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Why Did the Synod Fail to Seriously Address the Issue of Cohabitation?

Couple napping

MR Hayata

Rick Fitzgibbons, MD - published on 11/17/14

John Paul II and Benedict XVI recognized cohabitation as an urgent problem.
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In earlier articles, we looked at the harmful consequences of cohabitation for adults and for children. In light of the many negative outcomes, it was disappointing to many that the bishops taking part in the Extraordinary Synod last month failed to turn to Pope St. John Paul II for guidance on this issue. In his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, John Paul addressed cohabitation (nos. 80 and 81), explaining why it is gravely immoral and how pastors should approach cohabiting couples and encourage them to marry. John Paul also noted that –

It will be very useful to investigate the causes of this phenomenon, including its psychological and sociological aspect, in order to find the proper remedy (no. 80).

What have decades of clinical experience shown to be the major factors contributing to the rise in cohabitation?

1. selfishness on the part of one or both cohabiting partners
the contraceptive mentality and the sexual revolution it fueled
3. permissive parenting that indulged children and failed to teach the values of self-discipline and sacrifice
4. the failure of both parents and Catholic educators to witness to Christian marriage as a complete gift of oneself to a spouse and God
5. parental divorce, leading to a fear of divorce in their children and the belief that a lifelong commitment is impossible
6. the weakening of masculinity in the culture
7. economic fears and general insecurity about entrusting one’s life to another
8. rejection of the Church’s teachings on sexuality and marriage, which are wrongly seen as restrictions on freedom
9. rejection of the traditional view of marriage (as an exclusive and lifelong union in which the couple is open to the gift of children) in favor of a living arrangement that should last only as long as the partner is making one happy
10. the view that a father is not obligated to protect, and provide a stable home for, his children and their mother if he had not consented in advance to the pregnancy and marriage.   

These clinical observations are supported by the ever-growing body of research on marriage and family. The National Marriage Project, located at the University of Virginia and headed by W. Bradford Wilcox, publishes reports on “The State of Our Unions,” as well as topic specific reports and summaries of research, such as “Why Marriage Matters: Thirty Conclusions from the Social Sciences” (2011).

Wilcox reports, for example, that the contraceptive and divorce revolutions have undercut the younger generation’s faith in marriage. Children of divorce are more likely to cohabit and about 37% of young adults say “marriage has not worked out for most people they know” (Wilcox 2010). Yet, levels of divorce in the United States have recently stabilized

to pre-Divorce Revolution levels. Specifically, about 23% of children whose parents married in the early 1960s divorced by the time the children turned 10. More recently, slightly more than 23% of children whose parents married in 1997 divorced by the time the kids turned 10.

That’s the "good news." The bad news is that cohabitation has replaced divorce as the main cause of family instability. Nearly half of women 15-44 cohabited between 2006 and 2010.  “Why Marriage Matters” notes that one of the primary reasons for getting married, i.e., starting a family, is increasingly viewed as a relic of the past. The institution of marriage, and even the presence of two parents, are seen as nice but not necessary for raising children. Thus, even when a baby is coming, many young adults see no need to rush to the altar. In addition, many young adults in romantic relationships greatly overestimate the chances that they have already met their future spouse, which makes them vulnerable to sliding into 
parenthood even though they haven’t married.

In Familiaris Consortio (1981) John Paul II identified the roots of cohabitation in the false understanding of freedom which selfishly overlooks the good of others:

At the root of these negative phenomena there frequently lies a corruption of the idea and the experience of freedom, conceived not as a capacity for realizing the truth of God’s plan for marriage and the family, but as an autonomous power of self-affirmation, often against others, for one’s own selfish well-being (no. 6).

Pope St. John Paul II was not confused about how the Church must view cohabitation:

The Church, for her part, cannot admit such a kind of union, for further and original reasons which derive from faith. For, in the first place, the gift of the body in the sexual relationship is a real symbol of the giving of the whole person: such a giving, moreover, in the present state of things cannot take place with full truth without the concourse of the love of charity, given by Christ. In the second place, marriage between two baptized persons is a real symbol of the union of Christ and the Church, which is not a temporary or “trial union" but one which is eternally faithful. Therefore between two baptized persons there can exist only an indissoluble marriage
(no. 80).

Nor did he fail to understand the crucial role of parents in the long-term preparation of young people to assume their role as spouses:

Such a situation cannot usually be overcome unless the human person, from childhood, with the help of Christ’s grace and without fear, has been trained to dominate concupiscence from the beginning and to establish relationships of genuine love with other people. This cannot be secured without a true education in genuine love and in the right use of sexuality, such as to introduce the human person in every aspect, and therefore the bodily aspect too, into the fullness of the mystery of Christ (no. 80).

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI also recognized the vital importance of strong marriages:

The family is the nucleus in which a person first learns human love and responsibility, generosity and fraternal concern. Strong families are built on the foundation of strong marriages. Strong societies are built on the foundation of strong families.

Fortunately, in the final report, the Synod Fathers rejected paragraph no. 41, which called for recognizing the "positive aspects" of cohabitation. It is to be hoped that between now and the October 2015 Synod on the Family, participants will study the teachings of recent popes and review the social science research that uniformly demonstrates the harm cohabitation does to individual couples, to children and to society.

Rick Fitzgibbons, MD
 is the director of the Institute for Marital Healing outside Philadelphia and has worked with several thousand couples over the past 38 years. Trained in psychiatry at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Child Guidance Center, he participated in cognitive therapy research with Aaron T. Beck. In 1986 he wrote a seminal paper on the psychotherapeutic uses of forgiveness in the treatment of excessive anger and in 2000 coauthored 
Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope
with Dr. Robert D. Enright, University of Wisconsin, Madison, for American Psychological Association Books. The second edition of this book is in press. He has been an adjunct professor at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for the Studies of Marriage and Family (The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC) and a consultor to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy.

MarriageSynod on the Family
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