Pope Francis: “The Great Majority of Our Sacramental Marriages are Null”

weddingringNo, that headline is not a repeat. But you’re right if you think it sounds strangely familiar.

In May of 2014, Cardinal Walter Kasper reported, in an interview with Commonweal, that Pope Francis had said he believed half of all Catholic marriages were invalid [all emphases to follow added]:

I’ve spoken to the pope himself about this, and he said he believes that 50 percent of marriages are not valid. Marriage is a sacrament. A sacrament presupposes faith. And if the couple only want a bourgeois ceremony in a church because it’s more beautiful, more romantic, than a civil ceremony, you have to ask whether there was faith, and whether they really accepted all the conditions of a valid sacramental marriage—that is, unity, exclusivity, and also indissolubility. The couples, when they get married, they want it because it’s stable. But many think, “Well, if we fail, we have the right.” And then already the principle is denied. Many canon lawyers tell me that today in our pluralistic situation we cannot presuppose that couples really assent to what the church requires. Often it is also ignorance. Therefore you have to emphasize and to strengthen prematrimonial catechesis. It’s often done in a very bureaucratic way. No, we have to provide catechesis. I know some parishes in Rome where couples have to attend catechesis, and the pastor himself does it. We must do much more in prematrimonial catechesis and use pastoral work and so on because we cannot presuppose that everybody who is a formal Christian also has the faith. It wouldn’t be realistic.

As one might expect, this caused a bit of an uproar at the time. Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote a column at The Week entitled, “Pope Francis says half of marriages today are invalid. He’s wrong.” Writes Dougherty:

In the context of adjudicating annulments, Polish Bishop Antoni Stankiewicz said that any view that dismisses so many unions as invalid reflects an “anthropological pessimism” that would hold that “it’s almost impossible to get married, in view of the current cultural situation.” If the pope’s view is that 50 percent of Catholic marriages are invalid, it is not just an insult to our natural human ability to marry, but also an insult to St. Paul, who said that the moral law is written on men’s hearts. And it’s an insult to God’s grace to imagine that our own age is somehow different, that we cannot depend on God’s help to live out the vocations He gives us.

At In Light of the Law, American canonist Dr. Edward Peters, usually fairly reserved in his analysis, said this:

Cardinal Kasper, in a lengthy interview that shows no let-up in his push to change Church discipline on marriage, said, among other things, “I’ve spoken to the pope himself about this, and he said he believes that 50 percent of marriages are not valid.

I am stunned at the pastoral recklessness of such an assertion. Simply stunned.

Suppose the cardinal had claimed that “50 percent of ordinations are not valid”. Would not such a claim, coming from an internationally-renowned prelate and attributed to a pope, have a shattering effect on the morale of deacons, priests, and bishops around the world? Would not especially those clergy laboring under vocational difficulties immediately conclude that their difficulties were the consequence of having been invalidly ordained, whereupon most of them would just give up? And would not those preparing for holy orders be paralyzed with fear over proceeding to ordination until whatever is behind such a massive invalidity rate were discovered and remedied? Of course they would.

Well, if tossing out a comment to clergy alleging rampant invalidity of holy orders would be pastorally unthinkable, by what right does the cardinal casually tell laity that 50% of their marriages are invalid—even if the pope did say it? Does turmoil among married persons in the wake of such a remark not matter to any except those who suffer it? As I said, I am stunned that such a remark was made, even if it was a mere repetition of another’s views.

Phil Lawler echoed Peters in a column at Catholic Culture, then added:

At a time when pastors should be doing everything possible to help strengthen marriage, and to help troubled couples patch up their difficulties and revive their relationships, Cardinal Kasper’s statement is likely to prompt such couples to wonder whether they’re really married at all.

If you’re wondering whether it’s worthwhile to try to salvage your marriage, and then you hear someone touted as “the Pope’s theologian” saying that 50% of marriages aren’t real marriages, isn’t it likely that your first thought is that your marriage is one of those false unions, and might as well be abandoned? So the next stop is the divorce lawyer’s office, and then, with Cardinal Kasper’s quote in hand, a petition for annulment.

And what about the children of those unions? Does the “mercy” of which Cardinal Kasper speaks so often extend to them?

The general consensus, as you’re probably already gathering, was that even if this is true — and it may not be — it’s a pretty stupid and discouraging thing to say. Of course, there was the question — always present in the “second hand information” defense — of whether the pope really said it at all. (Ross Douthat did note that the former Cardinal Bergoglio referenced this belief on the part of his predecessor in Buenos Aires, but Francis didn’t take ownership of the belief at the time)

Well, we no longer need to wonder. From a papal address today:

“We live in a culture of the provisional,” the Pope said in impromptu remarks June 16. After addressing the Diocese of Rome’s pastoral congress, he held a question-and-answer session.

A layman asked about the “crisis of marriage” and how Catholics can help educate youth in love, help them learn about sacramental marriage, and help them overcome “their resistance, delusions and fears.”

The Pope answered from his own experience.

“I heard a bishop say some months ago that he met a boy that had finished his university studies, and said ‘I want to become a priest, but only for 10 years.’ It’s the culture of the provisional. And this happens everywhere, also in priestly life, in religious life,” he said.

“It’s provisional, and because of this the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null. Because they say “yes, for the rest of my life!” but they don’t know what they are saying. Because they have a different culture. They say it, they have good will, but they don’t know.”

He spoke of his encounter with a woman in Buenos Aires who “reproached” him. She said that priests study for the priesthood for years and can get permission to leave the priesthood to marry and have a family. For the laity, this woman said, “we have to do the sacrament for our entire lives, and indissolubly, to us laity they give four (marriage preparation) conferences, and this is for our entire life.”

He goes on to talk about some of the reasons he believes that people will enter the lifelong commitment to marriage without being ready for it:

He noted that as Archbishop of Buenos Aires he had prohibited marriages in the case of “shotgun weddings” where the prospective bride was pregnant. He did this on the grounds there was a question of the spouses’ free consent to marry.

“Maybe they love each other, and I’ve seen there are beautiful cases where, after two or three years they got married,” he said. “And I saw them entering the church, father, mother and child in hand. But they knew well (what) they did.”

Pope Francis attributed the marriage crisis to people who “don’t know what the sacrament is” and don’t know “the beauty of the sacrament.”

“They don’t know that it’s indissoluble, they don’t know that it’s for your entire life. It’s hard,” the Pope said.

He added that a majority of couples attending marriage prep courses in Argentina typically cohabitated.

“They prefer to cohabitate, and this is a challenge, a task. Not to ask ‘why don’t you marry?’ No, to accompany, to wait, and to help them to mature, help fidelity to mature.”

These are valid concerns, but where is the call to repentance? To chastity? How can they mature if they won’t amend their lives?

Personally, I believe there may be some validity to the idea that a number of modern marriages might, if scrutinized, be found to be invalid due to improper formation (and whose fault is that?) or consent. I wouldn’t hazard a guess on how many, nor do I think that’s a particularly good idea. The more the idea is promoted that “your marriage probably isn’t valid,” the more likely it is that people are going to try to get out of it. And many of them aren’t going to wait for a canonical process. They’re going to jump right to the highly questionable situations outlined in Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia with full pastoral approval; we already know that nobody in the Catholic hierarchy is going to counsel them otherwise.

Will those who made such strong statements about how imprudent Kasper’s repetition of this idea level the same charge at Francis? Will they call him “reckless”, or say how they’re going to ” the divorce lawyer’s office, and then, with Cardinal Kasper’s quote in hand, a petition for annulment”?

I suppose we’ll soon find out. Until then, pray for the conversion of Pope Francis, for God’s will to be done with this papacy, and for the next successor of St. Peter to be a wise and holy and courageous man who can begin setting things right.

UPDATE: Somehow, I missed this line in the last paragraph of the above-linked CNA report:

“I’ve seen a lot of fidelity in these cohabitations, and I am sure that this is a real marriage, they have the grace of a real marriage because of their fidelity, but there are local superstitions, etc.”

That’s a quote from Pope Francis. These “cohabitations” are a “real marriage, they have the grace of a real marriage because of their fidelity…” I have nothing else to say.

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