A Letter to Engaged Couples from the Bishops of
Dear Engaged Couple,
We congratulate you on your engagement and want to offer a word of
encouragement to you during this special period of preparation for
While there are many issues which you will discuss over the course of
your preparation period, one important area in which many priests and
couples have shared their concerns with us is that of engaged couples
living together before marriage. While many in our society may see no
problem with this arrangement, living together and having sexual
relations before marriage can never be reconciled with what God expects
In addition, countless studies have shown that couples who live
together before marriage have higher rates of divorce and a poorer
quality of marital relationship than those who do not.
Your engagement is meant to be a time of grace and growth in
preparing for your marriage. In the months ahead, we urge all engaged
couples who are living together to separate. All Catholics should seek
to be reconciled with God and the Church by going to confession and by
going to Mass and Holy Communion regularly.
Living chastely during your remaining months of engagement will teach
you many things about one another. It will help you to grow in the
virtues of generous love, sacrificial giving, self-restraint and good
communication virtues which are essential for a good and lasting
We pray that as you seek God and his way more deeply, you will be
rewarded with an abundance of his grace. May your love for each other
always be strong and life-giving.
With every prayerful best wish, we remain,
Sincerely yours in Christ,
The Bishops of Pennsylvania
Questions and Answers Regarding Cohabitation and
the Church's Moral Teaching
1. What is cohabitation?
"Cohabitation" is commonly referred to as "living
together." It describes the relationship of a man and woman who are
sexually active and share a household, though they are not married.
2. Why is cohabitation such a concern for the Church?
As you work with your priest during this time of preparation for
marriage, you will speak with him about many issues. But the Church is
particularly concerned about cohabitation because the practice is so
common today and because, in the long run, it is causing great
unhappiness for families in the Church. This is true, above all, because
even though society may approve of the practice cohabitation
simply cannot be squared with God's plan for marriage. This may be why
most couples who live together before marriage find married life
difficult to sustain for very long.
The Church does not invent laws. It passes on and interprets what God
has revealed through the ages. No one in the Church has the right to
change what Jesus has taught. To do so would be to deprive people of
saving truths that were meant for all time. Our Christian faith teaches
that a sexual relationship belongs only in marriage. Sex outside of
marriage shows disrespect for the sacrament of marriage, the sacredness
of sex, and human dignity.
3. We have good reasons for living together before our wedding. Why
can't the Church just accept that?
The Church cares for you as a parent cares for a beloved son or
daughter. Knowing that cohabitation increases a couples' chance of
marital failure, the Church wants to protect you and preserve your
happiness. Besides, most couples don't really evaluate the reasons they
give to justify their decision. Think about it:
Reason 1: "It's more convenient for us."
"Convenience" is a good thing, but it's not the basis for
making a decision that will affect your entire life. Married life is
sometimes inconvenient and even demanding. Cohabitation for convenience
is poor preparation for that kind of commitment. Research bears this
out. Studies show that those who live together before marriage tend to
prefer "change," "experimentation" and open-ended
lifestyles all of which could lead to instability in marriage. One
study, conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago and the
University of Michigan, concluded that couples who cohabit tend to
experience superficial communication and uncommitted decision-making
once they are married. Cohabitation for convenience does not allow for
the careful thought and adequate "space" necessary for making
wise life decisions.
Reason 2: "We're trying to save money for the wedding, so
living together is more economical."
Sure, you might save the price of monthly rent, but you're
sacrificing something more valuable. Engagement is more than just time
to plan the party. It is a time for deeper discussion and more thorough
reflection, which are best carried out in a detached way. Couples who
are living together do not have the luxury of such detachment. So
whatever expenses you save, you'll likely pay more in the end. Dr. Joyce
Brothers said it well in an article on cohabitation: "short-term
savings are less important than investing in a lifetime
Reason 3: "Because of the high divorce rate, we want to see
if things work out first."
Studies consistently show that couples who live together score
significantly lower in both marital communications and overall
satisfaction. On the surface, a trial run at marriage may seem to make
sense, allowing one to screen out less compatible mates. But it doesn't
work out that way. Couples who live together before marriage actually
have a 50% greater chance of divorce than those who don't. And about 60%
of couples who cohabit break up without marrying. Living together before
marriage is different from living together in marriage, because there is
no binding commitment to support the relationship.
Reason 4: "We need to get to know one another first. Later
we'll start having kids."
Cohabitation is actually the worst way to get to know another person,
because it shortcuts the true development of lasting friendship. Those
who live together before marriage often report an over-reliance on
sexual expression and less emphasis on conversation and other ways of
communication ways that ultimately lead to a more fulfilling sexual
union after marriage. Traditionally, the process of dating or
"courtship" has led couples to a deeper appreciation of one
another through conversation, shared ideals and dreams, and a mutual
understanding of one another's values.
Reason 5: "The Church is just outdated and out of touch with
its thinking in this matter. Birth control made those old rules
That's just not true. In the early days of the Church, living
together outside of marriage was common among the non-Christians in the
Roman Empire as was the use of artificial contraception. But these
practices were devastating for individuals, families, and society. Women
were treated as disposable objects, mere toys for sexual pleasure, to be
discarded when passions waned. The Christian vision of marriage and
family led to happiness and fulfillment for individuals and families
and a great renewal of culture and society. Far from being outmoded,
then as now, the Church's teaching is revolutionary and it works!
4. Why does the Church interfere in the sex lives of couples? It's
really just a private matter between us.
Sex is intensely private and personal, but it also has deep moral and
social dimensions. Sex works as a primary bonding agent in families and
the family is the building block of society. Sexual rights and wrongs
influence the health and happiness of individuals, families and
neighborhoods. That's why sexual behavior has always been the subject of
many civil laws. The Church, of course, wishes to safeguard the family
and society. But, more than that, the Church wishes to safeguard your
relationship with your future spouse and with God. Sex is the act that
seals and renews the couple's marriage covenant before God. Sexual sins,
then, are not just between a man and a woman, but between the couple and
God. And that's the Church's responsibility. Sex is not simply a private
matter. If it's between you and God, it's between you and the Church.
You need to ask yourself: "When do I stop being a Christian? When I
close the bedroom door? When does my relationship with God cease to
5. But, really, how does what we do with our own bodies affect our
relationship with each other and our spiritual relationship with God?
The gift of your body in sexual intercourse is a profound symbol of
the giving of your whole self. In making love, the husband and wife are
saying to one another in "body language" what they said to
each other at the altar on their wedding day: "I am yours, for
life!" God created sex to be physically pleasurable and emotionally
fulfilling. But it is even greater than all that. It is, above all, the
deepest sign of the complete gift of self that a husband and wife pledge
to each other. This mutual gift empowers the couple to become
co-creators with God in giving life to a new person, a baby. According
to God's design, the gift of sexual union has two primary purposes:
strengthening married love and sharing that love with children.
The only "place" where this total self-giving between a man
and a woman is to take place is in marriage. It is the only
"place" where children can be raised with the secure,
committed love of a mother and a father. So sexual intimacy belongs only
in marriage. Outside of marriage, sex is a lie. The action says: "I
give you my whole self" but the man and woman are really
holding back their commitment, their fertility, and their relationship
with God. Before giving your body to another person, you need to give
your whole life, and you need to receive your spouse's whole life in
return and that can only happen in marriage.
6. Why can't I just follow my conscience if I believe living
together is okay?
People can be wrong in matters of conscience, and people often are.
Where our self-interest is concerned, our capacity for self-deception is
huge. Here, as in everything we do, we need an objective standard to
tell us if our conscience is properly formed and able to make right
judgments. Morality is not a matter of opinion or "gut
feeling." Conscience is God's voice, speaking the truth deep within
your heart. It's unlikely if not impossible that God would
contradict His own commandments just for your convenience or desires.
You are acting in good conscience when you choose to do what God
intends. The choice to live together outside a marriage is always wrong
7. Why does the Church claim that living together is a scandal to
others? Many of our family and friends are doing the same thing.
Just because everyone does something doesn't make it right or any
less serious. A couple's choice to live together is not simply made in
isolation. It affects everyone in relationship with these two people
parents, brothers, sisters, friends, and even other members of the
parish. A cohabiting couple implicitly communicates that there is
nothing wrong breaking God's law. This can be especially misleading to
young children nieces, nephews, and children of friends who are
impressionable and whose moral reasoning is immature.
8. What is the best way to prepare ourselves spiritually for our
"A wedding is for a day, but a marriage is for a lifetime."
That can be a long and happy time, but only with good preparation. The
best way to get ready for marriage is to practice your faith. Catholics
do this by faithful attendance at weekly Sunday Mass, by going to the
Sacrament of Penance (confession), by prayer, and by practicing works of
charity. If you haven't been attending Mass regularly, your parish
priest will want to see you back. If it's been a long time since your
last confession, your priest will help you. Confession is a necessary
step if you have already been cohabiting. During the days of
preparation, you are strongly encouraged to pray together as a couple,
read Scripture, and lead a virtuous life. For guidance, look to other
couples with strong Christian values.
9. Why should we need to separate now? It's just an arbitrary rule
of the Church.
The Church's teaching on cohabitation is not an "arbitrary"
rule. Living together before marriage is a sin because it violates God's
commandments and the law of the Church. St. Paul lists this sin
technically called "fornication" among the sins (whether
within or outside cohabitation) that can keep a person from reaching
heaven (see 1 Corinthians 6:9) Cohabitation works against the heart's
deepest desires and greatly increases the chances of a failed marriage.
If you are honest with yourself, every practical consideration will
tell you that separating before marriage is the right thing to do. It is
a decision to turn away from sin and to follow Christ and His teaching.
That is always the right decision. But it's a good decision for other
important reasons, too:
- it will strengthen your marriage
- it will deepen your friendship
- it will foster deeper intimacy and communion
- it will build up your problem-solving and communications skills
- it will give your marriage a greater chance for success
You may think you are unique and that your passion for each other
will never wane. But that's what most couples think. No one goes into
marriage planning for a breakup; yet a majority of couples today do
break up. You want to be one of the exceptional couples who not only
succeed in marriage, but also live together in happiness and
Some couples who are living together think that separation before
marriage is artificial or meaningless. Some fear that halting sexual
activity will be harmful to the relationship. But this is rarely the
case. Sometimes in marriage, too, a sexual relationship will have to be
suspended for a time due to illness, military service, business travel,
or the good of a spouse. Relationships not only survive this , but
actually grow stronger. God rewards such sacrifices with graces for a
good relationship. Abstaining from sex will also enable you to rely on
other means of communication, which ultimately will empower you to get
to know each other in a deeper, lasting way.
10. What good will following the Church's teachings do for us
Catholic teaching in this matter brings rich blessings to those
couples who willingly accept it. The Good News of Jesus frees you to
enjoy intimacy even more:
- by appreciating your spouse as a person, not an object
- by living in a stable, secure, permanent, and faithful
- by expressing true, committed love rather than simply satisfying a
Married life has a special place in God's plan. Like everything good,
it requires sacrifices. But they're small compared to the rewards. Seek
first the Kingdom of God; everything else you desire will be given to
you and more!
Questions for Reflection and Prayer:
- As an engaged couple, why did you choose to cohabit before
- What have the two of you learned from your experience of living
together? What have you learned about yourselves as a couple and as
- What is the driving force behind your decision to marry at this
time? What has changed in the relationship and made you wish to
marry and have your marriage blessed in this Church?
- Was there a previous reluctance or hesitation to marry? If so,
why? Have those issues been completely resolved?
- Why are you seeking marriage in the Catholic Church?
- What does marriage as a sacrament mean to the two of you?
- How do you see your faith and love for each other as an intimate
part of your marriage?
- How do you want your marriage to be open to life?
"At the beginning, the Creator made them male and female and
declared for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and
cleave to his wife. And the two shall become as one. Thus, they are no
longer two but one flesh. Therefore, let no man separate what God has
- Matthew 19:4-6
"The intimate community of life and love which constitutes the
married state has been established by the Creator and endowed by him
with its own proper laws . . . God himself is the author of
- The Church in the Modern World, Vatican II, 48
"The conjugal covenant of marriage opens the spouses to a
lasting communion of love and life, and it is brought to completion in a
full and specific way with the procreation of children. The communion of
spouses gives rise to the community of the family."
- Letter to Families, Pope John Paul II, 7
"Sexuality, by means of which man and woman give themselves to
one another through the acts which are proper and exclusive to spouses .
. . is realized in a truly human way only if it is an integral part of
the love by which a man and woman commit themselves totally to one
another until death . . .That total physical self-giving would be a lie
if it were not the sign and fruit of a total personal self-giving."
- Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul II, 11
"The spouses' union achieves the twofold end of marriage: the
good of the spouses themselves and the transmission of life. These two
meanings or values of marriage cannot be separated without altering the
couple's spiritual life and compromising the goods of marriage and the
future of the family. The conjugal love of man and woman thus stands
under the twofold obligation of fidelity and fecundity."
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2363
"The very preparation for Christian marriage is itself a journey
of faith. It is a special opportunity for the engaged to rediscover and
deepen the faith received in Baptism and nourished by their Christian
upbringing. In this way they come to recognize and freely accept their
vocation to follow Christ and to serve the Kingdom of God in the married
Used with permission of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference
- Pope John Paul II, The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern