Survey says: Most Catholics in US reject Church teaching on cohabitation

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Nearly three quarters of Catholics in the United States are not opposed to couples cohabiting before marriage, despite the Church's moral teaching.

A new survey by the Pew Research Center, released Nov. 6, reports that Americans as a whole are very accepting of unmarried couples living together, even if they have no plans to marry. Additionally, Pew found that a shrinking percentage of adults are getting married, and an increasing number of adults have decided to cohabit.

Only 14% of adults surveyed said they did not believe that it was ever acceptable for two unmarried adults in a romantic relationship to live together. An additional 16% said that they agreed with cohabitation only if there were plans for the couple to one day get married.

Of the people surveyed, 69% said they believed it was acceptable for an unmarried couple to live together, without any plans to eventually wed.

In 2002, the National Survey of Family Growth found that while 54% of adults between the ages of 18 and 44 had ever cohabited with a romantic partner, 60% had ever been married. By 2017, the number of adults who had ever been married dropped to 50%, while the number of adults who had cohabitated rose to 54%.

Pew found that race and religion played a role in whether or not a person was approving of the ideal of cohabitation. A total of 72% of white respondents said that cohabitation without a plan to get married was acceptable, with an additional 13% saying they approved of cohabitation without a plan to get married. Of black survey respondents, 23%, the largest of any ethnic group, said that they did not thing cohabitation was ever acceptable. Only 55% of black respondents said they approved of cohabitation without planning on getting married.

For Hispanics, only 10% of respondents said it was never acceptable to cohabitate. Slightly over one-fifth of Hispanic respondents – 21% – said they found cohabitation acceptable as long as there were wedding bells in the future.

Religion was a factor as well. Catholics and white mainline Protestants had nearly identical rates of approval of cohabitation--the survey found that 74% of Catholics and 76% of white Protestants who do not claim to be born-again or evangelical were okay with an unmarried couple cohabitating. Conversely, this figure dropped to 47% for black Protestants and 35% for white evangelical Protestants.

A full 90% of religiously unaffiliated people approved of cohabitation, and fewer than a third of this group said they believed society would be better off if more couples who cohabited got married.

White evangelical Christians were more likely than any other group to say that they believed increased marriage rates were better for society.

The survey also showed that married adults are more satisfied with their relationship than are those who cohabit, and they are more trustful of their partners.

The data for this survey came from the American Trends Panel, which was taken June 25- July 8. A total of 9,834 people were surveyed. Pew said the margin of error was about 1.5 points.

During the Fall 2013 USCCB General Assembly, Cardinal Sean O'Malley spoke to CNA about the reasons why couples are increasingly turning to cohabit. O'Malley cited financial instability--particularly student loans--as well as cultural norms as for why this was the case.

"Concerns about marriage – people not getting married, falloff in Mass attendance, (and the) challenge of catechizing the young Catholics" are some of the more troubling trends facing Catholicism in the U.S., the Archbishop of Boston said to CNA Nov. 11, during the general assembly of the national bishops' conference in Baltimore.

The cardinal noted that "the whole notion of family is so undercut by the cohabitation mentality," and that these social trends are having a tremendous impact on the working-class communities "who were once the backbone of the Church."

"Half of the children born to that demographic are born out of wedlock," a statistic that Cardinal O'Malley said would have been "inconceivable" a few decades ago.

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