More Catholic Thinkers on Pope’s Disparagement of Marriage

25483686473_79c167d236_hThe fallout from Pope Francis’ complete inversion of an authentic Catholic understanding of marriage last week continues. Over the weekend, notable American canonist Dr. Edward Peters took to his blog, later picked up by Catholic World Report, to discuss what this means (and doesn’t) for Catholics. Peters is known as a cautious thinker, not quick to rush to judgment and certainly not known as a papal critic. Nevertheless, he is clearly disturbed by what Francis has said, and begins by hammering away at the errors in his thinking:

The pope’s most recent comments on marriage point in a disturbing direction but let’s address two important matters first.

Point One. Cohabitation is not marriage. Largely overlooked amid the furor caused by Pope Francis’ rash claim that “the great part of our sacramental marriages are null”—an assertion reckless if false (which it is) and brimming with despair if true (which it is not), a claim followed not by an apology, an official retraction, or even a bureaucratic ‘clarification’ but instead by an Orwellian alteration of the pope’s words in Vatican records—overlooked, I say, in this greater mess was the pope’s later but equally problematic comment about his being “sure that cohabitating couples are in a true marriage having the grace of marriage”. Though multi-facetedly wrong (theologically, canonically, pastorally, socially) the pope’s equating cohabitation (‘faithful’, whatever that means) with Christian marriage did not, mirabile dictu, get edited down to a platitude or deleted completely: his words are still there, “in queste convivenze … sono sicuro che questo è un matrimonio vero, hanno la grazia del matrimonio…”

Let’s be clear: marriage is marriage but cohabitation (as that word is nearly universally understood in social discourse) is only cohabitation.

Peters moves on, later in his exposition, to the related difficulties proposed by a Roman Rite concept known as “canonical form” — the rule that makes Roman Catholic marriages valid only when witnessed by a duly-appointed minister within a Catholic ceremony, despite the fact that the sacrament itself is conferred by the spouses, not the priest.

While asserting that couples cohabiting ‘faithfully’ (?) are in a real marriage (which they aren’t) the pope also said that merely civilly-married couples are in real marriages (which they might or might not be). To understand what is at stake here we need to distinguish more carefully.

Couples, neither of whom is Catholic (i.e., most of the world), even if both of them are baptized, can marry (the Church would say, “validly”) in a civil-only ceremony. To that extent, Francis would be right to say that civilly married couples have a true marriage. But if the pope thinks that merely civilly married Catholics—and given the context of his remarks this is likely whom he had in mind—are, just as much as cohabiting couples (supposedly) are, in real marriages and enjoying the graces of Matrimony, then I have to say No, that’s wrong—even though I wish he were right. Once again, the requirement of “canonical form” (a cure that has long out-lived the disease it was prescribed to treat) seriously complicates the Church’s message on the permanence of marriage.

Because Catholics (let’s just talk Romans here) are required for validity to marry in (still keepin’ it simple) a Catholic religious ceremony, those tens of thousands of Catholics who ‘marry’ civilly-only are (outside a few rare exceptions) no more married than are couples just cohabiting (‘faithfully’ or otherwise). Moreover, because of the inseparability of the marriage contract from the sacrament, if one is invalidly ‘married’ (and ‘marriages’ among Catholics who disregard canonical form are invalid) then one does not receive the sacrament of Matrimony either nor any of its graces. Why? Because, No marriage means no Matrimony.

Here’s the rub: as virtually all of the rest of the world, including baptized non-Catholics, can marry civilly-only, they are bound to such marriages if they enter them. So, even though a civil wedding might be just as much of a lark for some non-Catholics as it is for some Catholics, only Catholics have, in virtue of the requirement of canonical form, a “Get Out of Marriage Free” card to play. And play it they do. Lots. Hence, the complications that I (and some sterling canonists going back 50 years) have been warning about in regard to Church teaching on the permanence of marriage in the face of canonical form. Thus I say, one of these days, form has to go—but this is for another discussion.

In short, if the pope had in mind non-Catholics, he would be right to say that their civil-only wedding would count toward marriage (though why he would discuss such persons with cohabiting couples escapes me); but if he had in mind Catholics (as he probably did) then he is wrong to say that such persons are truly married and are drawing on the sacramental grace of Matrimony (though it would explain why he mentioned such persons in the same breath with cohabiting couples, as neither are married).

At the risk of over-excerpting (Peters’ piece is long, but not unduly so) his conclusions are jarring, and we must face them:

The pope’s most recent statements on marriage were not slips akin to getting the date of a meeting wrong, they are not hearsay shared by a prelate known for a flexible attitude toward accuracy or stories shared by relatives from Argentina, and they are not hints of his views left ambiguous by some obvious omission. Instead these latest assertions were calmly offered by the pope before a large and sympathetic audience, with expert advisors readily at hand, in an extended manner, all of which factors point, I think, in a consistent if disturbing direction.

And what direction is that?

This one: Pope Francis really—and I think, sincerely—believes:

(A) most marriages (at least, most Christian marriages) really aren’t, deep-down, marriages (and so the annulment process has to be sped up to dispatch of what are, after all, probably null marriages anyway, and the consequences of post-divorce marriages need to be softened because most people in those second marriages probably weren’t in true marriages the first time, and so on); and,

(B) lots of things that aren’t marriages (like cohabitation and civil-only weddings between Catholics) really are, deep-down, marriages (so we need to affirm them and assure them that they enjoy the same graces as married people, and so on). That this is pope’s view can, I suggest, be directly determined from his own words (expunged and otherwise) and, if I am right, would explain many things, from his favoring Cdl. Kasper and side-lining Cdl. Burke, rolling out several problematic tribunal “reforms” in Mitis Iudex, and leaving ambiguous several crucial points that sorely needed clarity in Amoris laetitia. The irreducibly objective, ‘either/or’, nature of marriage would not sit well with someone who prefers subjective, flexible approaches that allow for ‘this and that’ responses, but, whatever problems the principle of non-contradiction poses here, a conviction that most marriages are not marriage but lots of non-marriages are marriage, would explain a lot.

That said, I see no way to avoid the conclusion that a crisis (in the Greek sense of that word) over marriage is unfolding in the Church, and it is a crisis that will, I suggest, come to a head over matrimonial discipline and law.

He makes clear that the dissolution of discipline and law, therefore, will lead to disaster for the Church. At The Week, Brendan Dougherty assesses this attack on discipline and law with a succinct — but no less devastating — opening salvo:

Pope Francis has a problem. He believes he heads a religious organization so inept and impotent, it cannot even marry its own members reliably.

Dougherty continues:

Previously, the pope’s thoughts on this matter were matters of hearsay. Now they can’t be denied. And it turns out that the pope isn’t just unguarded and especially candid; he’s juvenile and irresponsible. Maybe even a little stupid.

“What if Catholic marriages are mostly shams, and the sham marriages are mostly Catholic?” is a sophomoric, dorm-room level effusion. And it would be good for a laugh, save for the fact that this was the freaking pope expressing his Olympian contempt for his co-religionists. In effect, he told millions of Catholics that they are not just unmarried, but were incapable of being married, because the modern world has corrupted them and because the Church failed to “catechize” them. This is a view of such sour pessimism, it is hard not to spit.

The pope’s statement openly contradicts the constant teaching and practice of the Church, which put great faith in the ability of humans to marry one another, and in the sacraments of the Church to be effective. The pope may be right that we live in a culture marred by impermanence. Previous cultures that the Church stepped into were marred by tribalism, or even local prejudice and tradition. Special pleading is not new to the world with modernity. The presumption of validity still applied to marriage bonds made inside or outside of the Church.

The Church has always held that valid marriage occurs whenever a single man and a single woman freely vow to marry one another, and intend to live faithful to that union for the rest of their lives. They don’t even have to be Catholics. The Church confidently strode into pagan Europe and affirmed the marriage bonds of non-Christians, who had never had a chance to be “catechized” or who married under greater social and familial pressures than any modern Westerner.

It is telling that the Vatican even “corrected” the transcripts of what the pope said, inserting “some” where he really said “vast majority.” That may reflect Francis wishing to step back from what he said, or it may just be an act of charity by Vatican staff to “cover his nakedness,” so to speak.

Doughterty glosses over the issue of canonical form, which is why I find it so central to Peters’ argument: it’s an often misunderstood but nevertheless essential part of the larger debate. That said, I agree with Dougherty’s overall characterization of the import of this action, and I appreciate that he echoes both Peters and myself about the dishonesty of changing a papal transcript after the fact.

Then, however, Dougherty slips this in:

A pope’s off-the-cuff statements and personal opinions are not, and never have been, infallible guides. This presents no existential crisis for Catholicism.

This is where he and I part ways. It is, in fact, perhaps subconsciously, a response on his part to an exchange we recently had on Twitter, where in the context of a larger political debate, I argued that Francis does pose an existential threat to the Church, and Dougherty disagreed.

For what it’s worth, I consider Michael a friend. We’ve talked about this topic a lot over the past three years, and he’s earned his papal criticism merit badge many times over, even if we don’t see eye-to-eye about the damage being done. That said, while the Church does (as Michael reminded me, come “with promises” given by God), her ultimate indestructibility can fall within more narrow confines than we might otherwise imagine. For the gates of hell to not prevail against the Church, how many of us need to be left standing when the battle has ended? A thousand? A hundred? Ten? One? We tend to think of these promises more broadly, I think, than the way Our Lord intended them. It is my belief that He reassured us that hell would not prevail precisely so that we would take heart when the contrary appeared to be true.

Sister Lucia of Fatima told Cardinal Caffarra that the “final battle between the Lord and the reign of Satan will be about marriage and the family.”

Don’t be afraid, she added, because anyone who operates for the sanctity of marriage and the family will always be contended and opposed in every way, because this is the decisive issue. And then she concluded: however, Our Lady has already crushed its head.

Whatever its finality, this is precisely the battle we’re in, and somehow, the pope has wound up actively and persistently on the wrong side. The Church will never be drummed out of existence entirely, but her existence as we know it will never be the same. To believe otherwise is self-delusion.

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