Challenges of the new Forms of Cohabitation

The mobility of modern society has opened up space for various forms of cohabitation. Besides the families-matrimony, formed within a socio-juridical and sacramental framework, we see ever more frequently families-couple (cohabitation and free unions), that are formed consensually, outside of the institutional framework, and that last as long as there is a couple. They give rise to the consensual non-conjugal family. The introduction of divorce has created single-parent families (a mother or father with children); multi-parent families (with children from previous marriages), as well as same sex unions (men or women), that in several countries have attained a legal framework that guarantees them stability and social recognition.

Let’s try to better understand these forms of cohabitation. A Brazilian specialist, Marco Antônio Fetter, founder of the first University of the Family, in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, with all its academic degrees, defines the family as: «a group of persons with common objectives and strong affective bonds and ties, each with a defined role, where the roles of father, mother, children and siblings naturally appear» (See:

The family has undergone a great transformation since the introduction of birth control, and techniques of preserving fertility, which are now incorporated into the culture as something normal, in spite of the opposition of several Churches.

Conjugal sexuality has gained more intimacy and spontaneity, because, with such means and family planning, it is freed from unforeseen and unwanted pregnancy. Children cease to be the inevitable result of sexual relations, and are chosen by mutual agreement.

The emphasis on sexuality as personal realization has facilitated the appearance of forms of cohabitation that are not properly matrimony. An expression of this are the free and consensual unions with no commitment other than the mutual realization of the couple or the cohabitation of same sex couples.

Such practices, as new as they may be, must also include an ethical and spiritual perspective. It is important to be certain that they are expressions of mutual love and trust. Where there is love, a Christian reading of the phenomenon shows that something is occurring that has to do with God, because God is love (1 John 4,12-16). Thus, there should be no prejudice or discrimination. Instead, there must be respect, and openness to understanding these facts and also to place them before God. If the persons assume their relationship with responsibility they should not be denied spiritual relevance. An atmosphere is created that helps overcome any temptation to promiscuity, and strengthens the fidelity and stability that are the fruits of all relationships. The immutable nucleus of the family is the affection, caring of one for the other and the desire to be together, being also open, when possible, to the procreation of new lives.

If this is so, besides the institutional character of the family, one must particularly consider its relational character. It is important to see the complex interplay of the relationships that occur between the couple. In those relationships there is life, expressions of love, of fidelity, of encounter and happiness, in a word, the permanent side appears. The institutional side is socially legitimate and assumes very distinct forms, according to the culture, Roman, Celtic. Chinese, Hindu, etc.

Cross-cultural analysis has shown that when there is a strong and healthy social-familiar capital, it gives rise to a high degree of trust in the other, and there is less violence and more social participation. When this social capital is diluted, little by little crises appear and the affective relationship unravels.

The issue is to overcome certain moralities that help no one, that prejudge the different forms of family or cohabitation, because of one detail, and makes us lose the values that are certainly present, and sincerely lived before God.

The main object of Church doctrine on the family is to strengthen the human and moral values that must be lived there. It is that way, for instance, in the Apostolic Letter, Familiaris Consortio (1981) and in the Letter to the Families (1994) by John Paul II. Both documents emphatically affirm that «the family is a community of persons founded on love and animated by love, whose origin and goal is the divine Us”.

The relational dimension curiously predominates over the institutional in the Familiaris Consortio (1981). It defines the family as «a collection of inter-personal relationships –conjugal relationships, paternity/maternity, filiation, fraternity– through which each person is introduced to the human family».

What would become of the family and its members if the inter-subjective relationships of affection and caring, the language of enchantment and dream, did not burn within them? Without that motor, that continuously animates our path, without that niche of sensitivity, no one could tolerate the inherent difficulties of all inter-subjective relationship, or the limitations of the human condition.

These values carry the family beyond itself. The dream is precisely that, beginning with family values, in its different forms, there will arise the family of school, family of work, family of community, family of nation, and family of humanity, finally arriving at the family of Earth, the final springboard to the family of God.

Translation of Melina Alfaro,,

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