A few dioceses point out that cohabitation may prolong the marriage preparation process because of the need to evaluate the couple's attitudes and understanding of the Church's teachings on marriage and sexuality. One policy states: "If there is not sufficient awareness on the couple's part of the essential elements of Catholic teaching on the sanctity of marriage and sexual relations and of the commitment, fidelity, and permanence needed in marriage, then the marriage should be postponed until such awareness has developed" ( Preparing for Marriage , Diocese of Rapid City). Since couples have a natural and canonical right to marriage, any delay beyond the normal waiting period for all couples is a serious matter. Care must be taken to ensure that delay is not used as a punishment for a couple's continued cohabitation. (See Bishop John D'Arcy's letter to priests of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, ORIGINS , October 1, 1998.)
It is true that, for many, the annulment process in the Catholic Church appears complicated, involving lots of red tape. Others fear that engaging it would open up old wounds best left alone. It is important to remember, however, that the entire process is a discernment, attempting to say with certainty whether the previous marriage was truly a valid marriage, entered into freely, consciously and maturely, and therefore binding for life. It is not a discernment which a person need engage alone, but in and with the community of the Church, which helps the person peer into difficult realities with the strength of faith and Gospel truth, so that what was hurtful in the past does not inflict new pain now. Considering the secular environment in which we live, there are numerous factors that might motivate declaring a previous marriage null, and Pope Francis himself has recently streamlined the annulment process to make it more accessible to the faithful.