Family, Marriage and "De Facto" Unions

Official Documents
Pontifical Council For The Family
9 November 2000
Reproduced with Permission


One very widespread phenomenon that calls strongly upon the conscience of the Christian community today is the growing number of de facto unions in society as a whole, with the disaffection for the stability of marriage that this entails; The Church cannot fail to shed light on this reality in its discernment of the "signs of the times".

Aware of the grave repercussions of this social and pastoral situation, the Pontifical Council for the Family organized a series of study meetings in 1999 and during the first months of the year 2000. Some outstanding persons and well-known experts from different parts of the world took part in order to analyze this delicate problem that has such great transcendence for the Church and the world.

The present document is the fruit of this study. It takes up a current and difficult problem that touches the very heart of human relations, the most delicate part of the intimate union between the family and life, the most sensitive areas of the human heart. At the same time, the undeniable public transcendence of the present international political juncture makes it fitting and urgent to offer a word of guidance addressed especially to those who have responsibilities in this area. It is they in their legislative task who can give juridical consistency to the institution of marriage or, on the contrary, based on an unreal understanding of personal problems, weaken the consistency of the common good that protects this natural institution.

These reflections are also addressed to pastors who must receive and guide so many Christians today and accompany them along the way toward appreciating the natural value that is protected by the institution of marriage and ratified by the Christian sacrament. The family based on marriage corresponds to the Creator's design "at the beginning" (Mt. 19:4). In the Kingdom of God, where no seed can be sowed other than that of the truth that is already written in the human heart, the only seed capable of "bearing fruit through perseverance" (Lk. 8:15), this truth becomes mercy, understanding and a call to recognize in Jesus the "light of the world" (Jn. 8:12), and the power that frees from the bonds of evil.

This document also proposes to contribute in a positive way to a dialogue that will clarify the truth about these matters and the requirements that come from the natural order itself, and to take part in the socio-political debate and the responsibility for the common good.

May God grant that these serene and responsible considerations, which are shared by so many persons of good will, redound to the benefit of that community of life that is necessary for the Church and the world: the family.

Vatican City, July 26, 2000
Feast of Saints Joaquim and Ann
Parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Alfonso Cardinal López Trujillo

Most Rev. Francisco Gil HellÌn


(1) The so-called "de facto unions" have been taking on special importance in society during these past years. Some initiatives insist on their institutional recognition and even their equivalence to families originating in a marriage commitment. Before a question of such importance with so many future repercussions for the entire human community, this Pontifical Council proposes in the following reflections to call attention to the danger that such recognition and equivalence would represent for the identity of the matrimonial union, and the grave damage this would entail for the family and the common good of society.

In this document, after considering the social aspect of de facto unions, their constitutive elements, and their existential motivations, the problem is taken up of the juridical recognition and equivalency of de facto unions, first with regard to the family based on marriage, and then with regard to the whole of society. The document then deals with the family as a social value, the objective values to be fostered, and the duty in justice on the part of society to protect and promote the family rooted in marriage. Afterwards, some aspects raised in relation to Christian marriage are studied in depth. Some general criteria are also presented for pastoral discernment which are necessary to guide the Christian communities.

The considerations presented here are not only addressed to those who explicitly recognize the Catholic Church as "the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of truth" (I Tm. 3:15), but also to all Christians who belong to the different Churches and Christian communities, and to all those who are sincerely committed to the precious good of the family, the fundamental cell of society. As the Second Vatican Council teaches, "The well-being of the individual person and of human and Christian society is intimately linked with the healthy condition of that community produced by marriage and family. Hence Christians and all men who hold this community in high esteem sincerely rejoice in the various ways by which men today find help in fostering this community of love and perfecting its life, and by which parents are assisted in their lofty calling"[1].

I - "De facto Unions"

Social aspect of de facto unions

(2) The term "de facto unions" includes a whole series of many heterogeneous human realities whose common element is that of being forms of cohabitation (of a sexual kind) which are not marriage. De facto unions are characterized precisely by the fact that they ignore, postpone, or even reject the conjugal commitment. Grave consequences are derived from this.

In marriage, through the covenant of conjugal love, all the responsibilities that result from the bond that has been made are taken on publicly. From this public assumption of responsibilities a good results not only for the spouses themselves and for the children in their affective and formational growth, but also for the other members of the family. Therefore, the family based on marriage is a fundamental and precious good for the whole society whose most solid fabric isbuilt on the values that are developed in family relations and guaranteed by stable marriage. The good generated by marriage is basic for the Church which recognizes the family as the "domestic Church".[2] All this is endangered by abandoning the institution of marriage, which is implicit in de facto unions.

(3) Some may wish to, and may use sexuality in a way other than that written by God into human nature and the specifically human end of their acts. This goes against the interpersonal language of love and seriously endangers, through an objective disorder, the true dialogue of life willed by the Creator and Redeemer of humankind. The doctrine of the Catholic Church is well known by public opinion, and it is not necessary to repeat it here.[3] It is the social dimension of the problem that requires greater reflection and makes it possible to point out, especially to those with public responsibilities, the inappropriateness of elevating these private situations to the category of public interest. With the pretext of regulating one context of social and juridical cohabitation, attempts are made to justify the institutional recognition of de facto unions. In this way, de facto unions would turn into an institution, and their rights and duties would be sanctioned by law to the detriment of the family based on marriage. The de facto unions would be put on a juridical level similar to marriage; moreover, this kind of cohabitation would be publicly qualified as a "good" by elevating it to a condition similar to, or equivalent to marriage, to the detriment of truth and justice. In this way, a very strong contribution would be made toward the breakdown of the natural institution of marriage which is absolutely vital, basic and necessary for the whole social body.

Constitutive elements of de facto unions

(4) Not all de facto unions have the same social weight or the same motivations. When describing their positive characteristics, over and above their common negative trait of postponing, ignoring or rejecting the matrimonial union, some elements stand out. First, there is the purely factual character of the relationship. It should be pointed out that these unions imply cohabitation that includes a sexual relationship (which distinguishes them from other forms of cohabitation), and a relative tendency toward stability (which distinguishes them from sporadic or occasional forms of cohabitation). De facto unions do not imply marital rights and duties, and they do not presume to have the stability that is based on the marriage bond. They are characterized by their strong assertion to not take on any ties. The constant instability that comes from the possibility of terminating the cohabitation is consequently a characteristic of de facto unions. There is also a certain more or less explicit "commitment" to "mutual fidelity", so to speak, as long as the relationship lasts.

(5) Some de facto unions are clearly the result of a decisive choice. "Trial" unions are common among those planning to marry in the future, but on the condition that they have the experience of a union without a marriage bond. This is a kind of "conditioned stage" for marriage, similar to "trial" marriage,[4] but, different from this, a certain social recognition is presumed.

Some other persons who live together justify this choice because of economic reasons or to avoid legal difficulties. The real motives are often much deeper. In using this type of pretext, there is often an underlying mentality that gives little value to sexuality. This is influenced moreor less by pragmatism and hedonism, as well as by a conception of love detached from any responsibility. The commitment is avoided to the stability, the responsibilities, and the rights and duties that real conjugal love includes.

In other cases, de facto unions are formed by persons who were previously divorced and are thus an alternative to marriage. Through pro-divorce legislation, marriage often tends to lose its identity in personal conscience. In this sense, a lack of confidence in the institution of marriage should be pointed out which sometimes comes from the negative experience of persons who have been traumatized by a previous divorce or by their parents' divorce. This distressing phenomenon is beginning to become important from a social viewpoint in the more economically developed countries.

It is not uncommon for persons living together in a de facto union to make their rejection of marriage for ideological reasons known explicitly. This then is the choice of an alternative, a certain way of living one's sexuality. These persons consider marriage as something to be rejected, something that is opposed to their ideology, an "unacceptable form of abusing personal well-being", or even as "the tomb of passionate love", expressions that denote a lack of knowledge about the real nature of human love and sacrifice, and of the nobility and beauty of constancy and fidelity in human relations.

(6) De facto unions are not always the result of a clear and positive choice. Sometimes persons who are living together in these unions show that they tolerate or bear this situation. In some countries, the increasing number of de facto unions is due to a disaffection regarding marriage not for ideological reasons, but because of a lack of adequate formation in responsibility, which is the product of the poverty and marginalization of their environment. A lack of confidence in marriage, however, can also be due to family conditioning, especially in the Third World. One important factor to be taken into consideration are the situations of injustice and the structuresof sin. The cultural predominance of macho or racist attitudes come together and aggravate this difficult situation very much.

In these cases, it is not unusual to find de facto unions where, from the beginning, in principle, the partners want an authentic life together, consider themselves united as husband and wife, and make efforts to fulfill obligations similar to those of marriage.[5] Poverty, that is often the result of imbalances in the world economic order and structural educational shortcomings, poses serious obstacles that keep them from forming a real family.

In other places, cohabitation (for more or less extended periods of time) is frequent until the conception or birth of the first child. These customs correspond to ancestral and traditional practices which are very strong in some regions of Africa and Asia and are related to the so-called "marriage by stages". These practices are in contrast with human dignity, difficult to uproot, and create a negative moral situation with a characteristic and well-defined social problem. This kind of union should not be identified with the de facto unions we are concerned with here (which are formed on the margin of a traditional kind of cultural anthropology), and pose a challenge for the inculturation of the faith in the Third Millennium of the Christian era.

The complexity and diversity of the problem of de facto unions can be clearly seen if we consider, for instance, that in some cases, their most immediate cause can be related to social security and welfare systems. This is the case, for example, in the most developed systems where elderly persons form de facto relationships because they fear that marriage would involve tax burdens or the loss of their pensions.

Personal reasons and the cultural factor

(7) It is important to ask the deep reasons why contemporary culture is witnessing a crisis in marriage, both in its religious and civil dimensions, and the attempt to gain recognition and equivalency for de facto unions. In this way, unstable situations, which are defined more by their negative aspect (the omission of marriage) than by their positive characteristics, seem to be on a level similar to marriage. In fact, all these situations are consolidated in different kinds of relations, but all are in contrast with a real and full reciprocal self-giving that is stable and recognized socially. In a context of privatization of love and the elimination of the institutional character of marriage, the complexity of the economic, sociological and psychological reasons suggests the need to delve into the ideological and cultural background on which the phenomenon of de facto unions, as we know it today, has been progressively growing and becoming affirmed.

The progressive decrease in the number of marriages and families recognized as such by the laws of different States, and the increase in some countries in the number of unmarried couples who are living together cannot be explained adequately as an isolated and spontaneous cultural movement. It seems to be a response to the historical changes in societies in the contemporary cultural moment that some authors describe as "post-modernism". It is certain that the decreased influence of the agricultural world, the development of the tertiary sector of the economy, the increase in the average life span, the instability of work and personal relationships, the reduction in the number of family members living under the same roof, and the globalization of social and economic phenomena have produced great instability in families and favored the ideal of a smaller family. But is this enough to explain the contemporary situation of marriage? The institution of marriage is experiencing a lesser crisis where family traditions are stronger.

(8) In the process that could be described as the gradual cultural and human de-structuring of the institution of marriage, the spread of a certain ideology of "gender" should not be underestimated. According to this ideology, being a man or a woman is not determined fundamentally by sex but by culture. Therefore, the very bases of the family and inter-personal relationships are attacked. Some considerations should be made in this regard because of the importance of this ideology in contemporary culture and its influence on the phenomenon of de facto unions.

In the integrative dynamics of the human personality, one very important factor is identity. During childhood and adolescence, a person progressively gains awareness of being "him/herself", an awareness of his/her own identity. This is integrated into a process of recognition of one's being and, consequently, of the sexual dimension of one's being. This is therefore awareness of identity and difference. Experts usually make a distinction between sexual identity (i.e., awareness of the psycho-biological identity of one's sex, and the difference with regard to the other sex), and generic identity (i.e., awareness of the psycho-social and cultural identity of the role which persons of a determined sex play in society). In a correct and harmonious process of integration, sexual and generic identity are complementary because persons live in society according to the cultural aspects corresponding to their sex. The category of generic sexual identity ("gender") is therefore of a psycho-social and cultural nature. It corresponds to and is harmonious with sexual identity of a psycho-biological nature when the integration of the personality is achieved as recognition of the fullness of the person's inner truth, the unity of body and soul.

Starting from the decade between 1960-1970, some theories (which today are usually described by experts as "constructionist") hold not only that generic sexual identity ("gender") is the product of an interaction between the community and the individual, but that this generic identity is independent from personal sexual identity: i.e., that masculine and feminine genders in society are the exclusive product of social factors, with no relation to any truth about the sexual dimension of the person. In this way, any sexual attitude can be justified, including homosexuality, and it is society that ought to change in order to include other genders, together with male and female, in its way of shaping social life.[6]

The ideology of "gender" found a favorable environment in the individualist anthropology of radical neo-liberalism.[7] Claiming a similar status for marriage and de facto unions (including homosexual unions) is usually justified today on the basis of categories and terms that come from the ideology of "gender".[8] In this way, there is a certain tendency to give the name "family" to all kinds of consensual unions, thus ignoring the natural inclination of human freedom to reciprocal self-giving and its essential characteristics which are the basis of that common good of humanity, the institution of marriage.

Next Page: II - The Family based on marriage and de facto unions
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