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The scandal of taking scandal

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So, although there is nothing in canon law which blocks a cohabitating couple from getting married … still, one can argue, what the pope did was scandalous, confusing, and pastorally unsound.


Last month the pope married 20 couples in St. Peter's, and some of them had children, and some were already living together. Not a few of the faithful were disturbed. "The marriage of people cohabiting," one blogger railed, "is a destructive scandal and offensive to those brave parish priests who over the years have steadfastly refused to marry couples who are living together outside of marriage." At the very least the pope seemed to be sowing confusion. After all, he is the Sovereign Pontiff, "not some country bumpkin of a parish priest," as a friend wrote, and people follow his example.

Let's strengthen that argument. Matrimony is something holy; so couples should try to approach it blamelessly; but to cohabit is to "live in sin," or at least to be not set against avoiding sin. Again, Christian marriage is a vocation, a change in state, which gives a definite and new significance to one's baptismal vocation; but cohabiting couples will likely view marriage as "more of the same," but now with a blessing. Again, few cohabiting couples reject contraception, and contraception calls into question one's openness to new life, but couples cannot even get married, validly, unless they are open to life. Again, as counselors and pastors can attest, cohabitation leads couples to avoid dealing with serious problems in their relationship that, prudence would dictate, need to be addressed before they get married.

So, although there is nothing in canon law which blocks a cohabitating couple from getting married -- as far as I am aware, two unrepentant murderers could get married (so long as neither of them did away with the former spouse of the other) -- still, one can argue, what the pope did was scandalous, confusing, and pastorally unsound.

That at least is what people were worried about, and, as I think we can see if we reflect on it, we do an injustice to these people if we dismiss their concerns as evidence of a small-minded pharisaism.

How do we reply to these charges? First as to pastoral judgment: he is the pope. More than that, everything we know about has past, and all his actions so far, indicate that he is a thoughtful and prudent man: actually, that, although he clearly is merciful and compassionate, he has no patience for duplicity, hypocrisy, or bad spirit. So we can presume -- and it is impossible to fault a Catholic for presuming -- that pastorally it was spiritually right and upbuilding, that these particular cohabiting couples (all two or three of them) got married.

It's not hard to imagine how. Of course facts and circumstances are infinite, but one need find only one plausible case to show that the pope's decision could have been sound. Suppose the couple had young children, needing two caregivers for daily life. Suppose economically it was not possible for one of them to live in separate housing. Suppose they had a genuine conversion experience and had of their own accord ceased having relations, or slept in separate rooms, until their relationship could be regularized.

You doubt that economic conditions can seem to impose a necessity? St. John Paul II in "Familaris consortio," when he addressed cohabitation, said that they could: "there are those who are driven to such situations by extreme ignorance or poverty, sometimes by a conditioning due to situations of real injustice" (81), and then the saint adds, most aptly for the Pope Francis's accusers, "The pastors and the ecclesial community should take care to become acquainted with such situations and their actual causes, case by case." Yes, Pope Francis' action destroys the pastoral rule, if anyone had foolishly held it, that in no case should a cohabiting couple be married; but it does not touch the rule that generally they should not, and it does nothing to establish the opposite foolish rule, that without exception they should.

And must it always be the case that a couple should live in separate dwellings if they wish to be, or even to appear, chaste? One might say puckishly that the longer couples cohabit, actually, the less probable the presumption that they are having relations (not so for happily married, devout couples, the social science shows). But lots of couples do succeed in abstaining by choice for months or years; this is not unbelievable -- the husband is a soldier on campaign; they practice NFP; they practice NFP and the wife is so ill that pregnancy would be fatal; and so on. Or a devout Catholic couple discovers that their marriage is invalid and needs to be convalidated: it would be absurd to insist that they must live apart in the meantime.

"But in the latter case everyone presumes they are married, so there is no scandal in their living together, but in the cohabiting case everyone knows they are not married, so there is scandal, until they live apart." (We are using the word "scandal" in the technical sense of potentially by example leading others to sin.) Actually, in the latter case, close friends can and often do know they are not validly married, and yet such friends would probably not be troubled or "scandalized," exactly for the reason mentioned.

And in any case the objection helps because it shows where the scandal would have to be, if anywhere: It's in the cohabitation, right, not the getting married? And can it be a scandal to remove scandal?

Michael Pakaluk is professor and chair of philosophy at Ave Maria University.

Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Ethics and Social Philosophy in the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America. His book on the gospel of Mark, ‘‘The Memoirs of St. Peter,’’ is available from Regnery Gateway.

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