September 16, 2011


Cohabitation and fornication

A few weeks ago, the U.S. Census Bureau publicized the fact that its 2009 survey found that people are waiting longer before marrying. Furthermore, marriages are at a record low, with only 52 percent of adults 18 and older saying they were married.

For the first time, the percentage of adults who have never been married between the ages of 25 and 34 was higher—46.3 percent—than the percentage of those married—44.9 percent.

The decline in marriage doesn’t mean that young adults aren’t continuing to pair off. It is just that today they start living together without getting married. Even most couples who eventually marry now live together first.

That brings us to another survey, this one by the Center for American Families at the Institute for American Values and the National Marriage Project, based at the University of Virginia. That study found that 24 percent of the nation’s children are now born to cohabiting couples. Furthermore, more than 40 percent of American children will now spend some time in a cohabiting household.

That study also found that children born to cohabiting parents are much more likely to experience a parental break-up than if their parents were married—hardly surprising.

Besides the problems of instability, the children of cohabiting parents are three times more likely to be physically, sexually or emotionally abused than those in intact married-parent homes. They are also more likely to experience delinquency, drug use and school failure.

The researcher at the University of Virginia said, “If Mom is living with a boyfriend, they may have less trust, less emotional security in their relationship, less sexual fidelity.” Who could possibly expect anything different?

All this is more evidence that U.S. society has rejected the idea that sexual activity outside of marriage is wrong. Other surveys have shown that most Catholics, too, now believe that premarital sex is OK. Understandably, that view is held by a higher proportion of young people than older people.

However, the Catholic Church insists that any sexual activity outside of a marriage between a man and a woman is seriously sinful. Sexual intercourse between unmarried persons is known as fornication.

It is a word that people who have sexual relations outside of marriage don’t like to think of themselves as committing. “Making love” sounds better.

St. Paul condemned fornication in his letters to the Corinthians, Thessalonians and Galatians. In his First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 6:9), for example, he began with “fornicators” in his list of those who will not inherit the kingdom of God. The list also includes “adulterers” and “sodomites.”

The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults says, “Cohabitation [an unmarried couple living together] involves the serious sin of fornication. It does not conform to God’s plan for marriage and is always wrong and objectively sinful.”

As for those who think that living together before marriage might be a good idea, the catechism says, “Cohabitation does not guarantee successful married life, as has been revealed in the painful experience of many, and is detrimental to future commitment.”

Sadly, fornication is encouraged, or at least considered inevitable, in modern society. A recent encouragement is the new mandate by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that requires health plans to cover contraception at no cost. That means that college students who are covered by health plans will be able to get free contraceptives. What do we think that decision is going to do for the “hook-up culture” at many colleges?

Undoubtedly, many couples who fornicate are deeply in love. Our society teaches that that is sufficient. However, the Church insists that they have not made the commitments necessary for sexual activity. They have not taken the vows of marriage that should be implicit in sexual relations.

Our young people today have temptations that older generations could not have imagined. We hope they will listen to the words of Pope Benedict XVI.

In his introduction to the new Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church, the pope wrote, “You need to be more deeply rooted in the faith than the generation of your parents so that you can engage the challenges and temptations of this time with strength and determination.”

—John F. Fink

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