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September 05, 2015
To what extent can those in non-marital unions—including those who live together before marriage—be considered to be “on the path” to sacramental marriage?
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This is the third part of an essay by Dr. Kampowski addressing theological arguments on pastoral approaches to marriage and family, especially those raised during last year’s Synod of Bishops. This installment focuses on issues raised by the Synod’s interim and final reports.

In the coming weeks, Catholic World Report will be publishing Dr. Kampowski’s essay in five installments. The first can be read here, the second here.

Like the German bishops’ document (addressed previously), the Relatio synodi is not a teaching document, but one that raises questions and makes proposals on how to make the Church’s communication more effective and her message more convincing. It is an invitation to dialogue, which we accept here. In two paragraphs the final report asks about the possibility of ascribing a moral significance to different kinds of unions other than sacramental marriage, wondering whether one cannot detect and appreciate elements of goodness in them. In its number 27 the document ponders about the status of

- civil marriages, without specifying whether among the baptized or the unbaptized—which would, however, make a major difference,

- of traditional marriages (presumably thinking mostly of some Asian or African cultures), and finally

- of cohabitation:

In this regard, a new aspect of family ministry is requiring attention today—the reality of civil marriages between a man and woman, traditional marriages, and, taking into consideration the differences involved, even cohabitation. When a union reaches a particular stability, legally recognized [literally: “created by a public bond”"[1], characterized by deep affection and responsibility for children, and showing an ability to overcome trials, these unions can offer occasions for guidance with an eye towards the eventual celebration of the Sacrament of Marriage.

The suggestion is that all these unions contain elements that merit appreciation and that may prepare the path to sacramental marriage. Here, one would of course need to keep in mind that usually a civil marriage among the baptized is an implicit or even explicit choice against a sacramental marriage. About traditional marriages, if understood as natural marriages among the unbaptized, there may indeed be ways of understanding them as a preparation for the Gospel and then also, once the Gospel has been received in baptism, as ways to sacramental marriage. The most controversial idea is the suggestion that even de facto unions may contain elements that could be occasions for guidance to the sacrament of marriage.

In its number 41, the document essentially rephrases the thought presented in its number 27. However, it no longer lists those elements present in civil marriages or de facto unions that one might surmise may lead the partners to contract a sacramental marriage. Leaving behind the suggestion that one may appreciate certain characteristics of these unions inasmuch as they dynamically open a path to sacramental marriage, the text now simply speaks of the “positive aspects” of these unions, suggesting something static. When speaking of those situations that “no longer correspond” to the Christian message, but that nonetheless are seen to contain “constructive elements,” the text also adds an implicit reference to the divorced and civilly remarried. We read: “A new element in today’s pastoral activity is a sensitivity to the positive aspects of civilly celebrated marriages and, with obvious differences, cohabitation. While clearly presenting the Christian message, the Church also needs to indicate the constructive elements in these situations that do not yet or no longer correspond to it.”">[2] These two paragraphs are a somewhat tuned down version of the suggestions made by the Synod’s Relatio post disceptationem, its midterm report, which we will also discuss here.

1. The principle of gradualness

In paragraph 17 of the midterm report, the principle of gradualness is invoked. We read: “In considering the principle of gradualness in the divine salvific plan, one asks what possibilities are given to married couples who experience the failure of their marriage, or rather how it is possible to offer them Christ’s help through the ministry of the Church.”[3] The meaning of the law of gradualness has been the cause of much debate among moral theologians, and in his Familiaris consortio John Paul II to great care to distinguish it from the gradualness of the law.[4] The principle of gradualness refers to the fact that human beings’ path of conversion is a gradual one. To reach the holiness to which the Lord has called us is a step by step process, that sees us fall many times, but which also, by the grace of God, sees us get back up again, confess our sin and renew our endeavors to sin no more. We grow in holiness step by step.

The gradualness of the law, on the other hand, suggests that human beings are actually incapable of living a morally upright, let alone a holy, life. It proposes that instead of calling us on to moral growth, God, in his mercy, adapts the law to our actual capacities. To put it crudely, for a seasoned thief, to rob just one person per week—instead of two every day as his desires would urge him to—would then be an act of virtue, inasmuch as he tries to summon all the self-control he thinks he has at his disposal. When the Synod fathers discussed the midterm report in the smaller language circles, many of them voiced the concern that the principle of gradualness adduced by the report would have to be distinguished more clearly from the gradualness of the law, that is, from the wrong idea that the moral law could simply be adapted to the purported capacities of the moral agents.[5]

2. Seeds of the Word?

This same paragraph of the midterm report also offers a theoretical account of the “positive aspects” purportedly present in unions other than sacramental marriage: “In this respect, a significant hermeneutic key comes from the teaching of Vatican Council II, which, while it affirms that ‘although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure … these elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward Catholic unity’ (Lumen Gentium, 8).”[6] The text suggests that just as there are elements of truth and sanctification outside of the visible confines of the Catholic Church, so such elements can be present in non-marital unions. That this is indeed the idea becomes clear when one reads on: “Realizing the need, therefore, for spiritual discernment with regard to cohabitation, civil marriages and divorced and remarried persons, it is the task of the Church to recognize those seeds of the Word that have spread beyond its visible and sacramental boundaries.”[7] This is of course an implicit allusion to Vatican II’s Decree on the Church’s missionary activity Ad gentes, n. 11 and John Paul II’s encyclical Redemptoris missio n. 28, which in turn take up an idea precious to the Fathers of the Church: “The Spirit […] sows the ‘seeds of the Word’ present in various customs and cultures, preparing them for full maturity in Christ.”[8] The midterm report then recommends a new way of looking at these unions along similar lines: “The Church turns respectfully to those who participate in her life in an incomplete and imperfect way, appreciating the positive values they contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings.”[9]

And indeed, nothing true or good is alien to the Church of Christ. She will not break a bruised reed nor quench a dimly burning wick (cf. Isaiah 42:3). Her glance of motherly compassion rejoices in the good wherever it can be found. Nonetheless, proposing that one can discern elements of truth and holiness even in non-marital unions analogous to the way the Church discerns “seeds of the Word” in other religions or diverse cultural practices is not necessarily an expression of authentic pastoral care. The question of truth would also have to enter. In any case, in the minor circles in which the midterm report was discussed, the synod fathers were not particularly convinced that the analogy was applicable.[10]

Finally, the document contains another highly controversial paragraph regarding same-sex unions. It reads:

Without denying the moral problems associated with homosexual unions, there are instances where mutual assistance to the point of sacrifice is a valuable support in the life of these persons. Furthermore, the Church pays special attention to [...] children who live with same-sex couples and stresses that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority.[11]  

The passage is ambiguous, and the Church’s magisterium had previously expressed itself with clarity on the issue. Hence, in the Synod’s final report, the Synod Fathers decided to recall a very clear statement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that was expressed in a document explicitly approved by John Paul II and that leaves no doubt that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”[12]

3. Bringing the ideal down to Earth?

We have seen that Schockenhoff suggests one can find the characteristic elements of marriage also in the unions between the divorced and civilly remarried. Along the same lines, the German bishops claim one can consider these unions a morally significant reality. The 2014 Synod’s final report applies this same approach of looking at the purportedly positive elements present in non-marital unions not only to the divorced and civilly remarried, but also to de facto unions, while the same Synod’s midterm report goes so far as to apply this thinking even to same-sex unions. In this, Schockenhoff, the German bishops, the Synod’s midterm report, and its final report would seem to suggest that Christian marriage is an ideal that can find more or less perfect or imperfect expressions elsewhere. The fundamental presupposition would have to be that one looks at the Church’s received teaching as an ideal that is more or less reachable, similar to a Platonic idea. Plato’s ideal horse, for instance, does not actually exist on Earth but only in the sky of ideas. However, it helps us to discern the elements of horseness in individual, necessarily imperfect horses. Likewise, Christian marriage would then be an ideal of a union that as such does not actually exist on Earth, but that helps us to judge the elements of truth and goodness in actually existing, imperfect unions that correspond to human capacities. This ideal may give guidance and direction; to a larger or smaller degree we may find its elements in different kinds of unions, but it only exists in its fullness in the mind of God. On this account, God’s plan for marriage and the family is a guiding idea that is like the evening star, giving sailors orientation at night without itself being a destination of their journey.

In what follows we will ask whether this is a helpful approach. Is Christian marriage according to the mind of God really just a remote ideal that needs to be adapted to real life situations? Will going down the path of de-idealization, i.e., of translating the ideal, really help the Church in being more convincing in spreading her message, or would it not amount to a fundamental change of her message? We will thus look at the specific nature of de-facto unions, of unions by the divorced and civilly remarried, and of same-sex unions. Finally, we will wonder whether the suggestion that the Church’s teaching on marriage and family needs to be de-idealized may not derive from an incomplete understanding of what this teaching really is. We will finally propose what seems to us a more expedient way to respond to the problem of communication. Instead of going down the path of adapting the teaching in a pragmatic approach, we may also consider what one may call a “prophetic approach,” which requires us to come to know the message with more precision and to proclaim it with more conviction.

What are, then, the alleged “constructive elements” of non-marital unions? We can safely assume that this phrase, mentioned in n. 41 of the Synod’s final report, refers to the presumed characteristics of these unions concretely explicated in its number 27, which speaks, as we remember, of a

(1) a particular stability created by a public bond,[13]

(2) deep affection,

(3) responsibility for children,

(4) an ability to overcome trials,

(5) occasions for guidance with an eye towards the eventual celebration of the Sacrament of Marriage. With regard to same-sex unions, the Synod’s midterm report, in its number 52 mentions the

(6) mutual assistance to the point of sacrifice that is a valuable support in the life of these persons.

Now let us consider first how these supposed elements of truth and sanctification could possibly apply to sexually differentiated de facto unions, then to the divorced and civilly remarried, and finally to same-sex unions.

B. Particular Analyses

1. Cohabitating Couples

a. The Stability of the Public Bond

One needs to distinguish between two different kinds of de facto unions. For some, moving in together is seen as a natural step in the sequence that leads up to marriage. The idea is that the partners need to get to know each other better before being able to decide on a matter as significant as marriage. Others live their cohabitation precisely as a deliberate choice against making a public commitment. In both cases, however, the defining element of de facto unions is the absence of a public bond. The reason is either that one is not sure enough yet or that one considers the presence of such a bond inimical to the spontaneity of love. By definition, constructive element number (1), the stability created by a public bond, is absent from de facto unions.

b. Deep affection

Could there be deep affection between the partners? No doubt. It is also true that this affection, if present, is necessarily not strong enough for the partners to make a lasting public commitment to each other. They live their relationship “until further notice,” as long as the affection holds. Their affection does not want to express itself publically in the institution of marriage. If it did, they would get married. Their affection is thus lived as something that may change from one moment to another. It does not give shape to the project of a common life, because such a project would need a commitment. Hence, constructive element number (2), the deep affection, while not absent, is by definition not strong enough to be literally “constructive” of a common life. Otherwise it would commit.

c. Responsibility for children

How about the responsibility for children? It is true that children may be born into de facto unions, though few cohabiting partners actually desire to have children. But even if they explicitly desired children, the partners’ state of life directly contradicts their responsibility for them. By having common children, the partners become eternally bound to each other in their common father- and motherhood. To this lasting bond, created by the fact that one has become the father or mother of the other’s children, there should, for the good of the children, correspond the lasting bond of being the other’s husband or wife. Exposing their children to a situation in which the ground of their being, namely the love of their father and mother, can possibly be dissolved at a moment’s notice, is irresponsible. While cohabiting partners may certainly make noble efforts in corresponding to the particular and practical day to day responsibilities that go into being a father and mother, the very fact that they have children in their state of cohabitation is irresponsible and their first responsibility to their children would be to get married. Hence, the third “constructive” element, responsibility to common children, is not an element of the de facto union, but rather, if taken seriously, a call to leave the cohabitation and to get married.

d. The ability to overcome trials

Now what about the ability to overcome trials? The main difficulty of the de facto union is that the partner’s relationship depends entirely on the way they feel each given day. Inasmuch as their relationship is until further notice, the main difficulty they will have to deal with is precisely their own relationship. Anthony Giddens points out the paradox intrinsic to unions based on common affection alone: One has to invest for it to last. The more you invest, the more you get hurt when it ends.[14]  While married couples should also never stop trying to win each other and not ever take each other for granted, a de facto union is something inherently more stressful. As Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim explain insightfully: “As long as there were strict commandments and prohibitions regulating married life and daily routine, it was fairly obvious to everyone what was correct, pleasing to God and natural.”[15] If the terms of their relationship precede the partners, if they freely enter into an institution they did not invent, that is, if they marry, then they do not constantly need to renegotiate the terms of their relationship and can start working on the relationship itself, the parameters of which have been accepted by both: “Each spouse knew the rules and also knew that the other one knew them. (Even those who chose to disobey knew what they were doing: they were violating custom and moral attitudes and rebelling against the norms.)”[16]

This has now changed. The fundamental issue for couples who choose to ignore the institution of marriage is to specify what their relationship is all about. They have to define their relationship for themselves, and hence they “have to get involved in a continuing dialogue so that they can invent and pursue their common cause, that is to say, they have to fill up their free private space with compatible definitions of love and marriage. This requires enormous effort, time, and patience, exactly the qualities identified with ‘relationship work.’ And it is very hard work, and often seems almost in vain.”[17] Volker Hage, cited by Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, aptly sums it up this way: “A modern couple—many words and not much loving.”[18]

How would the ability to overcome trials be a constructive element of cohabitation, then, if the primary difficulties the partners wrestle with are those created by defining the terms of their cohabitation? A de facto union is not primarily the realm in which one learns to overcome trials, but it is itself an almost unquenchable source of trials, which could best be overcome by separating or by getting married. Out goes constructive element (4).

e. Guidance toward the Sacrament of Marriage

But could de facto unions not still be seen as “occasions for guidance with an eye towards the eventual celebration of the Sacrament of Marriage”? After all, one gets to know each other better. How can you be sure that you match unless you try living together? Well, we hardly know ourselves. Trying to get to know someone is the task of a lifetime. The other will always surprise us. And both partners are constantly changing, throughout their lives. The idea that there is a perfect match is misleading. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “we always marry the wrong person.”[19] With this, we may assume, he does not want to claim that every marriage has to fail or at least be unhappy, but much rather that the right person is not a given but a task. The other becomes the right person for me, I become the right person for her through many trials. Here, Francesco Botturi points out that “love has opposite characteristics: it is the work of freedom, and it requires work, it has the dimension of duration. To love means wanting-to-love.”[20] For him, this work leads to a “transformation of one’s affection,” one passes “from the regime of passive, repetitive, and unfruitful spontaneity to that of innovative and productive initiative.”[21]

It still remains impressed on my memory how in preparation for my father’s funeral, the priest asked my mother which had been the most beautiful time in her marriage of almost 45 years. She responded that it had been the last 10 years. And it is true, I was able to see it for myself. After about 35 years of ups and downs, of conflicts, several almost-breakups, and certainly many tears, the two had started to reap the fruits of hard labor in cooperation with the miracles of God’s grace: they started to live in harmony of heart and mind, so beautiful and encouraging to see, especially for someone who knew what they had gone through. Cohabiting does not prepare one for this, because it’s not the true thing. The right person is not at the beginning, but at the end. This is not to say that there aren’t people we should not match up with, who are completely incompatible with us, and with whom we could hardly ever succeed in building a common life. But to find this out, one does not need to move in together.

Indeed there are reasons for supposing that the chance of being actually mismatched are higher for couples that cohabit before getting married. The harmful dynamism at the basis of this risk is referred to by sociologists as “sliding versus deciding.”[22] Moving in with someone is not perceived to be a big step. Perhaps in the beginning, they still maintain two apartments, then one gives up his or hers. They are sliding into cohabiting, taking up responsibility for each other without ever deliberately deciding to do so. The emotional bond is growing without there ever being an act of the will by which the partners explicitly chose each other. The decision is never consciously made, but the facts establish themselves on their own. One becomes more and more economically and emotionally intertwined. Perhaps children are born. A breakup can be had only at an immensely high human cost. But one never chooses the other and may still hesitate to get married, because in the end, one still isn’t really sure, as if one still had an option. In sliding into a relationship, one suddenly finds oneself attached to someone whom one might not have chosen otherwise. Cohabitation before marriage tends to reduce one’s freedom in choosing one’s spouse. It could thus hardly be called an “occasion for guidance with an eye towards the eventual celebration of the Sacrament of Marriage.”

f. Cohabitation and friendship

No one doubts that a friendship can have many very good aspects and that cohabiting couples are capable of acts of kindness, generosity, and courage with respect to each other. Their friendship can be the source also of joy and strength. What we would like to suggest here is simply this: wherever there are humanly speaking positive or “constructive” elements present in a de facto union, these derive from the fact that the partners’ relationship is not only a de facto union, but also a type of friendship. Nothing that is, is completely bad. When we speak of the goodness of things, we need to specify in which respect this goodness applies. We have tried to show above that under the aspect of being a de facto union, a de facto union is directly contrary or contradictory to all the goods proper to marriage. If there are indeed good elements present, these are present in it, not inasmuch as it is a de facto union, but inasmuch as it is also a friendship; a friendship, incidentally, that would be greatly helped by the friends becoming spouses or ceasing to be sexual partners.

Thus, we have clearly seen that there is no gradual development from cohabitation to marriage. The two kinds of union follow completely different sets of logic. To get from cohabitation to marriage, what is needed is not a slight perfecting of the goods that are already present, but rather a true metanoia, a change of thinking, a real conversion of one’s ways. This is also the reason why in the not so distant pastoral practice, cohabiting couples were asked to separate before they were allowed to get married in Church. This is a practice that had at times been applied in a hard or reckless way. As a result, it sometimes hurt people, especially if, due to the inadequate catechesis they had previously received, they were not even aware of having done anything wrong. It may nonetheless be worthwhile thinking about reintroducing this practice as a general rule—while allowing for possible exceptions. This would help to underscore the radical difference between marriage and cohabitation and to give previously cohabitating couples the opportunity really to choose each other after having, at times rather inadvertently, slid into each other.

[1] The official Italian text reads: “una notevole stabilità attraverso un vincolo pubblico” (

[2] Relatio Synodi, n. 41.

[3] Péter Erdő, Relatio post disceptationem, October 13, 2014, n. 17 (

[4] John Paul II, Familiaris consortio, n. 34

[5] Cf. for instance the English circle “A”: “We had serious questions about the presentation of the principle of GRADUALITY. We wished to show in our amendments that we are not speaking of the GRADUALITY of DOCTRINE of faith and morals, but rather the gradual moral growth of the individual in his or her actions” (Reports of the Minor Circles, October 16, 2014;

[6] Péter Erdő, Relatio post disceptationem, October 13, 2014, n. 17 (

[7] Erdő, Relatio post disceptationem, n. 20.

[8] John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Redemptoris missio, December 7, 1990, n. 28.

[9] Erdő, Relatio post disceptationem, n. 20.

[10] Cf. for instance the Italian circle “A”: “The Synod fathers have underlined with particular attention the question of the inapplicability of the analogy expressed in the text with what is being said in Lumen gentium n. 8” (“Reports of the Minor Circles,” October 16, 2014;

[11] Erdő, Relatio post disceptationem, n. 52.

[12] Relatio Synodi, n. 55. Cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons, June 3, 2003, n. 4.

[13] The English translation, published on the Vatican website says, “particular stability, legally recognized.” The official Italian text reads as we have rendered it above: “una notevole stabilità attraverso un vincolo pubblico” (

[14] Giddens, The Transformation of Intimacy, 137: “It is a feature of the pure relationship that it can be terminated, more or less at will, by either partner at any particular point. For a relationship to stand a chance of lasting, commitment is necessary; yet anyone who commits herself without reservations risks great hurt in the future, should the relationship become dissolved.”

[15] Ulrich Beck und Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, The Normal Chaos of Love, trans. Mark Ritter and Jane Wiebel, Polity Press, Cambridge, UK 1995, 91.

[16] Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, The Normal Chaos of Love, 91.

[17] Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, The Normal Chaos of Love, 91.

[18] Volker Hage, “Ferne Frauen, fremde Männer,” Die Zeit 51 (December 11, 1988), 59: “Ein modernes Paar: es wird nicht geliebt, es wird geredet.” (Cited in Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, The Normal Chaos of Love, 91.

[19] Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character. Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, 1981, 172.

[20] Francesco Botturi, “Etica degli affetti?” in Francesco Botturi and Carmelo Vigna, eds., Affetti e legami, Vita e Pensiero, Milano 2004, 51.

[21] Francesco Botturi, “Etica degli affetti?” in Francesco Botturi and Carmelo Vigna, eds., Affetti e legami, Vita e Pensiero, Milano 2004, 51.

[22] Cf. for instance: Scott M. Stanley - Galena Kline Rhoades - Howard J. Markman, “Sliding Versus Deciding: Inertia and the Premarital Cohabitation Effect,” Family Relations 55 (October 2006), 499–509.

About the Author
Stephan Kampowski 

Stephan Kampowski is professor of philosophical anthropology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Following his doctoral dissertation on the action theory and moral thought of Hannah Arendt, his recent work has focused on issues in bioethics.

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