The Crux of Cohabitation

Family Matters

You wrote recently about ways to approach adult children who cohabitate. You gave some helpful advice, but I was disappointed that you did not focus on the seriously sinful nature of living together and being sexually active before marriage.

We heard from more than one reader who had the same concern about our earlier column on this subject (“Cohabitation Conundrum,” Feb. 22-28).

One reader thought the best course of action was to make it clear to the couple that they were in a state of mortal sin. Another suggested not welcoming the child back into the parents' home until the couple had separate residences. All in all, while no one disagreed with our practical advice concerning the harmful effects living together has on a couple, they thought we skirted the more important spiritual and moral issues.

Certainly, the moral question is open and shut. Cohabitation is wrong, period. There's no disagreement here on that point. But it's also the part of the argument that must be handled the most deftly. Why? Because the cohabiting couple has already decided their arrangement is not just good but right. They need a radical change in perspective: in a word, conversion. This is not likely to be brought about with a simple appeal to Christian morality. In fact, if you play that one note too loudly or too often, they might stop talking to you altogether. Then chances increase that they will remain lost in their sin for a very long time.

And speaking of sin, the Church teaches that there are three factors in determining whether an act is mortally sinful — grave matter, full knowledge and consent of the will. There is no question that cohabitation is grave matter and that the couple is consenting to it. The tricky part comes when considering their level of knowledge about what they are doing.

Was “Jack” raised in a thoroughly Catholic home with two loving parents who made sure he was catechized effectively? Does he know full well what the Church teaches, believe in his heart that it is true and yet still reject it? For him, a tough-loving, line-in-the-sand approach might be appropriate.

Meanwhile “Jill” was born out of wedlock and raised by a single mother. Her mother was unchurched, so Jill was never catechized at all as a child. Later in life, when Jill was a young adult, her mother got right with God through the Church and did her best to share the faith with her daughter. But Jill has remained unmoved by her mother's attempts to witness the faith, let alone her pleas to move out of the young man's apartment.

Jill certainly does not have the same level of culpability as Jack, and it isn't hard to see why the parental strategy that worked with him won't work with her.

Taking a cue from St. Paul, we need to meet people where they are when we bring them the Gospel. When dealing with a cohabiting child, a parent's words and actions should be guided by one question: How can I best motivate my child to reject sin and follow Christ?

Tom and Caroline McDonald are family-life directors for the