Don't ask, don't tell on cohabitation?

It's a hypothetical case, but one priests frequently face in an American culture transformed by the Sexual Revolution. 

On the other side of the desk is a couple seeking marriage-preparation sessions before a church wedding. At least one of these young people is from a parish family and, thus, has been receiving Holy Communion. Neither has been to Confession in years. 

 The pastor has every reason to suspect that, like millions of Americans, this couple is already "shacking up."

A Catholic priest knows that the catechism teaches that sex between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman is "gravely contrary to the dignity of persons and of human sexuality which is naturally ordered to the good of spouses." He knows that it teaches that anyone "conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to Communion."

So a painful question looms over these encounters: Don't ask, don't tell?

"What I have heard priests say is that if people come to us to get married, then we don't feel like we can refuse them," said Scott Stanley, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. The thinking seems to be that "getting these people married will solve the big problem that, from the church's point of view, exists in their lives."

But when it comes to addressing doctrinal issues linked to cohabitation, "you get the feeling that priests just don't know what to do right now," he said.

Meanwhile, cohabitation has turned into one of the dominant forces shaping new marriages and homes, with a majority of Americans in their 30s saying they have lived with someone outside of marriage. And new studies, argued Stanley, show that the practice of cohabitation has for many become "de-linked from marriage" altogether, with more and more people moving from one cohabitation relationship to another -- a practice with serious implications for the stability of future unions.

While most couples used to think of cohabitation as a "trial marriage," there is evidence this is no longer true. The key is that living together before marriage has become "fundamentally ambiguous" as a sign of faithfulness and commitment. Instead, it's a practice "with no implications about the odds of marrying," one that Stanley has called "CohabiDating."