Pastoral Guidelines on Cohabitation

Michael D. Pfeifer
May 2001
Reproduced with Permission

After many months of careful study by the presbyteral council and myself, I give official approval for the following pastoral guidelines for those ministering to cohabiting couples. I ask that all of our pastoral leaders carefully read these guidelines and bring them to the attention of people who are preparing for marriage.

The Sacrament of Marriage

Christian marriage is a sacrament of Jesus Christ and a sacred vocation given to us by God (Canon 1055). Consequently, it is a means to holiness in the life of the spouses. The baptized who are married in the church receive a special sacramental grace that helps them live a life of love and fidelity. The church wants to help all engaged couples to prepare well for marriage so that their union will be lasting and furfilling. The use of the pre-marriage inventory, sponsor-couple program and community experiences such as the Engaged Encounter are encouraged highly for those preparing for marriage. The best preparation for a Christian marriage is to live a truly Christian lifestyle with participation in the Sunday eucharistic celebration, the other sacraments, prayer, works of justice, charity and chastity as hallmarks of a life in Christ.


Christian marriage is about commitment. This means fidelity to one another and faithfulness within the relationship. This commitment is experienced not only through the easy and happy times but also through the hard and sometimes most unhappy moments. The beginning of such a commitment is the decision both persons in a relationship make to each other to close the doors to other life choices and to choose freely to stay with each other and their unique union until death.


Today reality indicates that not only do some engaged couples choose to engage in sexual activity before marriage, but that many couples live together in a sexual relationship before making a permanent commitment. The rate of those who live together in a sexual relationship prior to marriage has risen sign)ficantly in the last decades. Pope John Paul II points out (Familiaris Consortio, 81) that de facto free unions, i.e., those unions without any publicly recognized institutional bond, are an increasing concern. He recognizes that various factors can lead a couple into a free union. These include diff~cult economic, cultural or religious situations, extreme ignorance or poverty, children and a certain psychological immaturity that makes couples afraid to enter a permanent union. Due to the commonality of this practice, it is recommended that the issue of cohabitation be addressed to youth and young adults during religious education instruction within the sessions concerning marriage.

Approach to Free Unions

Pastors and pastoral leaders who are caring for cohabiting couples are to avoid two extremes: 1) Immediately confronting the couple and condemning their behavior and 2) ignoring the cohabitation aspect of their relationship.

Pastoral experience and diocesan policies have borne out the wisdom of this approach. Pastor and pastoral leaders should examine each situation case by case. Cohabiting couples are to be told that cohabitation prior to marriage is morally wrong, i.e., objectively sinful.

Couples should be informed about the moral implications of living together. The church has always taught, based on sacred Scripture, that living together -- and all sexual activity, including intercourse itself, with anyone other than with one's spouse -- is immoral and a contradiction. Why? Because very early in Christian tradition it was held that all sexual activity between two persons, including sexual intercourse, is to be a sign of those persons giving not merely pleasure to each other, but rather their whole selves to one another in a covenant of love. Thus the Catholic Church has always viewed sexual intercourse as the most important sign of what Christian marriage is: namely, two people who are willing to commit all of themselves to one another -- bodies, pleasure, thoughts, hopes, dreams, fears, failings, plans, difficulties, bank accounts, bad moods, in-laws, etc.

In the tradition of the church there is not such a thing as "premarital sex." There is only "marital sex," a sign of commitment, and "sex without comTnitment," which is promiscuity. This is why the church teaches that couples who love one another should not engage in sex before marriage andlor live together before marriage. Marriage preparation for couples who are cohabiting is an opportunity for evangelization and catechesis. This is a "teachable moment," and the pastor and pastoral leader must be cautious lest because of rigidity or laxity he/she alienate the couple from the church community. Couples involved in free unions should be encouraged to reflect on their situation (Marriage Guidelines for the Dioceses of Texas 1994).

The following questions may help in such a process:

  1. Are you aware concerning what God says in sacred Scripture about the beautiful gift of human sexuality and its purpose, and about sexual intercourse outside of marriage?
  2. Why did you originally choose to live together? How does the commitment you wish to make now differ from the commitment you made when you decided to cohabit?
  3. What do your family and community think about your living together? How do these thoughts affect you?
  4. What are your reasons for wanting to marry at this time? Is pressure from family or because of children a major reason for marriage now? Is there any reluctance to marry?
  5. What have you learned from your experience of living together? How do you expect your relationship to grow and change in the future? Does either of you expect marriage to be free from time of discontent? How well do you deal with conflict? Have you agreed on any changes in the way you will handle money after you are married?
  6. Why do you want to marry in the Catholic Church at this time? Do you understand the concerns the church has had about your cohabiting situation? Do you understand that you may give bad example to some?
  7. What does marriage as a sacrament mean to you?
  8. What do you think will be the greatest barrier to a lifelong marriage for you? How do you think you will be especially challenged by the vow of faithfulness?

Separation Prior to Marriage

Some couples will be open and mature enough to discover in their responsibilities to God's norms as well as to the larger community a motivation to live apart during the final months or weeks as they prepare for the lifelong commitment of Christian marriage. Others may not, some cannot.

The pastors and pastoral leaders may not always understand or agree with the couple's decisions, but should always strive to lead them to a better understanding of their commitment and to support their best efforts in being honest with one another and with their God in prayer and in guiding them toward the sacrament of penance if that seems appropriate.

Canon Law

Pastors and pastoral leaders should keep in mind that cohabitation is not in itself a canonical impediment to marriage. The couple may not be refused marriage solely on the basis of cohabitation. The general norm states that the pastor and the ecclesial community are to see that the couple has a "fruitful liturgical celebration of marriage clarifying that the spouses signify and share in the mystery of unity and of fruitful love that exists between Christ and the church" (Canon 1063.3).

The Community

The entire faith community is urged and encouraged to reach out to couples who are currently living together and invite them into a closer union with Christ through the church. When cohabiting couples approach the church for marriage, we encourage pastors and pastoral leaders to recognize this as a teachable moment. This is a unique opportunity to help couples understand the Catholic vision of marriage. Tlus is an opportunity for evangelizabon.

"When cohabiting couples approach the church for marriage, we encourage pastors and pastoral leaders to recognize this as a teachable moment. This is a unique opportunity to help couples understand the Catholic vision of marriage. This is an opportunity for evangelization."

By supporting the couple's plans for the future rather than chastising them for the past, the pastor and pastoral leader can draw a couple more deeply into the church community and the practice of their faith. Treated with sensitivity and respect, couples can be helped to understand and live the vocation of Christian marriage.


  1. Those responsible for preaching the Sunday homily should use the opportunity to teach about the sacrament of marriage when the readings address the topic.
  2. Communicating information about the sacrament of marriage in the parish bulletin should be done periodically.
  3. Informing couples preparing for the sacrament of marriage of diocesan and parochial marriage-preparation resources: Engaged Encounter, sponsor couples, pre-Cana instruction and personal instruction.


Cohabitation: The strict definition of this term is the practice of a man and woman sharing living quarters and physical intimacy (sexual relations) before marriage, civil or religious.

Legal: The practice of a man and a woman sharing living quarters before marriage and keeping their own names, independent finances and formal legal documentation on joint property, if any.

Common law marriage (legal term in Texas: informal marriage): Man and woman live together (even for a short time). They present themselves as married (connotes a sexual relationship).

Dissolving cornrnon law marriage: Separated and not living together without a divorce following a common-law marriage. After two years, the state of Texas considers them not to be married informally. There is no longer recourse for child or spousal support.

Civil marriage: A man and woman marry before an authorized person with the proper legal document(s).