“We have three groups of people who are living contrary to the Gospel teaching on marriage: those who cohabit; those who have a merely civil union with no previous marriage; and those who have a civil union who were married before. These people are objectively living in a state of mortal sin and may not receive holy Communion.” Those were the words of Archbishop Michael Sheehan of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, N.M., in a pastoral letter which was read at all weekend Masses throughout the archdiocese on the Fourth Sunday of Lent.

When news of Archbishop Sheehan’s letter hit the Internet in early April, commentators and blogs reacted.

Some bloggers declared, “Amen, way to go archbishop!”

Others proclaimed, “Another punishing statement from the institutional Church which seems to be fixated on the letter of the law. Isn’t this contrary to the teachings of Jesus, who welcomed all at the banquet table?”

In the Diocese of Colorado Springs, Colo., Bishop Michael Sheridan said of his fellow bishop’s letter, “The archbishop has made a point of the Church’s long-standing teaching that when you are in the state of mortal sin you may not receive communion until you are reconciled with God and the Church. To me, it [the letter] makes sense. He is highlighting an obvious teaching of the Church.”

According to Bishop Sheridan, the problem of couples living together before marriage is a serious moral problem facing the Church. He says that, despite study after study stating that cohabitation is more often than not a recipe for marriage failure, the percentage of cohabitating couples just keeps growing.

In the Diocese of Peoria, Ill., Tim Roder, who heads the diocesan Office for Marriage and Family, says that of the 600 or so couples who annually go through his diocese’s marriage-preparation programs, around 50% are living together. Furthermore, he added that, on average, 80% of couples who present themselves for marriage are already sexually active with each other.

How did we get here? In the eyes of Bishop Sheridan, it’s symptomatic of the culture at large. “We live in a world of moral relativism,” he noted. “The contraceptive mentality is certainly a cause as well. We live in a time when sexual relations have no particular consequences; certainly not children. So it goes to figure that cohabitation and premarital sex is part of that bigger package.”

But some learn that the hard way. In the early 1980s, Kim Bronder moved in with her future husband Jerry, once he presented her with a ring and they had set a wedding date.

Kim was raised in a non-religious family, while Jerry was baptized and raised Catholic. “We went from living together to being married and living together, and the only defining moment between it was this big party called the wedding,” recalls Kim.

She credits Retrouvaille, a weekend retreat designed to help heal hurting marriages, as their saving grace when their marriage was on the rocks in 1989. Kim entered the Catholic Church in 1990, the couple has raised their three children in the faith, and they now assist with Retrouvaille in the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kan.

“Women will often time tell me in confidence that they feel guilty or ashamed that they lived with their boyfriend or fiancé before they were married,” said Kim. “They often say that wish that would have been more pure for their spouse on their wedding night.”

The Bronders’ story is one that Father Philip Halfacre, pastor of St. Patrick’s Church in Ottawa, Ill., has heard quite often and why firm teaching is needed. “When we sincerely strive to conform our lives to what Jesus has revealed to us through his Church, all of our relationships are enriched because of it,” he says.

He does between 10 to 20 marriages annually.

Father Halfacre, author of Genuine Friendship: The Foundation for All Personal Relationships, Including Marriage and the Relationship With God, says that it has been his experience in his more than 20 years as a priest that the more a cohabitating couple can see the reasons behind the Church’s teaching on sexuality and marriage and not a set of old-fashioned rules, then they are more likely to embrace it. This could mean the couple accepting to live apart for a time before the wedding and diving into the theology that accompanies the sacrament of marriage.

“While the Church’s teaching is true,” notes Father Halfacre “it isn’t obvious. It frequently needs mature reflection to be able to, as it were, connect the dots.”

In reflecting on 15 years of marriage with his wife Megan, St. Louis native Frank Hogrebe is grateful that they lived chastely before their wedding. “Megan was a great treasure which I had to patiently wait for,” he noted. “She was burned into my heart and mind as this priceless jewel from the start.”

In the Diocese of Marquette, Mich., Father Ben Hasse, who has been a priest for just two years, works with college students at Northern Michigan University, sharing Church truth on love and marriage.

To that end, Father Hasse is out to plant seeds and instruct young people on what marriage and sexuality in the eyes of the Church is all about long before they have a wedding date on the calendar. For instance, at his parish, he has started a vibrant youth program. With his ministry at NMU, he has brought in some dynamic natural family planning teaching couples, as well as popular chastity speakers such as Jason and Crystalina Evert.

As he says, “If we really want to make a significant impact on the decisions they are going to make in their 20s, we have to be involved in that long before marriage prep.”

In Peoria, Tim Roder presents chastity as a key element in a successful marriage.

“Chastity is absolutely essential to our training if we want to experience authentic love,” Roder says. “So I like to have couples think about it in a positive way and present it as a virtue that is needed before marriage and in marriage. He [Christ] came to redeem us and our flesh, and this would include our sexuality, the way we express our love most passionately. We can always come back to God, but we cannot do it alone.”

Father Halfacre adds, “When we sincerely strive to conform our lives to what Jesus has revealed to us through his Church, all of our relationships are enriched because of it. God wants us to correspond to his plan for us so that we become the men and women that we are capable of becoming.”

Eddie O’Neill writes from Green Bay, Wisconsin.