“Ask a Priest: May Someone Sell a House to a Cohabiting Couple?”

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Q: My parents just received an offer from an unmarried couple to purchase our house in Ohio. I don’t know if the couple is Catholic, but they don’t intend to marry until after they move into the house. Would it be sinful to accept their offer based on their intentions? -J.M.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: I would say that there is no hard-and-fast rule in these kinds of cases.

On one hand, the house seller could be perceived as tacitly supporting the decision of unmarried people to live together. Thus, the seller could be guilty of giving scandal.

The Catechism in No. 2284 says, “Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense.”

If your parents are Catholics, they might ask themselves what kind of signal that would send to neighbors and their neighbors’ young children if they sold to a cohabiting couple. Also, would your parents’ decision to sell be perceived by the couple as support for their living arrangement? Perhaps the sellers would throw away an opportunity to witness to their own faith.

This notion of sellers giving scandal can fall into gray areas. Would selling a boat to an unmarried couple be OK? What if the boat had sleeping quarters in it? Would selling a bed to such a couple be OK? Or a TV for their living room? You see where the question gets tricky.

Yet, selling a house seems to be in a different class. It is more of a statement.

Now, there might be legal ramifications involved too. I’m not familiar with Ohio law. Could the couple sue on the grounds of discrimination if your parents rejected them because of their living arrangement? (An attorney could better answer this question.) In that case, if your parents didn’t want to sell to the unmarried couple, then perhaps they wouldn’t be obligated to tell the reason. Maybe they could just say, “We want to wait for other offers” — and leave it go at that. That wouldn’t be a lie — your parents would, in fact, be waiting for an offer from a married couple.

Other factors might include the intention of the couple. What if they show signs of wanting to get their lives in order, and they plan a wedding two weeks after closure on the house sale? This kind of question might require prayerful consideration by the sellers.

Still, we can’t be sure about the future. We have to make decisions in the here and now.

There is also the practical, and not insignificant, matter of whether your parents are in dire need of selling. In the end, no one is obligated to avoid all possible appearances of scandal, and this particular case could be a very remote and only material cooperation with evil, if the couple in question really is sleeping together.

It might be good for your folks to ask what Jesus is asking of them. Is this a moment to witness to the faith? Is there possible scandal involved? How crucial is a quick sale?

Some people might argue that the sellers need not or should not consider the marital state of the potential buyers, that they are house sellers and not “moral police.” That approach seems simplistic, however.

There is a social dimension to the Christian faith. We should give public witness to our faith, and we shouldn’t be too quick to turn a blind eye to the ill-advised behavior of others for the sake of short-term convenience. For the long-term effects of cohabitation can be corrosive to couples and society alike.

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