Pope Francis used a recent wedding ceremony to potentially signal a more forgiving stance on the part of the Catholic Church towards premarital relations. Among the 20 couples married by the Pope at Saint Peter’s Basilica on Sunday were several who had already lived together, including one that already had a child, according to The New York Times.
Living together before marriage, or cohabitation, has long been a taboo in the Catholic Church although cohabitation has never been a reason that the sacrament of marriage could be denied to a couple. While the situation is handled differently depending on the diocese, marriages like this take place on a regular basis, but some dioceses have different ways of dealing with the issue. For instance, some United States dioceses will recommend a simpler, smaller wedding for couples that refuse to live apart prior to their marriage, while others believe a standard wedding is more appropriate.
Some dioceses have taken hard stances against cohabitation. For instance, in 2011, the Archbishop of Santa Fe, Michael Sheehan, issued a letter to be read in all parishes that people who were cohabiting should not receive communion, be godparents or serve as confirmation sponsors. In May of this year the Diocese of Cincinnati came out with a new morality clause for Catholic School teachers specifically banning cohabitation and sex outside of marriage.
Given the marriages Francis has recently presided over, Vatican observers believe that it will be interesting to see the fruits of the upcoming synod on marriage and family taking place at the Vatican starting on October 5. The ramifications of the conference could be far-reaching, including pressuring the aforementioned dioceses to take a more open stance with regards to cohabitation and similar issues.
Pope Francis’ latest action is seen as being in line with past public statements, aimed at fostering a spirit of inclusiveness and desire to approach all things with a merciful spirit. In July of 2013 Francis asked, “Who am I to judge?” in regards to gay clergy members “who seek God and have good will.” Vatican observers point to this and other comments as evidence that Francis has not looked to judge, but to mend divisive situations within the Church.
Moments like these are becoming commonplace for Francis. He has developed a style of reaching out to average people. From his decision not to live in the luxurious papal apartment to refusing to ride in a limo, he has constantly attempted to connect with what he sees as the common man or woman. “Pope Francis speaks as though the vulnerable, poor and forgotten are members of his own family-as indeed they are,” Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky wrote earlier this year in a reflection on Pope Francis’ first year.
Although he has not changed any official church doctrine, Pope Francis continues to take the dialogue surrounding issues of marriage in a new direction.