Preface Remarks - In having composed this reflection upon cohabitation and sexual relations before marriage, it may appear to the reader that I have over-accentuated the role of passion or sex. However, this highlight has been necessary given my interpretation of the sexual (bodily) being as a definition for the human person. We are not ghosts. What our flesh does, we do. Nor, did I intend to sound heartless or unreasonable. Quite the contrary, it was my intent to insert some sound reasoning in an area where blind compulsion and misinformation have ruled the day.
I well realize that the phenomenon of couples living together is reflective of the problems of our times. Modern men and women, like none before them, feel alienated and alone. Technology has often given them more leisure and pleasure at the cost of separating them ever more and more from the real trials and joys found in a more natural harmony. The pace of our market-place society has often relegated the human person to a secondary status behind success and profit. Despite the way we crowd our cities, men and women are the loneliest creatures to walk this small planet. I suppose, surrounded by strangers, uncertain about the future, finding many insensitive to their needs, that many men and women choose to cling to one another in the hope of finding some refuge against the storm of indifference and intolerance. They seek on the one hand, to create something of a semblance to a stable home, while on the other, continuing to grasp greedily into an uncertain tomorrow. After all, even though people are marrying later in life, the inner need for belonging cannot be forestalled. Overjoyed to be independent and leaving the nest offered by their parents, they swiftly discover that no empty house or apartment makes a home. Home is only home, when there is someone with whom to share it, waiting for you and wanting you. Trying to escape the alienation and hardness of life, they postpone or rationalize the values which their consciences would admit for consideration.
They give the gift of their very selves to each other, even though it may not be the right season for giving. In their attempt to find some consolation and healing in life; they might inadvertently cause more tension and hurt. If love is real, it will wait. If it is not, then its prerogatives would best never be started.
God loves us all more than we can ever know. He wants us to be happy and whole. The struggle to keep love within its proper limits, as testified by the Scriptures and the Church, can only make us stronger in living out this love fully when it is consecrated in marriage. This is the way that God would have most of his people deal with the deep isolation they experience. Much more than secularized alternatives, it offers couples the companionship of each other, and that third to get married, Jesus.
01. Challenge to Reform
02. Failure of Living Together
03. Wrong Reasons
04. Integrity and Courage
05. Tightening the Reins
06. Scriptural Testimony
07. Sin and Scandal
08. Chasity and Marriage
09. Person to Person
10. The One Flesh
11. Civil Ramifications
12. Sign and Symbol
13. Reflective of Christ's Love
14. Graces of the Sacrament
15. The Loneliest Creature
These notes deal with a phenomenon which is rapidly becoming the norm in regards to those seeking marriage: sexual relations and cohabitation. In reflecting upon this issue, the story comes to mind of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well. He challenges her to reform with the accusation that even the man she is living with now is not her husband. He offers to give her a living water which will never leave her thirsty. He is, of course, offering her a chance to reform, a new beginning. In response, she runs to the town and proclaims her witness to this figure Jesus who knows everything about her. Instead of avoiding her, as men are accustomed to do in reference to strange women, he speaks to her, a woman, a foreigner, and a sinner. Instead of condemning her, he allows her sins to speak for themselves and as a balm to the shame they arouse, he offers forgiveness and healing. This incident is important for us. Couples need to discern that their personhood is intricately bound up in their sexuality and that its full expression can only adequately be within the covenant of marriage. Anything less falls into the category of sin. In addition, this story speaks to those who are the shepherds of the Church, who while not collapsing proper moral values under the weight of secularism, need to exhibit compassion and understanding.
Failure of Living Together
The charge is sometimes made that living together prior to marriage gives a couple an insight as to how they shall interact as man and wife. Many thus see these informal unions as trial marriages. However, the statistics show that the divorce rate among couples who live together before marriage is higher than among those who do not. I do not propose to offer a certain rationale for this statistic. Quite logically, it seems that it should be the other way around.
However, during my brief period of ministry, I have been much taken aback by the number of individuals, both male and female, who have come to the rectory door in terrible grief over the estrangement of a partner. No sooner would they reach the parlor that they would burst into tears. One young man told me that just the night before, he and his girl had made love. Repeatedly, she confessed her love to him. Come that morning, after a two year relationship, she was gone, leaving only the pain of rejection and a note saying that she did not love him anymore. Did this make any sense?
Perhaps one of the reasons why these relationships often end badly is because their lack of formalization allows for an absence in responsibility and commitment. The emotional injury usually comes to the fore when the involvement of one partner is not reciprocated in the other, as in the incident just narrated. Why these relationships often do not do well even if corrected by marriage is a legitimate puzzle. There may be no single reason. Certainly if the level of involvement in the marriage and in an active faith life is minimal from one or both and they simply get married for the wrong reasons, the chances for a successful marriage appear dismal. Wrong reasons would include the following:
1. The woman becomes pregnant;
2. Parents insist that they get married;
3. They want a fancy ceremony;
4. It would avoid embarrassment;
5. One partner coerces the other;
6. Business prospects would be helped; and
7. It is the thing to do when getting older.
The first one is wrong because a child cannot in himself be made the basis for a lifelong committed relationship of love. Rather, a child is ideally the fruit of such a love already in existence. Two through seven deal with externals which must be secondary to the principle resolution of a couple to irrevocably share their life and to rightfully express their love as husband and wife. In retrospect, there is another bad reason which is prominent, although it refers more appropriately to couples who are not living together and yet who want their sex on the side. Some people might get married because it makes sexual intercourse less problematical, especially in regard to tight schedules. If lust masquerades as love and goes no further than the flesh, what happens when it burns itself out?
Integrity and Courage
Not too long ago I knew of a case where a priest was preparing a couple of which he was very proud. He even remarked about how nice it was to have at least one couple who were following what the Church and Christ taught in regards to sexual behavior prior to marriage. Standing nearby, I accidentally overheard the couple saying as they left one day, "What a jerk!" Later I was to discover that this same couple had lived together and had lied to their priest. They did not respect either him or the Church which he represented. However, they hurt themselves more than anyone else. Instead of starting right, they began their marriage on a lie. Who was to know what deceit they might have exhibited, even to each other?
I mention this because integrity is one of the essential ingredients of marriage and of the Christian life. Jesus himself is called the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is a light shining to us who sometimes walk in darkness. Apart from the truth in marriage there is only the disastrous gloom of dirty secrets and infidelity. What is worth starting, is worth starting right.
It may be true that some people do not immediately volunteer information regarding their sexual behavior or living arrangements, not so much out of spite but out of fear. However, marriage would also call from couples a great deal of courage. This too must be a trait nurtured early in their relationship and in their planning. Deceit and cowardice are all ways of running away. Maybe some people try to escape marriages because they do not have the fortitude to keep to it when things become difficult?
My philosophy regarding this issue is that if a couple is honest to me regarding their living arrangements and their sexual behavior, even if I believe such patterns of life are to their detriment, I will work with them and prepare them for marriage as best I can. This does not mean that I would fail to urge them to live according to the understanding of the Church.
Certainly, there needs to be a recognition that economics often plays a part in driving people together while still single. As long as there is no serious threat of scandal and the couple lives a chaste life, this form of cohabitation might occasionally be tolerated. However, human nature being what it is, it cannot be formally condoned since it places individuals at least in the occasion of sin. We are sexual beings who are quite vulnerable to our passions. Sin and weakness are real forces in our lives. Realizing the ravenous fire of this kind of love, the Church has never encouraged inordinately long periods of betrothal. The more one comes to love another, the more that person's whole being cries out for unity with them. So forceful is this reality that St. Augustine would use the love of man and woman as an analogy in speaking about God: "Our hearts are restless O God, until they rest in you."
Tightening the Reins
In various dioceses throughout the country, legislation has arisen which directly affects the situation of cohabitating unmarried couples. Some places are requiring that couples live apart during the six months prior to the wedding. They are enforcing this by refusing dispensations to mixed marriages in this situation and by disciplining priests who have been careless. Another diocese has made the compromise that since Catholics would not be able to legitimately and validly get married in any other forum without ecclesiastical approval, that they could be married, but, not in a public setting. Thus, the wedding party would be reduced to parents, the priest, and two witnesses, perhaps in a room of the rectory. There would be no big ceremony, no flowers, no organ, no procession, etc. Certainly, this would let people know that the Church meant to uphold doctrine while displaying compassion. In my preparation of couples I have urged a period of separation prior to marriage to enhance the marital experience, to give them a special time for prayer and reflection, and to show that they at least respect the authority of the Church. It is not "alright" to live together before marriage; it is something which should incur guilt and shame. The Church needs to be careful that it does nothing which seems to reward such forbidden activity.
To some ears, even this compromise might seem severe. However, this merely elucidates the depth to which the Christian conscience and moral behavior have fallen. Catholics who engage in fornication, and that is the appropriate biblical term for this sin, commit an objectively serious sin even if their culpability is lessened by an erroneously formed conscience which devalues the grievous nature of certain actions. As for dissent, it is most irresponsible to do so while not being familiar with the sources of Christian doctrine in this regard and earnestly seeking assent to the teachings. Many people have allowed their peers and society to influence them more than the Gospel message. To ask for a wedding in a church setting rather than in a strictly civil one should commit a person to putting Christ and his family of faith above all other allegiances. If not, then they should probably reconsider what they want. Part of the dilemma is that many Catholics have allowed their catechism to be taught from incompetent and naive misrepresentations in the news media or by figures who would purposely and selectively bias them against their religion. How many people who have disagreed with the Church on matters like artificial contraception, abortion, homosexuality, premarital sex, divorce, test-tube babies, etc. have ever read what the Church itself has to say about these matters? How many have ever dialogued with their priest about them? The number is surprisingly small.
The Catholic community believes in two fonts of revelation, the Scriptures and the Tradition which in our practices, teachings, sacraments, etc. come down to us from the apostles. The teaching office or Magisterium, the Pope and the Bishops in union with him, interpret these sources under the continuing direction of the Holy Spirit for the edification of the Church. The place of the Scriptures is essential in our understanding of ourselves as Christians. Although certain situations have changed, there is no clear challenge from revisionists that the moral teachings in the Word of God have been abrogated. They still speak to us today. About fornication, or genital activity outside of marriage, it is decisive and prohibitive. Some of the most ancient of these writings are penned from St. Paul who tells the brethren that they are not to be in the company of fornicators (1 Cor. 5:9). Indeed, he quite blatantly exclaims that they shall not inherit the kingdom (1 Cor. 6:9). The Church has no authority, even if it wanted, to soften these admonitions. Consequently, the Church urges conversion lest brothers and sisters be lost from our ranks.
St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles has St. James speaking in Jerusalem regarding the Gentile converts that they should be told to abstain from illicit sexual unions (Acts 15:20). The Christians set themselves apart from their pagan neighbors by their beliefs and their moral behavior. Over and over again, the prohibition is repeated: "...the body is not for fornication, it is for the Lord,..." (1 Cor. 6:13); "...flee fornication..." (1 Cor. 6:18); "...nevertheless, to avoid fornication..." (1 Cor. 7:2); fornication is called one of the "works of the flesh" cutting one off from God's kingdom (Gal 5:19); "Make no mistake about this: no fornicator, no unclean or lustful person--in effect an idolater--has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with worthless arguments. These are sins that bring God's wrath down on the disobedient; therefore have nothing to do with them." (Eph. 5:5-7); repeating much that was stated in Ephesians, the Colossians are also called to mortify themselves against fornication (Col. 3:5); it is the "will of God that you abstain from fornication..." (1 Thes. 4:3). The pain which St. Paul expresses in 2 Corinthians 12:21 might be that of any minister: "I fear that when I come again my God may humiliate me before you, and I may have to mourn over the many who sinned earlier and have not repented of the uncleanness, fornication, and sensuality they practiced."
The Scriptures also held on to the stigma of illegitimacy which would mark a child born through fornication. Indeed, in light of the marriage covenant between Christ and his Church, we are seen, not as a bastardy people, but as the adopted sons and daughters of God given new life from the womb of the baptismal font. Any violation of this marriage covenant in our own lives distorts the image of Christ's fidelity to us; it becomes in effect, idolatry.
Time and space would not allow a full recital of all the biblical witness against this sin of fornication; however, the following citations might be noted for later personal investigation: Mat. 5:32; 1 Cor. 7:2; 2 Chr. 21:11; Isa. 23:17; Ezek. 16:29; Mat. 5:32; 19:9; John 8:41; Acts 15:20; 29; 21:25; Rom. 1:29; 1 Cor. 5:1; 6:13,18; 7:2; 2 Cor. 12:21; Gal. 5:19; Eph. 5:3; Col. 3:5; 1 Thes. 4:3; Jude 7; Rev. 2:21; 9:21; 14:8; 17:2,4; 18:3; 19:2; Ezek. 16:15; Mat. 15:19; Mark 7:22; 1 Cor 5:11; Heb. 12:16; 1 Cor. 5:9,10; 6:9.
Sin and Scandal
As a priest, I have sometimes urged couples not to come up for communion because they are living in a situation which lends itself to scandal and because the sin is of such a serious nature that the Eucharist which should come for their salvation might be to their condemnation. After all, in traditional language, it would be called a sacrilege. Indeed, to be married while in serious sin also constitutes a sacrilege. It is the desecration of a holy mystery. The delicacy, is to encourage couples to frequent confession and to continue to attend the liturgy even if they are unable to receive communion.
I recall one young couple who had lived together and had shared sexual congress in all its forms, who had contracepted and aborted, and who had even toyed with sharing their bed with another. They kept claiming that they never really did anything wrong. I asked them to give me an example of something a person might do that was sexually wrong. They could not. They had reached that final ravine where there was virtually no human sexual activity which could be labeled as wrong or evil. The Church stands for such people as the ultimate sign of contradiction. There is a right and a wrong. It comes to us in revelation and through the testimony of the great Christian philosophers and theologians of the ages. It elevates the possibility that chastity is appropriate to both the single and married state, and that this and the even greater charism of celibacy for singles, religious, and priests, is attainable and worthwhile.
Chastity and Marriage
Even within marriage, there needs to be a place for periodic abstinence. Sexual relations in marriage, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, are a couple's due and any selfish refraining from this special act of unity is a violation of justice. However, sometimes charity and prudence will mandate abstinence because the time is not right for a child or because of the health of a spouse. If couples find self-control impossible prior to marriage, what kind of discipline and adult responsibility can they hope to achieve afterwards? Those who do not readily understand this do not appreciate Christian love and marriage. There is a place for chastity in marriage. This great virtue can be exhibited both in their abstinence and in their sexual expression. Lust would destroy this and all the other charisms proper to married love. Lust is a juvenile passion run amuck. It reaches no further into another person than the flesh. It is the lord of masturbation, pornography, rape, and sexual permissiveness. Lust is that opponent to which the apostle would write, "Would you join the body of Christ to a prostitute?" It has no place in marriage. If it is allowed any niche within the unity of man and woman where it can grow, it will dehumanize the beloved, destroying his or her image in the eyes of the lover like a cancer. The roving eye of lust breaks all promises and seeks infidelity. Rather than a mate, lust only wants its meat!
Person to Person
Love wants the entire person -- body, heart, mind, and soul. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber would speak of the "I-Thou" relationship in reference to ourselves and the divine as in opposition to the "I-It". The first speaks of love, the second merely of utility (lust). It is the same for human relationships. It is all too easy to depersonalize others as a means to our own selfish advantage and satisfaction. It is quite something else to surrender ourselves to another. Christ reveals the depths of this kind of love on the Cross, where he surrenders himself as a gift for his bride, the Church. For this reason, marriage is not a 50/50 proposition. It demands a hundred percent giving from both parties. The only problem arises when one gives and the other simply takes, holding back. It is then that true suffering replaces the joy which ought to be there.
In all the little romantic and yet chaste expressions of love, as well as in the loving of a husband and wife in sexual union, the needs of the other need to be center stage. The understanding of the other as irreplaceable and precious must always be held. Any act of love is then not simply the interaction of two animals in heat but two persons sharing their most intimate selves and identity.
The One Flesh
The acting out of the one flesh is how marriage is consummated. To offer this power to another who is not one's spouse is to cheapen it. It is one of the most perfect forms of loving expression available to human beings. Because it is so revered, its abuse becomes all the more tragic. The greater the gift, the more severe becomes its corruption. Often people decide to live together and to share sexual relations because they do not feel presently called to marriage. Or, they would seek a trial period first. In reference to the first reason, we could resort to the old cliche against putting the carriage before the horse. In the early days of the Church, all a couple had to do was promise their fidelity before God and set up house. It was only in response to the confusion that such unrecorded unions caused and the inner need of people to instigate their marriages in a public fashion, that the Church legislated weddings to be henceforth witnessed by a priest or deacon in the context of the believing community. Along with this also came the complementary paperwork.
Consequently, at least externally, these couples today, although not married in the eyes of the Church or God, are often living something analogous to it. However, those who are not ready for marriage are not ready for living together either. Implied in this understanding and in the notion of trial set-ups, is that if it does not work out, the two will split up, no worse for wear. Few of these relations ever dissolve with such complacency. Already built into their relationship is the real doubt that it can last. If they ultimately get married, this same reservation might merely be translated from one state of life to another.
Within the context of marriage, genital union is an avenue for greater mutual fidelity. This is not really the case in non-ratified unions where they have no explicit protection of permanence. In addition, sexual intercourse must always be open to new life. In living-together relationships, this stress upon the propagation of children is almost always weak or non-existent. It is safe to say that the majority of them are practicing artificial contraception with impunity and may have even opted for abortion. If a child is conceived and spared, it faces the stigma of illegitimacy and a family solidarity which is no where near ideal. Resultantly, the two goods of marriage, fides (fidelity) and proles (procreation) are not served by couples who practice illicit sex.
It is also interesting that even civilly these living-together relationships are being considered quite seriously, with all sorts of consequences. In many states a man and woman who set up house over a period of years might be recognized as possessing a common law marriage. In some states, like Virginia, cohabitation is still against certain statutes and is considered criminal. In addition, where children are the fruits of such unions, paternity suites illustrate that the lack of a marriage contract cannot entirely dissolve legal responsibilities; however, more leg work might be involved in protecting their interests. Even alimony is being required after some of these less formal relationships are broken. However, these informal unions still do not provide adequate support for their mutual security or family life.
Sign and Symbol
The act of sexual love is viewed as sign and symbol of married love. There can be no reservation or real doubt about the unity it signifies. If there is, that couple has no right to it. It is not simply for recreation. To give oneself in the marital act, one cannot be frivolous. It is to a particular person that one gives him- or herself, and to no other, until death do they part. Trial relationships erode this connotation of sexual intercourse since permanence is not a relevant factor.
In addition, since this special joining of persons cries out for perfect unity, permiscuity fragments the individual. A case came to me not long ago wherein a young woman described herself as coming to pieces. She had given herself to so many men, and the last one in a relationship of over a year, that she felt unsatisfied and torn. A part of her was crying out for unity in each and every one of the men to whom she had given herself. It would only be in marriage or in a religious vocation that all these facets could be pulled back together and totally reintegrated. She had misunderstood her sexuality as merely a diversion instead of as an important aspect of her identity.
Sex cannot be played with as a form of recreation or sport like bowling, swimming, or golf. Its abuse is a hurt that the Church would desire all to avoid; for the rest who have strayed, it is an injury the Church would seek to heal.
Reflective of Christ's Love
Certainly, there may be many good-natured people who decide to live together and to have sex. But, sex is more than something you have. Sexuality is an integral part of you. Human beings are neither robot bodies nor disembodied spirits. We are persons of spirit and flesh with incredible powers and responsibilities. My concern for those who mean well in these relationships is that they might spoil their chances for a good marriage and life together. In the Church, a marriage is blessed by God. Living-together relationships have no such protection and indeed stand convicted of serious sin. In marriages between baptized Christians, marriage takes on the dignity of a sacrament. This means that this relationship is transformed and elevated by the couple's mutual faith in Christ and in the Church. Marriage becomes reflective of Christ's love for his bride, the Church. A couple are to reciprocally see in Christ the love they need to offer one another. To the extent that they love one another, they love Christ. This makes it vitally important that they live a life wherein they walk together as disciples, inviting Christ ever more and more into their lives. Their sexual union then becomes, next to the Eucharist, the greatest act of prayer in their lives and a foretaste of the joys of heaven. They are called to help one another along the road of perfection. Spouses are one another's greatest helps, ideally, in becoming saints.
Graces of the Sacrament
It must also be noted that the serious sin which fornication represents would also prevent the special graces of God given in the sacrament of marriage from taking hold. They would receive the invisible bond which would last until the death of one of the spouses, but nothing more. The graces at peril include all those necessary to preserve mutual love in spite of anything and everything; and the graces to face and overcome all difficulties, misunderstandings, sickness, or worries. To receive them would require openness and cooperation with God. Only after confession and an authentic turning away from their previous lives of sin would these graces be made available to them. Thus, it is entirely possible for couples to be married in the Church, but because one or the other or both are not in a state of grace, that the specific graces from God for their state of life might be withheld. Furthermore, living-together relationships would not avail themselves to these graces or supernatural helps from God and would consequently be unable to completely portray or foretell the quality of their married life.
The Loneliest Creature
In having composed this reflection upon cohabitation and sexual relations before marriage, it may appear to the reader that I have over-accentuated the role of passion or sex. However, this highlight has been necessary given my interpretation of the sexual (bodily) being as a definition for the human person. We are not ghosts. What our flesh does, we do.
Nor, did I intend to sound heartless or unreasonable. Quite the contrary, it was my intent to insert some sound reasoning in an area where blind compulsion and misinformation have ruled the day.
I well realize that the phenomenon of couples living together is reflective of the problems of our times. Modern men and women, like none before them, feel alienated and alone. Technology has often given them more leisure and pleasure at the cost of separating them ever more and more from the real trials and joys found in a more natural harmony. The pace our own market-place society has often relegated the human person to a secondary status behind success and profit. Despite the way we crowd our cities, men and women are the loneliest creatures to walk this small planet. I suppose, surrounded by strangers, uncertain about the future, finding many insensitive to their needs, that many men and women choose to cling to one another in the hope of finding some refuge against the storm of indifference and rapid change. They seek with one hand to create something with a semblance to a stable home while keeping the other hand grasping greedily into an uncertain tomorrow. Even though people are marrying later in life, the inner need for belonging cannot be forestalled. Overjoyed to be independent and leaving the nest offered by their parents, they swiftly discover that no empty house or apartment makes a home. Home is only home when there is somebody there with whom to share it, waiting for you and wanting you. Trying to escape the alienation and hardness of life, they postpone or rationalize the values which their consciences would admit for consideration. Christian betrothal and marriage would urge them to stand courageously together in facing realistically what comes to them.
Impulsive couples give the gift of their very selves to each other, even though it may not be the right season for giving. In their attempt to find some consolation and healing in life; they might inadvertently cause more tension and hurt. If love is real it will wait. If it is not, then its prerogatives would best never be started.
There is a prominent Catholic theologian, Dr. William May, who despite having a wife and children is often criticized by progressives as being too rigid, even though many of these same critics are either ex-priests or religious, thinkers in bad marriages, or clergymen who think that they can challenge the lived experience of this layman who finds the road of fidelity to the Church teachings as the correct one. He is a man both of intellectual prowess and of sensitivity to the plight of others, including those who decide to live together. He writes: "I realize that at times there may be tender and affectionate acts of genital coition between persons who are unable to give each other spousal love. Fornication need not be brutal. Nonetheless the tenderness and affection present are not because those engaging in such actions are unmarried, but despite the fact. And there is present an element of tragedy, of poignant sadness, and this precisely because something of crucial human significance that ought to be present is missing: the ability to give spousal love, an ability that is made possible only by the covenant of marriage. But because of this the action in question is deprived of what ought to be integral to it, and this deprivation of the good that ought to be present makes it evil. Bonum ex integra causa, malum ex quocumque defectu" (Sex and the Sanctity of Human Life, p. 18). This same author who has often be unjustly snubbed by certain elements of the theological community was recently appointed to serve on an international Papal commission regarding family and sexual issues.
God loves us all more than we can ever know. He wants us to be happy and whole. The struggle to keep love within its proper limits, as testified by the Scriptures and the Church, can only make us stronger in living out this love fully when it is consecrated in marriage. This is the way that God would have most of his people deal with the deep isolation they experience. I say "most" because a select few are called to find their most intimate companionship in a single-hearted love of God alone. For the rest, much more than secularized alternatives, the Church offers couples the companionship of each other and that third to get married, Jesus.
Those who recognize the deficiency in living-together relationships as opposed to marriage would do well to settle for nothing less than a formal bond recognized by the Church and God.
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Revised on May 2, 1998.