Sociologically speaking, little comparison can be made between the form of concubinage that was popular in the Middle Ages and today’s marital alternative known as cohabitation. The medieval pastime endured for centuries and was deeply rooted in feudal society’s pagan history. It generally took the form of a nobleman, unmarried or married, keeping a woman of lower rank or from the peasantry in his home to provide sexual favors. Unsurprisingly, medieval concubines produced many illegitimate children, with many of the bastard daughters growing up to become concubines themselves.
The concern for maintaining a family’s social status meant that concubinage would rarely lead to marriage. In most cases of modern cohabitation, however, there is an intention on the part of the couple to eventually get married, giving the relationship some sense of permanence. Recent statistics demonstrate, however, that a majority of cohabitating couples eventually break up, including couples that eventually do get married. One well known fact about remarried people is that their second marriage is more likely to end in divorce, the third even more, etc. The same goes for cohabitating couples. Advocating cohabitation is giving dangerous and costly advice.
From the Church’s standpoint there is one particular point at which modern cohabitation and medieval concubinage converge; it regards both parties as engaging in protracted fornication, institutionalized sex between unmarried persons. At the Council of Trent the Church defined those in such relationships as committing a grave sin, even rising to the level of a canonical crime:
Wherefore, the holy council, in order to provide suitable remedies against this great evil, decrees that if these concubinaries, whether unmarried or married, whatever may be their state, dignity or profession, have not, after a threefold admonition in reference to this matter by the ordinary, also ex officio, put away their concubines and separated themselves from intimacy with them, they shall be punished with excommunication from which they shall not be absolved till they have in fact obeyed the admonition given them. But if, regardless of censures, they shall continue in concubinage for a year, the ordinary shall proceed against them with a severity in keeping with the character of the crime. Women, whether married or unmarried, who live publicly with adulterers or concubinaries, if after a threefold admonition they do not obey, shall be punished severely in accordance with their guilt by the local ordinaries, even though not called upon by anyone to do so, ex officio; and if the ordinaries should deem it expedient, they shall be expelled, even with the aid of the secular arm, if need be, from the city or the diocese; the other penalties imposed on adulterers and concubinaries shall remain in force (Section 24, Chapter 8, from EWTN).
By simple logic, the Council would have viewed cohabitation in the same way.
Referring to couples attending marriage prep courses in Argentina, Pope Francis recently stated,
“They prefer to cohabitate, and this is a challenge, a task. Not to ask ‘why don’t you marry?’ No, to accompany, to wait, and to help them to mature, help fidelity to mature. …I’ve seen a lot of fidelity in these cohabitations, and I am sure that this is a real marriage, they have the grace of a real marriage because of their fidelity…” (from Rorate-Caeli).
He uses the word “fidelity” three times. Does the word even belong in the context of a discussion of cohabitation?
What about fidelity to the Church’s prohibition of unmarried sex?