US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Let's stop harassing couples who finally commit

By Father Andrew Greeley | Print this pagePrint |
Live-in couples are caught in a subculture of sex without commitment, says Father Andrew Greeley. But when they finally decide to get married, the church (and their parents) should cheer them on, not give them the third degree.

Every Catholic priest ought to see the film High Fidelity. I offer this advice not because it stars Chicagoans John and Joan Cusack and not because it's filmed in Chicago—the Chicago of driving rain and somber elevated tracks. Rather, priests should see it so that they might understand the commitment terror of superannuated adolescent males. Parents should see it so they might have sympathy with their sons and daughters.

Priests are exercised today about how they should respond to couples who have been cohabiting when they come into the rectory to arrange for marriage. Some of us say that it's none of our business, that we have no right to pry into their private lives, and that canon law forbids us to deny them the sacrament of Matrimony. We should treat them like everyone else, celebrate their courage in deciding to get married, and make the wedding ceremony such a happy event that even the crustiest of fallen-away Catholics will have some second thoughts.

Others, however, say that we ought not to let young people "get away" with living in sin. They should be punished for their sinfulness and denied the sacrament until they reform their lives. They insist on measures that will cause the couple to seek a church wedding elsewhere. One of them should move out of the apartment, they should not sleep together in the time remaining before the marriage, they should go to Confession the day before the marriage so they don't receive the sacrament in the state of mortal sin. Some priests even advocate delaying the sacrament until the couple shows some signs of repentance.

Some parents, it is much to be feared, agree with the priests. They don't want their son to marry a "tramp" that lived with him before they were married.

Priests argue that sociological data show that there is a correlation between cohabitation and future divorce. Therefore we have to "get tough" on people who are cohabiting. Sure, everyone knows that if you deny the sacraments to enough young men and women who have cohabited, then everyone else will stop cohabiting, right? Moreover, the correlation is probably spurious. Most likely those who cohabit as a "preparation" for marriage seem already to have the kind of family backgrounds that incline them to divorce.

John Cusack is perfect as the 26-year-old adolescent male who drifts through life without goals or commitments, mortally afraid of closing off his options by making a commitment to anyone, much less the "high fidelity" of marriage. He is capable of hesitant love and fierce jealousy, but, alas, not of choice. To choose to commit yourself to one woman is to foreclose the option of someday finding someone else who would make an even better wife. He imagines that young women always end their relationships with him when in fact it is the other way around. He is a pathetic sad sack, and, worse yet, he knows it.

You have children like that? Your son is living with a beautiful young woman like the Cusack character is? She's not Catholic either? (How can she be when she's Danish!)

This is the kind of young man who is likely to wash up on the rectory steps these days. He has taken the big leap toward marriage and eventual parenthood, but is terrified. He needs understanding and encouragement rather than draconian rules.

One may lament the culture that has created the dilemma that it is possible to have sex regularly without commitment. One may argue that adolescent men like the Cusack character deserve what they get. However, turning the sacrament of marriage into an obstacle course is not going to change that culture. He is trying, however belatedly, to become an adult. Exchanging cohabitation for marriage is a major step toward maturity. How in God's name, quite literally, can we punish him for wanting to make that step? Ought we not to celebrate the transformation of life on which he is cautiously embarking?

At the end of the film I sat in the theater and wondered about what the scene at the rectory would be when the Cusack character and his blond bride-to-be showed up. What if he encountered a priest who, persuaded that he was God, would want to punish the past instead of rejoicing in the future?

Maybe I'm wasting my time recommending the film to priests. Those who think they're God would not get the point. In the film his mother is vastly relieved. She likes the girl and thinks she'll make a good wife and mother. In fact, she's on her side against her boy child. Sometimes it is that way in the world outside the movies (perhaps more often than not). But in other families the parents (and the siblings) make it clear to the bride-to-be that they think she's a whore and they will never like her. Never.

In defense of both of the young people, it must be said that they are caught in a terrible subculture in which marriage is delayed all through people's 20s. There aren't many young people who delay sex that long. Therefore it is predictable-though not praiseworthy-that there be many different kinds of premarital sex. One would very much like to see the subculture change, but one doesn't change it by being nasty to those who are caught up in it. Sympathy and understanding do not mean approval.

I think the subculture will change eventually-it always does. But it will change because those who live in it figure out that it is a hellish way to live.

Eventually, of course, marriages come about the same way they always do-the woman often demands closure and the man often discovers he doesn't want to lose her. It's a time for celebration in both the home and the rectory office. It is a happy ending and a new beginning.

This article appeared in the June 2001 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 66, No. 6, pages 24-25).