Cohabitation, the Catechism, and a Catholic Job

A few weeks ago, FemCatholic shared on Twitter:

One of our followers had her parish job offer rescinded upon the Archdiocese discovering she’s cohabiting with her fiancé. What say you, #CatholicTwitter? Cool or uncool?

Note: the tweet has since been deleted and is no longer available

I asked:

In the meantime, other Catholics had plenty to say. Dan Mattson of Courage International replied:

“This isn’t a question of ‘cool or uncool,’ but of justice, mercy and charity, for all involved. Including for her. It was right and good that this woman’s job offer was rescinded.”

Note: this account (@DanielCMattson) has since been deleted.

Another response:

All in all, the majority position among respondents seemed to be that we needed no additional information, that the Archdiocese was correct to rescind the offer, and that the woman and her fiancè were creating sufficient sin and scandal to be refused employment. But @FemCatholic did have a response to my original question:

Cohabitation in the Catechism

Here I would like to point out the status of cohabitation in defined Catholic teaching (if by cohabitation we mean simply living together, whether or not they are having sex). Certainly the Catechism discusses sexual activity outside of marriage as a grave sin. But nowhere does the Catechism discuss cohabitation or the moral status of couples sharing a dwelling prior to marriage. Like many other areas of social morality, this question is largely one of prudence, rather than objective law, even if prudence might tend to lean one way rather than the other.

Nonetheless, many on Raging Catholic Twitter™ argued that the couple was creating scandal by living together. Some also argued that it’s basically impossible to live together without having sex. Here:

I should say at this point that I do not advise engaged couples to live together. I agree that cohabitation is often an imprudent decision. At the same time, I do think that in some circumstances it’s practically necessary. At my own company, I can put an unmarried “domestic partner” on my health insurance. So if my fiancé works for a Catholic organization that doesn’t provide benefits, living together may be the only way to afford healthcare.

Scandal in the Catechism

And I’m not convinced that, in 2019, mere cohabitation done quietly and explained when necessary can rise to the level of scandal as outlined in paragraph 2284 of the Catechism. According to the Catechism, scandal isn’t just looking like you’re doing something bad. It’s such an appearance that actually leads another to do evil, by becoming your “neighbor’s tempter.” The best way to overcome scandal is to just allow the other an opportunity to explain themselves.

Likewise, gossiping about others sinning or insisting that they are, can actually be a greater scandal than what the couple is (or is not) actually doing. There’s a reason why the Catechism calls out the Pharisees and the scribes (who were obsessed with laws) when discussing scandal: because they made scandal by their presumptive words. In doing so, they also failed to properly respect the reputation of others (see CCC 2477).

My personal opinion is that Catholics who have raised the banner of “scandal” here haven’t really studied (or even glanced at) the relevant portions of the Catechism. Consider the tweet above which failed to recognize that “appearance of scandal” is a redundant statement, revealing either a misunderstanding of the term or an overabundance of caution.

In any event, such Catholics throwing around “Church teaching” here certainly haven’t reviewed teaching on just wages. No one even asked about the role it might play here. Consider this from the Catechism:

“A just wage is the legitimate fruit of work. To refuse or withhold it can be a grave injustice… ‘Remuneration for work should guarantee man the opportunity to provide a dignified livelihood for himself and his family…’ Agreement between the parties is not sufficient to justify morally the amount to be received in wages.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2434

Paragraph 2409 even goes so far as to describe paying unjust wages as “unjustly taking and keeping the property of others” in violation of the seventh commandment.

Indeed, the Catechism considers it a scandal when those

“who establish… social structures leading… to ‘social conditions that, intentionally or not, make Christian conduct and obedience to the Commandments difficult and practically impossible.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2286

I would argue that the scandal here, if one believes cohabitation to be morally impermissible, is the creation of social conditions (low wages) that make it practically impossible for this woman to afford her own place. But no one’s asking me. I’m just writing out into the blog-void…

The engaged woman can’t afford to pay rent on her own with what the parish has offered to pay her. Certainly, she could look for roommates, but suitable roommates may not be available depending on where she lives. (@FemCatholic also proposed having the parish find her a friendly family she could live with for free). In any event, I believe it would be the duty of the parish, when failing to pay a living wage, to work through what they can provide or facilitate to help a Catholic fulfill her moral obligations, given her desire to do so.

Catholic Social Teaching

Catholics often overlook the intrinsic relationship between social norms, sexual morality, and a living wage. The revamped pro-life movement of the last fifteen years represents a recognition of this relationship. There is a reason why sexual morality is just one component of Catholic social teaching. Again, look to the pro-life movement. It realized that abortions can be stopped (even if one at a time) through resources, through the creation of better social conditions. Conversely, abortion is more likely to be pursued in difficult social conditions. This is Catholic social teaching in action.

The great failure of much of the pro-life movement in the 90’s and earlier was to slap a woman on the wrist and tell her it’s bad (i.e., “MURDERER!”), rather than to seek creative and collaborative solutions that actually solve the problem. History reveals that even in places where abortion is illegal, women will risk it if they lack sufficient social support (and before abortion there was infanticide). Even in the hypothetical world where abortion is illegal, it is our Christian duty to provide this support as best we can.

This is the holistic Gospel, rather than the conservative cafeteria. Rather than the “liberal” cafeteria which fails to recognize the inherent connection between Catholic teaching on sexuality and the dignity of both the human person and the earth, the “conservative” cafeteria champions fragmented and presumptive sexual norms to the exclusion of the rest of the Church’s social teaching.

In my opinion, the Archdiocese here appears to have failed its duty. From the outside, it looks like goal of the Archdiocese was to preserve a sort of institutional middle-class cleanliness, rather than to walk a Catholic couple through a complex social and ecclesial situation. I could be wrong, but that’s how it appears to outsiders. This teaches an ecclesiology of barriers for the sake of appearances, rather than of life-giving solutions in our messy lives.

Final Thoughts

(Plot twist: @FemCatholic eventually revealed that her fiancé would be away on active duty until the wedding. But even with that information, as of the tweet, the parish still refused to offer the job.)

I have no problem with encouraging Catholic couples to wait until marriage before living together. This does strike me as the gold standard. However, to hear about a couple cohabitating and to instantly presume that it is never acceptable, to imply they are failing as Catholics, and to talk about how they must be having sex strikes me as the caricaturish gossiping of upper middle class pearl-clutching white suburbanites who don’t know what it’s like to struggle to pay rent and prepare for a wedding while working for the Church. Yeah, I went there. Unfair of me, perhaps. But I went there.

I think their responses were repulsive, but not because of their supposed adherence to Church teaching. I found them repulsive because they took the barest facts and rushed to the harshest judgments. They took a personal situation and simply championed unemployment. The couple may or may not have other options, but the test for us as a Church is whether we care about them enough to explore these questions with them. Communities with a rich ecclesiology ask open-ended questions. They help persons along in their discernment. Satan just takes one look at you and drags you into the pit.


Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops. 

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