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Christian Morality Challenged by Cohabitation in Africa

(Translator’s note: I use the term “cohabitation” to render the French union libre, or “free union.” In Kenya we use the term “come-we-see.” In South Africa the terms “trial marriage” and “living together” are used.)

Our contribution about cohabitation in Africa is to demonstrate that the future of humanity, and of the African person in particular, lies in reasserting the value of stability of marital relations advocated by African ancestral culture. This value is not found in the contract of trial marriages. Recognising that every married life, even when it is consolidated by a religious marriage, brings its trials, disappointments and complexities, we are still correct in inviting couples always to feel encouraged to dig more deeply into the gains of the past and into what is sprouting in the present, so that they can see better into the future and choose the path that respects their dignity.

The many problems that our present society is experiencing in the disintegration of families, in serial divorce, in fertility treatment, etc. are perhaps indicating that people are in crisis in relationship to themselves, as slaves of their own liberty. It is true that we never grasp the truth entirely, that we have to discover it in each new situation. But isn’t the rejection of marriage in favour of cohabitation a triumph of egoism and a refusal to take responsibility?

Beyond the polemics of the deviant character of cohabitation, the phenomenon raises questions which Christian morality cannot ignore. Today many reasons are given to explain the origin of this cultural novelty, this change of accent regarding marital unity. Some social observers might simply perceive in cohabitation, the challenging and revolutionary sign of traditional African types of marriage. Others, however, show that cohabitation exposes a deep situation of crisis in the practice and meaning of marriage. In this line, René Béraudy affirms: “the frequency of divorce and the development of young people cohabiting are not accidental phenomena. Their frequency cannot be sufficiently explained as being fashionable, nor as a taste for nonconformity, nor simply as immorality. Far from being arbitrary behaviours, in their own way but with a rigorous logic, these innovations are expressing an evolution in our matrimonial system.”

Albert Rouet also observes that to those who are cohabiting, the old argument of personal engagement, of “self gift” in marriage seems extremely idealistic and falsely naïve.[1] With cohabitation, certain key values of marriage, such as fidelity and indissolubility, are either blamed or relativised. Following the same logic, no sex outside of marriage, no fertility out of the family, and the rituals, appear as outdated formulations, the foundation of a “heavenly morality” with no relevance to concrete earthly reality. Effective means of contraception, generally freeing modern women from the worry of unwanted pregnancies, seem to canonize the maxim of sex without constraint for some young people, desacralising marital union and sexual relations. Commitment and promising fidelity for life are becoming anti-values.

Asking about cohabitation is the flip-side of asking about what is specific in Christian marriage. The stakes in cohabitation are simultaneously social, anthropological and pastoral. It is social, because the creation of couples concerns society as a whole. The fragility of the unity of a couple is a fissure and source of disintegration of the social fabric. It is anthropological, because humans are not test objects. They deserve to be committed to in unions that respect their human dignity. The stakes are also pastoral, because of the relevance the Christian witness regarding marital union. The disruptions of modern society forcefully strike familial harmony, the dignity of men and women, and the values of human sexuality.

We cannot deny the implications of the calculating, the mistrust, the undermining of values, which are the harmful consequences of the moral and religious relativism experienced by most cohabiting couples. Conjugal union becomes a fruit of a simple creativity of the couple united sexually, a place for superficial domestic exchanges. As Béraudy says, it is important to get beyond this “fusional vertigo” to commit to a stable conjugal pact which respects the dignity of each, which comes with arbitration, social control and accompaniment, and particularly with the grace of God. This gesture, this commitment in religious marriage allows each partner to receive from the other a confirmation of the value of his or her being, and the respect of who he or she is. In this sense, the spouse is not simply the sexual partner, the fleeting companion, an associate for the meantime, but rather the other who looks to and constructs the future with me. By presenting the couple as a “community of life and love,” Vatican II gave value to the care for solid unity and responsible affectivity. This is where we can show that, properly understood, religious marriage is not what young people call “marriage-prison” or “marriage-alienation.” Nor is it a formality incidental to the love of the spouses. Whilst respecting the context of life proper to each era and society, one cannot claim to fully alive in such a provisional situation, because it can only be profoundly fulfilling if it tends to be an unconditional gift, devoid of any calculating or reluctance. Associated with this, there are also pastoral questions and the attitude which the Church is called to adopt towards Christians who are in a situation of cohabitation, and who think they are living their relationship “normally” without subscribing to the faith. This situation is urgently calling for a new ethic of marriage.

Faced with the question of cohabitation, the great challenge to the Church is to show how sacramental marriage can save love. That is why one of the tasks of Christian ethics is to go beyond the importance sometimes naively ascribed to the institutional formalities of marriage, in order to highlight the value of the common project of love, the spouses are building together.  This is why we invite people living together to think of fidelity no longer as a collection of assorted rights and duties of a dry legalism, nor as an a priori necessity, but as the mystery of a man and a woman jointly in a project of growth. People are partly defined by their capacity for commitment, or the capacity to take risks in the happy and definitive adventure of life. Marital union can only be really free if the spouses accept to enter into God’s plan, open to society and to the future.

[1] Cf. Albert Rouet, “Les Jeunes en Union Libre,” in Le Supplément, 106, September 1973, 337.