…But Should They Live Together?

The two upcoming synods of bishops on “The Pastoral Care of the Family in the Context of the New Evangelization” needs to discuss many serious topics other than communion for the divorced and remarried.  I hope they revisit the standard recommendation that couples in invalid second “marriages” should “live as brother and sister.”

This is bad advice.  Remarriage is too great a catastrophe for so simplistic a solution.

A brother and sister have not come together because of romantic attraction, and they don’t have a history of having sex together.  Or rather, if they did have a history of having sex together, I hope no one would recommend that they continue to live together without supervision.

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The pastoral tradition of the Church has, in fact, dealt with an analog to this question over many centuries.  Especially in rural places, priests have often, since the early Middle Ages, proposed having a live-in housekeeper, just for practicalities.  The bishops have always condemned this practice.  Why?  Because unless they really are brother and sister, there is nothing “practical” about an unmarried man and woman living together.

Indeed, it is one of the many ways we are fearfully and wonderfully made that when a man and woman live together as if husband and wife, their emotions almost automatically spring up to support that relationship, first with romantic attraction, then with sexual attraction.  Spending inordinate amounts of time in intimate situations with someone who is not your spouse is a guaranteed way to move in a spousal direction.  If you cannot marry them, it is a guaranteed way to get yourselves in big trouble.  This, in fact, is precisely how most adultery begins.

Although it may be true that a man and a woman theoretically could live under the same roof “as brother and sister,” healthy human nature, because it is ordered toward marriage, makes this a really impractical idea.

But if we consider more deeply the practical aspects of this arrangement, we may find that it’s even more problematic than it first appears.

Couples without children are not the difficult issue.  The proposal is that man and woman need to stay together, even though they are not married, for the good of their children.

But why is it good for children to have their parents stay together?  Yes, it’s true that it’s good to have a male and a female role model.  But they only can serve those role-model roles when they can express their masculinity and femininity in a healthy marital relationship.  Sexual dysfunction is not good for kids.  Neither is inordinate sexual tension.  What would it feel like to grow up in a home where your parents had to constantly, for decades, fight against their affection for one another?  Just as in a real marriage sexual affection helps parents be good role models, so in a false marriage thwarted attraction prevents it.

A second reason marriage is important for children is because the non-sexual personal intimacy between the parents helps them to work together and think together about their children’s upbringing.  But where there is not a healthy friendship, this cannot happen.  They cannot work together as parents.  They might even work together better at a distance.

A third reason, indeed, is the modeling of friendship itself.  Children learn to be adults by seeing how healthy adults interact.  Marriage needs to be the greatest friendship—“wing to wing, oar to oar,” as Robert Frost put it—because children need to witness what real friendship looks like.  Sexual intimacy can serve to support such friendships—what other two friends could survive so much time together, without a little help from their hormones?  But so too, when hormones work against the relationship, the children suffer.

A fourth reason marriage is good for children is because of its witness of fidelity and permanence.  This is the great tragedy of the situations we are considering.  Parents must be faithful to their children, and so in some way they must be faithful to the other parent of the children.  But the deeper tragedy of the marriage is that, by definition, it can never be a relationship of fidelity and permanence, because it is built on infidelity to the permanence of the first marriage.

Painful though it be, horribly painful, the children learn more about the fidelity of their parents’ love by seeing them stay faithful to their true marriage than by seeing them stay faithful only to the pragmatic arrangement of a second pseudo-marriage.  One signifies staying true to family no matter what.  The other signifies doing whatever works at the time.  This is not a good way to raise children.  Indeed, that is why marriage is important in the first place: because children need better than pragmatic arrangements.  They need fidelity.

Sex does not define marriage.  There are marriages without sex and plenty of sex without marriage.  Marriage creates the context for sex only because marriage itself is something else.  Thus, telling a couple not to have sex does not get to the heart of the problem.  The heart of the problem is that they aren’t married.  No amount of make-believe can fix the problems of children whose parents are not married.

A Real Solution for Children of Second “Marriages”
A real solution to the pastoral care of the children of second “marriages” must begin and end with the recognition that this is a calamity.  Band-aids will not fix it.  Millions of children in the modern world are being raised by parents who have not pledged themselves to be faithful to the life-long friendship that children so desperately need.

The advice to “live as brother and sister” comes dangerously close to washing our hands of this problem.  It is not a pastoral response.

A pastoral response might be built on the analogy of extended family.  Both research and the personal experience of countless children of unwed parents shows that the key to health for children of unwed parents is the fidelity of the broader family, especially grandparents.  Through their extended family, children can still witness healthy gender relationships, healthy life-long friendships, and true fidelity.

Perhaps the Church needs to think seriously—much more seriously than heretofore—about how we can provide that extended family where it is lacking.  Divorce is enough of a disaster for our civilization that we need a massive pastoral response from the Church.

Perhaps it could take the form of godparents: Christian families making life-long commitments to help these children and their parents navigate the devastation our culture of marital infidelity has brought on them.

Perhaps it could take the form of new religious orders, and new commitment from old religious orders, to reach out to people in these situations.

Perhaps it could take the form of serious parish-level commitments, to welcome the broken family into a bigger community of families.

Perhaps it could take the form of diocesan commitments to support group living arrangements.

In any case, no solution can be found until we recognize the severity of the problem.  For these children, the problem is not that their parents are having sex.  The problem is that they aren’t married.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “Henry VIII’s First Interview with Anne Boleyn” painted by Daniel Maclise in 1835.

  • Eric Johnston

    Eric Johnston is a father of five who teaches theology at Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology at Seton Hall University. His principal work is on Thomas Aquinas’s theology of marriage, as well as related topics in social thought and the theology of nature and grace. He blogs on spiritual theology at professorjohnston.com.

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