Three months ago, I got married. While still engaged, my then fiancee and I found ourselves explaining our living arrangements to curious parties. No, we were not living together. No, we were not planning on living together before we were married. In fact, with my fiancee's lease up two weeks before our wedding, she was going to move in, while I would be kicked out to live with a friend.
The reactions to such an explanation were revealing. Conservative Christians, both Catholic and non-Catholic alike, seemed to understand implicitly. But those who did not share our philosophy about sex and marriage seemed befuddled.
It's important to note here that living together before marriage is not, absolutely speaking, sinful. Fornication is sinful; living together is a good example of a near occasion of sin since, though fornication need not take place, it increases the likelihood that it will.
There is another reason living together is imprudent. It gives rise to scandal. Here we refer, not to the tabloid sense of the word, but to its Catholic meaning: an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. If a younger sibling sees an older sibling living with his fiancee, he will see this as morally acceptable.
In point of fact, by youngest brother assumed that we would be living together before marriage. He thought that this "premarital preparation" was a necessary step in the process, a matter which was swiftly corrected. Even the young are skilled in neologism.
I bring all this up in light of the 2014 Synod of Bishops which is presently taking place in Rome. The subject matter is marriage and the family. Reports on the synod have diverged wildly. Rather than seek to reconcile the reports, I want to clarify a matter of some confusion.
There is a notion that every Church pronouncement is a matter of doctrine. So if a Pope gives a speech about how the welfare state must respect the dignity of the poor, this is seen as proof that Catholics must accept the welfare state, and in whatever forms it may take. This is to conflate doctrine, which does not change, and policy, which, because it seeks to work out the good in the midst of human frailty, can. In this case, there are any number of arrangements which respect the human dignity of the poor, and a great many more that do not. There is no one Catholic way to address this issue.
The synod concerns itself with policy. Speculation that the Church will drop Her opposition to homosexual relations can be easily dismissed. This doctrine cannot and will not be altered, neither in this synod, nor in any subsequent council. However, the Church can make alterations to policy recommendations for pastors who must deal with laity who do not have the same sense of sin as that taught by the Catechism.
If a couple comes to a priest for instruction prior to marriage, it would be easy for him to dismiss them for cohabiting. But this would mean he would miss an opportunity for catechesis. If the couple is obdurate, and intends to remain in sin, I do not see how the priest can marry them, but if they are receptive to reconciliation and reform, he has a chance to prepare them for a sacrament of much grace, grace that will be indispensable throughout their married lives.
Other cases are trickier. What does the Church do with homosexual couples who are "married"? What about those who are divorced and have not obtained annulments? Like the cohabiting couple, we can simply exclude them, but the Church should seek to bring these lost sheep back into the fold. These are important questions in the west, where the divorce rate hovers around fifty percent and gay marriage is increasingly accepted by the secular legal system.
One last point: it is very easy for those of us who live in the west to forget that these aspects of marriage and family life, though important, are not the be all and end all of the matter. The Church is catholic, and thus must concern itself with the laity everywhere. The family is as important in Europe and North America as it is in Africa, or Asia, or South America. Hopefully, the synod will reflect that reality when it issues its report.