Cohabitation & Mother Church

Anthony Spadaro’s recent blog post on cohabitation leads me to wonder if it might be time to retire that term Mother Church. Under the tenure of Jorge Bergoglio, the ancient maternal image of nourishment and protection for believers has shriveled to an empty figure of speech. The language remains—Mater Ecclesia—but the motivating substance is gone. What we are left with is a misleading personification, as susceptible to misuse as any other sentimental usage.

Let us try the term Nanny Church. A nanny does not have the authority of a mother. She rarely scolds or disciplines her charges. She would lose her position if she did. A nanny has to please her clients. And we are in the grip of a pontificate that has a particular cunning for gratifying a clientele.



On Cyberteologia, February 26th, Fr. Antonio Spadaro broadcast the core of Francis’ address to parish priests given the day before. The headline, in bold, says almost all: The welcoming of those young people who prefer to live together without getting married . . .

Francis exhorted working priests to become “concretely attentive, without the attitudes of bureaucrats, to situations and people.  The Church is a mother and she takes care of people tenderly.” So tender is Mother Church that she understands perfectly why growing numbers of young people forego marriage, whether civil or sacramental. She cannot blame them, what with the world in the mess that it is:

And this is why he asks for the welcoming of those young people who prefer to live together without getting married.

Francis does not deny that legions of young adults are fearful of adult commitment. But let us not overemphasize a harsh judgment that only applies to some. There is more to it than that in papal eyes. Nanny Church, choosing the default route that a true mother would never take, sidles toward what Francis sees as the real reason for marriage avoidance—an economic one. Those unmarried couples are really waiting for what the 2015 Relatio finalis called “existential security,” defined in material terms as “work and a fixed salary.”


If you are shacking up, please call The pope wants to talk to you. Don’t worry. He won’t scold.


In other words—if you are listening carefully—the economy makes them do it. They ought not be censured for what larger forces impress upon them. Under cover of kindly, open-minded excuse-making for the trend toward cohabitation, Francis grinds the same social justice axe. And the Synod of Bishops endorsed it “with more than 80% consensus,” according to Spadaro. Sympathy for the inhibitions and refusals of today’s cohabiting young masks yet another jab at “the economy that kills.” It is killing Mother Earth (co-equal now with Mother Church) and marriage as well.

Note this section of the Relatio:

.  .  . for some, marriage is seen as a luxury due to their state in society. Consequently, in the latter case, the lack of material resources forces couples to live in de facto unions.

Luxury. Interesting word for the bishops to use here. No sin attaches to foregoing a luxury. How come the Church did not think of this centuries ago when extreme poverty was the norm and a man was middle aged in his twenties? Thank goodness our divines have thought of it now. That word luxury insinuates the message that economics has inherited the duties—and graces—of the Church.

Economic Man is king. There is nothing he cannot make us do. No guilt attaches to obeying him. Living together, having children together outside of any plighted troth, is a practical thing. It is useful in the pursuit of material ends.

•    •    •    •

One instance in which marriage might be called a luxury is a function of the welfare state that our good bishops value highly. If a single mother loses benefits by marrying and, consequently, transfers financial responsibility from the state to a husband who earns less that her entitlements, then yes, you might think marriage a luxury.

Conversely, if you have more wit than was apparent at the Synod, you might consider the necessity of marriage a bulwark against single motherhood and the poverty and disarray that follows inexorably from a fatherless household or one with a string of unattached men. But such consideration would subject Nanny Church to the authority of Mater Ecclesia who, we are learning, is a corpse.

•    •    •    •



•    •    •    •

Like Beckett’s Godot, existential security never arrives. It cannot. It does not exist. A life free of existential threats, a life indemnified against sorrow, pain, dereliction, mishap, or loss is no life at all. It is the egoist’s life-in-death, a fiction forged for caged souls. A prison.

That textbook phrase from the Synod of Bishops brings to mind Henry James’ short story “The Beast in the Jungle.” I was an undergraduate when I first read it. The story chilled me then. It chills me now. James writes of a life undone by foreboding, one that lacks courage to grasp life without—in our shepherds’ vocabulary—existential security.

The tale’s John Marcher lingers in a limbo of expectation, consumed by what might be called an ecstasy of anticipation. But of what? Something distinctive and definitive looms. The lurking thing goes undefined, lying concealed in ambush until . . . when? Captive to the frisson of his own haunted state, Marcher foregoes marriage to May Bartram, the woman who waits and watches with him in fruitless love. Only at May’s graveside does the long-expected beast spring. Marcher recognizes the destiny he has been slouching toward—the fanged nullity of an uncommitted life.

•    •    •    •

My husband and I married in graduate school. He was a full-time student with a part-time job. I was a part-time student with a full-time job. Both of us came from working class homes that did not contribute a dime to our tuition or our rent. Neither of us knew where we would find ourselves after graduation or how much money, luck, or comfort the future held. Neither of us owned a credit card. Friends of ours, also married in grad school, were on food stamps in their first years of marriage. Those were uncertain times for all of us, yet no less satisfying for their precariousness.  It was not a promise of security that had brought any of us together; security had nothing to do with what kept us together.

Not all but most of those marriages held. Still hold. In the main, it was the sacramental ones that made it through. And gladly. They withstood the loss of jobs, forced moves, money strains, dreaded diagnoses, the hurly burly of family life, the anguish of worrisome children. They weathered the seductions of anger and disappointment. They prevailed over the treacheries, large and small, by which spouses betray each other and themselves.  These covenanted marriages came to the edge of every precipice with trust that in the end there was meaning—call it joy—in the enduring bond.

Had we begun our lives cohabiting out of caution, hedging bets in dismissal of antique claims on our choices, where would we be just now? What would our children make of us? So please, Fr. Spadaro, tell Francis’ and his circle of high-minded hypocrites to spare us the new dogma that cohabitation is largely a reasonable adaptation to all-devouring economic forces.

While marriage remains the polite ideal, Nanny Church understands that not everyone can reach it. Or chooses not to. But if economically determined preference is an adequate if not quite sufficient guide to moral decisions, of what good is the Church?

•    •    •    •

Consider another reason for giving the phrase Mother Church a rest. That word mother has several idiomatic uses, not all of them positive. A roofer was here recently to repair the casings around a skylight. He stood in my studio looking up at the ceiling and said: “That’s one mother of a leak you got there, lady.”

And then there is always this: