One couple dating chastely—the woman was a daily communicant—went on vacation together for a few days, sharing the same room. I asked the woman, who had been coming to me for spiritual direction, “You didn’t mention this to your spiritual director, huh?”
She assured me that nothing happened. When I asked if they had a good time, she said it was awful.
“Well, good,” I replied. “That’s a blessing. Think about this for a minute. You come and go from the same room every day. Do the people staying there know you’re not having sex? You can’t very well put a sign on the door saying, ‘For those who might care, we want you to know that we are not having sex in here.’ And what if someone staying there sees you in church, receiving Communion? Will people think the Church has changed its teaching on chastity? Or will they think, ‘Here’s another hypocritical Catholic who receives the Eucharist sacrilegiously’? And this is to say nothing of the temptations involved in such a situation.” Being a Christian means not only living the faith, but also avoiding giving the appearance of wrongdoing to others.
Some say, “If you get the wrong idea, it’s because you have a dirty mind.” Not so. If someone presumes that you are doing what 98 percent of other people are doing in the same situation, it’s not their fault. It’s yours. All we do that even gives the appearance of wrongdoing can have a bad influence on others, and we are responsible for that influence.
I was preparing another couple to get married. I needed to contact the bride-to-be. When I called her number, I got the phone company’s recording: “This number has been changed to the following number . . .” It was the fiancé’s number!
Now, this woman was in our St. Catherine Society for single women striving for a deeper relationship with the Lord. They had been doing everything right. I was so disappointed.
So I called them. The fiancé answered, and I asked, “What have you done? This is terrible!” He told me they weren’t having sex. “It’s still a huge problem,” I said. “You need to come in to see me as soon as possible.”
The guy called me back shortly after and asked, “Is there any hope, Father?” (They were looking forward big-time to their wedding at our cathedral.)
I answered, “That depends on you and what you do.”
When they came in to talk to me, they told me she had already moved out. I pointed out that people would be scandalized. They got it. They confessed that they hadn’t thought about the scandal it would give to others.
She told me later, “It was a good thing that I moved out. It wasn’t going well.”
One of the things a good Christian does is to try to think with the mind of Christ. The little bracelets that read “WWJD” (What would Jesus do?) are not proposing some sweet little sentiment. Rather, they point to a commitment to a radically different way of life, different from our pagan world.
To be sure, there are some qualifications here. Is it appropriate for a woman to invite her man to come with her to visit her family in another state, and for the family to provide him a room, apart from hers? Certainly, especially if the normal Christian precautions are taken.
Is it appropriate for a woman to go off on a pilgrimage or tour to Europe or the Holy Land with her boyfriend with several others, each staying in a different room? No problem. Certainly, a couple wishing to violate that situation could do so, but the setup is reasonable for devout Christians, especially since the usual arrangement is for each to have a roommate of the same sex.
But then we see the coed house situation, with a couple of men and a couple of women sharing a house, though they are not dating each other. Not good. They are blurring the line between men and women living together, as if it didn’t really matter that the house is coed. It matters. I am sure that if they asked the Lord Jesus if such an arrangement was okay, he would say no. True Christians not only try to live chastely, but also try to cultivate an environment that makes it easier for everyone to live chastely.
I heard recently of a couple who lived together chastely before their marriage, who, realizing the appearance that gave, refrained from receiving Communion until they married. I’m not sure if they refrained for fear of being seen as hypocrites, receiving Communion while appearing to be fornicating, or because of the sinfulness of giving scandal. Regardless, doing something that would keep you from receiving Communion is to have very wrong priorities. Receiving the Eucharist should be the profound desire of every Catholic.
In fact, I helped a young convert to the Faith prepare for her wedding shortly after she joined the Church. She was living with her fiancé chastely. When I explained the scandal of that, she refrained from Communion until she found a different place to live, which she did rather quickly.
Many of those who live together before marriage claim they are doing so to lower their chances of divorce once married. As I have written elsewhere, studies have shown that at worst, living together before marriage increases the chances of divorce, or at best, it doesn’t decrease the chances. However, couples who pray together have a divorce rate of one in a thousand. If they really want to lower their chances of divorce, they should choose the latter option.
Here is the testimony, of a young couple who moved in together chastely and came to realize how wrong it was:
We did not see anything wrong with buying and sharing a house, provided that we left out the sex. . . . We bought a house together and shared a bed for a year before our wedding, and we saved sexual intercourse until we were married.
However, after several years of marriage and spiritual growth (fueled in part by using [natural family planning] . . .) we realized that what we did was wrong. Even without the sex, living together was wrong. . . .
We deeply regret that our families, our friends (even close ones), and our neighbors — who all knew we are Roman Catholics — assumed we were fornicating. . . .
We brought shame on our Church. Our examples as the oldest children in our families may have contributed to the choices of some younger siblings to cohabitate. One or two friends may have gotten the wrong idea, too. Someday we will have to explain to our son (now turning three) that we are not examples to follow in this matter. The term that describes all these ill effects is “scandal” which is leading others to temptation and sin, and bringing shame upon a religion or community. . . .
Even though we waited for intercourse, we shared moments at a level of intimacy that God probably intended for marital bonding, moments like arousing caresses and kisses, falling asleep in each other’s arms, waking up together. . . . It is the familial daily sharing of these that is God’s gift to cement a marriage. We should have waited (CCL Family Foundations, March-April 2001, the Couple to Couple League, p. 20).
Is giving scandal so bad? Well, let’s put it this way. Suppose your bad example was the deciding factor in another couple’s decision to live together (unchastely). Is that bad enough? Scripture makes it clear that we are responsible for the scandal we give others. Jesus had the apostles pay the temple tax even though they were exempt, lest they “give offense” to the Jewish officials (Matt. 24:27). And Jesus said, “It would be better for anyone who leads astray one of these little ones who believe in me, to be drowned by a millstone around his neck in the depths of the sea . . . woe to the one through whom scandal comes!” (Matthew 18:6,7). Pretty serious, no?
It’s not enough to live chastely. We must avoid things that give even the strong appearance of sin.