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Cohabitation and canonical form

September 11, 2014

The latest tizzy is over Pope Francis’ plans to preside at the weddings of several Roman couples, including some couples who have been cohabiting for lengthy periods. There are two perspectives from which to look at this news, one canonical, one pastoral.

Canonically, this is a non-issue. No divine, natural, or canon law impedes a wedding between cohabiting persons (cc. 1083-1094) and therefore the fundamental right of the faithful to the sacraments in general (cc. 213, 843) and to marriage particular (c. 1058) should prevail in such cases. Unquestionably, these couples can, and must be allowed to, wed.

Pastorally, however, this might be a bigger deal.

Many parishes and dioceses have developed practices (even formal policies) against offering weddings to cohabiting couples. While, as one should conclude from the above, such approaches have always rested on canonically thin ice (cc. 838, 843), they seemed, in some cases at least, to have been pastorally successful in getting couples to realize that marriage (as opposed to concubinage or even just regular pre-marital sex) is a momentous step to be undertaken by those with more than a passing awareness of what it means. Whether the pope’s action will make it more difficult for priests and bishops to persuade cohabiting couples to approach their wedding as a life (including life-style) changing event remains to be seen.

Of course, if canonical form were not required for the validity of Catholic weddings (cc. 1059, 1108), then cohabiting Catholic couples could be invited to enter marriage—presumptively valid, sacramental, indissoluble marriage—by any public act, whereupon the Church would simply record that fact and recognize, as she should, such couples as married; meanwhile, those couples desiring a “church wedding” could be expected to demonstrate a higher level of commitment to preparing for that wedding appropriately. A no-cohabiting prerequisite could easily be made part of such preparation and no one’s rights to the sacraments or to marriage would be impinged thereby.

If canonical form were not required for validity.

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