discussion” at the end of the day with “questions on any topic you like” can be a disaster, since it can be dominated by one individual or couple arguing the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, abortion, or women priests. This means that the day can end on a bad note.

One thing has remained constant: the need to grapple with the fact that the vast majority of the young people present are living in a way incompatible with the full reception of sacramental grace in matrimony. They are cohabiting and sexually active, and they intend to remain this way throughout the time of their engagement. And it is most likely that for one or both parties this is not the first, or even the second or third or fourth, sexual partner.

How to deal with this? The solution is the one I have outlined already—get couples together in a group. It is difficult for a priest, sitting at his desk with a cheerful young couple opposite him, to tackle this on a conversational basis. Put bluntly, it’s just plain embarrassing. Imagine yourself a priest, dressed in black clerics, in a house adjoining a church in an ordinary suburb at a desk stacked with papers about the church heating bills and the annual parish barbeque. The couple facing you look young and successful—probably already own a good-sized house and a couple of cars and have good, conventional jobs. They are unlikely to be in awe of you. Their attitude is probably, “Well, we’ve arranged the reception at the hotel and got plans for a great holiday trip and the design for the dress looks a dream . . . now we’ve got to sort out the formalities with this guy. Of course we’re not regular churchgoers—we have our own really important ideas about spirituality and all that . . .”

In this situation, the suggestion that we have a talk about the rightness or otherwise of any sexual behavior between the couple seems completely bizarre. “What right does this man have to talk to us like that?” And priests are busy, tired, embarrassed, and conscious of not being in the mainstream opinion on this one. It’s tempting to leave it aside and concentrate on the hymns—goodness knows that will be hard enough, with awkwardness about the suitability of some of the music they want.

So how to do it? A marriage preparation day for which couples register as they come to make the arrangements for the wedding immediately gets across a message of importance. Ideally, there should be several such events arranged by the parish (or group of parishes) throughout the year. That way, couples choose the date easiest for them. They should be given printed details—to include a modest registration fee—and it should be made plain that attendance is a crucial part of marrying in this parish.

There is an important addition, alas, not always possible to achieve. In addition to the marriage preparation day, the couple should visit a local Natural Family Planning center and have a full private session there, which will also result in their being given a certificate of attendance. Sadly, NFP is not taught widely and systematically. In my experience, in dioceses where NFP is taught, major advances are being made in the whole quality of marriage preparation. The consistent message from Rome over recent years has been that every diocese should have a team of sound, fully trained NFP teachers—a message that should be heeded. The marriage preparation day is made much easier if NFP can be tackled separately in this way. But if this cannot be done, vital messages can still be conveyed.

Start with prayer, friendly greetings, and a businesslike air. Of course, a pleasant room helps—a small group in a large bleak hall sets a dreary tone. We found that it worked to have some music playing (classics, on a tape recorder, not very loud) as people arrived. It makes a difference to have a priest to start the day, and lead everyone in prayer, even if he cannot stay the whole time.

My talk? Well, after some friendly chat (the atmosphere is always pleasant—a roomful of couples who are in love means a generally happy mood!), it goes roughly like this:

“We are all here because a marriage is being planned. Even if we have not been going to church faithfully, or feel our link with the Catholic Church is a bit vague rather than a deep commitment, we have a good instinct—we are coming home to get married. This is our Father’s house, and it is here that we will make our vows and receive this sacrament that binds us together for the rest of eternity. It’s good to be here, and this is a time of coming closer to God. Marriage is ‘the big one,’ a moment to take time to pause, to think things through, to be with God and to open our hearts to him. Savor this time.

“As we approach marriage, we are walking to the gate that leads to the pathway up the hill. We cannot see the whole away ahead, but we know that we will walk this path together, with all its twists and turns and difficulties. In marriage, we open the gate and walk through together, closing it gently behind us. We cannot go back now—we must go forward together, up the hill into our shared life ahead.

“It is right to feel some awe as we approach this great reality of binding our lives together permanently. God created marriage—we’re doing something that takes us right back to the very beginning of things. When Christ went to the wedding at Cana, he turned water into wine. Marriage is at the core of what the Church teaches. You will hear the Church actually described as a bride—the Bride of Christ. The whole of the Christian message is bound up with matrimonial imagery: Bridegroom and bride, Christ and his Church. Even eternity itself is described as a marriage feast—the marriage feast of the Lamb in heaven.

“Christ takes the water of our courtship and turns it into the wine of married life. God takes us, and through our unity he will bring new life into the world—and into eternity.

“Marriage is that important. It’s that awesome. When the Church talks about marriage, she is talking about something that is at the very core of all that she has to convey. It is absolutely not just a set of rules. It is a matter of being part of God’s plan for the whole human race in which he himself participates.

“As we ponder all this, we might feel, “Help . . . I’m not really up to all of this!” We might feel that our own relationship with God isn’t right. This is especially the case if we are already sexually active with the person to whom we are engaged to be married. We may also have been sexually active with others before. We may have been not quite honest—with ourselves, with our future spouse, with God—about some of this.

“We must be realistic and truthful. Sexual activity outside the marriage bond is contrary to God’s law and harmful to us and to our future marriage. It is an incontrovertible statistic that those who are sexually active with one another before they marry are much more likely to get divorced. The latest official national figures for cohabitation and divorce spell this out clearly, as did the previous set of figures—you may have seen some of the resulting media debate.

“Why is this so? Partly, perhaps, because of the sense of dishonesty. The language of the body isn’t saying the same thing as the language of words. The language of sexual union is the language of forever, of vulnerability sealed with assurance. But living together outside of marriage is made up of words like ‘trying out our relationship to see if it works.’ One partner may think that the trial is just a formality—marriage will necessarily follow. The other thinks that it is like buying a car—you discard the model you don’t like.

“What do we do as we discover what all this means? God is always there, and his forgiveness and mercy are the only healing that will really makes things right. Remember the story of the Prodigal Son? The father had been out every day, waiting and waiting, hoping, looking down the dusty road. Might his boy come back today? Might he be hungry, ill, footsore? And when he saw the boy ‘from a far distance,’ we are told—and no telephone in those days, so he must have been gazing out daily, hoping and waiting—he rushed to meet him, and almost before the boy could stutter his words of regret and hurt, the father wrapped his arms around him and called for things to make him comfortable and arranged the celebration feast.

“Coming home to the Church after too long a gap is like that. For a Catholic, going to confession before receiving the sacrament of marriage is really important. It might take courage. But if we are seriously going to bind ourselves for life to another person, this is precisely the sort of courage we will need. There is healing and balm for wounded souls in confession. There will be things we need to say to God and to a confessor that need not, and should not, be shared with anyone else, ever.

“If we fight shy of all this, we are dismissing something so awesome and so crucial to our relationship that we will be attempting to enter marriage with a tragic and unresolved problem. God is good. He will always come to meet and help us. But we need to accept his help when it is offered.”

And then the talk goes on to cover other things. I should emphasise that the whole subject must be tackled in the context of developing a prayer life of your own. It is important to convey the necessity of praying together.

“Everyone will have his own way of doing this: We might find a church or shrine that becomes ‘our’ place, a saint we like, a little chapel we discovered on a walk, or of course the church where we plan to marry. We should talk together about our childhood experiences of faith and our ideas of God. We do not need to invent elaborate prayers together or show off about how pious or articulate we are. We could say the Lord’s Prayer quietly together. We could ask God in simple words about the things that we need or are troubling us—including perhaps some of the practical matters associated with the wedding arrangements. We could be silent together and light a candle in church and just sit or kneel for a while.

“It’s important to understand that prayer is going to be crucial all along. Within a couple of years, we might be praying at the bedside of a sick child, or a dying parent, or worrying about a lost job or a complicated financial crisis. We will need God’s help every step of the way. Marriage is going to be a great adventure.”

There is more, of course. The presentation needs a lot more personal prayer and thoughtfulness than I had imagined when, perhaps a trifle smugly, I first agreed to do these marriage sessions. I need myself to be going to confession regularly, to be praying sincerely, to be applying basic rules about loving and forgiving in my own life, my own marriage.

Any attempt to show off—silly anecdotes about one’s own cleverness, kindness, or wonderful relationship with one’s spouse—are probably doomed to failure (although a few gently amusing comments about married life and family realities are useful). Genuine humility is needed. There must be a sense in which we are trying to convey what God wants: “More of God, less of me!” as I heard one charismatic speaker say at a rally—a bit sloganized, but essentially wise.

There are pitfalls. What about the sweetly pretty, proudly pregnant young lady in the front row with her fiancé? (No easy answers here, except to emphasise that a baby is always hugely welcome. No ifs, no buts— God loves this child dearly). What to do about those who violently disagree with you? What about those who say “My priest/Catholic teacher/mum/ doesn’t mind about our living together”? But there are touching moments, such as when the nice young man said, “It sounds beautiful. Can Protestants go to confession?” or the married couple at midnight Mass years later who said, “We’ve never forgotten that talk.”

Practicalities matter. We give every couple a pack with a prayer book, nice commemorative card, information on where and how to go to confession, a gift book about marriage. Above all, we must pray for those we teach. The day should begin and end with the speaker giving it all to God: It’s his work.