The June 23rd airing of EWTN’s World Over hosted guests who responded to concerns over pope Francis’ in-flight comments that most marriages today are invalid, because, as the pope said, most do not enter into marriage with the intention of a life-long relationship. And thus, according to the pope, most marriages are null (theologically, it is true that such intention is necessary for a valid sacramental marriage). The pope further commented that he has seen some cohabiting couples, on the other hand, living together with this firm commitment and thus could be receiving the graces of a real sacramental marriage.
The general agreement by the EWTN panel was that pope Francis was not only in error but also “reckless” in both comments. Not only is it reckless to say that most marriages are invalid, it is also reckless to say that some cohabitating couples can actually be validly married.
Let us address the former concern first, the statement that most marriages are invalid.
- First, from a theological standpoint, there is nothing problematic in saying that most marriages today are null. What is problematic, is suggesting the opposite—as this EWTN guest argued—by saying that consent is the only requirement for a valid marriage. Consent, as we understand the term, is not enough for a valid sacramental marriage; people also need to know what they are consenting to. For example, if a person enters marriage for the purposes of financial security, are they really consenting to a sacramental marriage? Or what if they were brought up to believe that marriage is merely a social contract, and religion just a formality? Are they really consenting to a true sacramental marriage? Or what if they are being pressured by their parents to marry? You see, marriage requires more than a mere act of the will. This is why marriage tribunals exist; to dig deeper, to investigate not only the the “I do” part, but also the intention of the heart as well. To say that consent is the only necessary requirement for marriage, in fact, reflects a formational deficiency (It is not enough to know canon law, or be a canon laywer. One must also have a proper theological foundation upon which to interpret canon law, that is, be amply grounded in a classical Artistotelian/Thomistic theology).
- Secondly, it is an error to say that the pope is devaluing marriage (which this EWTN guest also suggested). Far from devaluing the sacredness of marriage, it can be argued that the pope is actually holding it to a higher standard. Think about it. By saying that most marriages today are null, are you not also implying that most people are failing to live up to the ideal of marriage?
Now on to the second more difficult concern, the statement that some cohabitating could be validly married.
First, I should point out that while I do not necessarily disagree with EWTN’s anaylsis, I cannot help but wonder if their continued treatment of pope Francis’ controversial statements are in keeping with a proper Catholic hermeneutic. It is as if Catholics today are making the same error as the mainstream media. They hear a statement that can be interpreted one way, and then run with it. Where there is ambiguity, there is no effort to assume a prior tradition, or place it in the greater context of Church tradition. They start from a presumption of doubt—as if I were to read the New York Times, a newspaper article, rather than a Church document. Even among many respected clergy, their starting point is doubt. It is as if to say “if one interpretation of a statement is erroneous, then the statement itself is erroneous.” (Imagine if we read Scritpure in this way?) This is why, in the past, Church documents were intended only for well-trained clergy, who were tasked with their implementation. Today, however anyone can read a Church document. And this wide access—which although has its benefits—has also opened the door to greater misinterpretation.
There also needs to be formation in the proper understanding of religious assent, which all Catholics owe the pope in such matters. Religious assent means that we make every effort to interpret his statements in the most charitable way possible that still does not conflict with Church teaching—to bend our minds and hearts to his words and to avoid criticism as far as it is possible. It means that we must operate on the assumption that the pope has a special access to reality that we are not privy to, realizing that he alone is singularly guided by the Holy Spirit unlike any other man on earth. And if we still disagree with the pope, it is knowing the right time and manner in which to voice our disagreement, so as not to sow a spirit of disobedience or foster cynicism in the faithful. I repeat. Priests have a greater duty to protect the Church against a spirit of cynicism and division, than they have in publicly voicing theological concerns. I cannot stress this point enough.
I want to be clear, however. This does not mean that the pope is always right. And this does not mean that we cannot disagree with him on certain matters. The only point I would like to make, is that I have been observing a certain quickness, if you will, a hastiness to judgement. It is not so much that a criticism is made, but rather, the manner in which it is made.
Let me give you a practical example of what I mean. Articulated below is an example of the effort required in religious assent (in other words, of what it means to err on the side of charity);
Let us consider, for a moment, that the pope is not a theologian as we are used to from Italian popes. He is not cultured or metropolitan in that sense. He grew up in an impoverished 3rd world country in which he saw poverty on a daily basis. It is very likely many of the couples he counseled were born and raised on the streets. They likely had no real concept of what a sacramental marriage was. And so it was probably not uncommon that some of these simple people thought they were married, and thus living together (i.e., cohabitating), when in fact they did not go through the proper channels for a valid marriage.
Can some of these couples still receive the graces of a sacramental marriage? Well, Church law is Church law. It cannot be changed. But at the same time, the Church also acknowledges that God can make exceptions to His own laws, realizing that although God makes the rules, He Himself is not bound by those rules. For example, Church law says that Baptism is necessary for salvation. This we must all agree on, since it has been the constant teaching of the Magisterium since the beginning of Christianity. And yet, when considering whether unbaptized babies who die go to heaven, the Church believes and hopes in the mercy of God that they do. “But…how can this be so? You just said that Church law requires baptism for salvation.” Yes. It is true. We are bound to the law, but God Himself is not bound to His own laws. As the Catechism states so elegantly; “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacrament” (CCC 1257). God is a God of love after all. And so He can make exceptions to His own laws. The exception, in other words, does not break the rule. Likewise, the rule is that a Church-appointed witness is necessary for a valid sacramental marriage. But can God also sometimes provide the graces of sacramental marriage to a couple who, for whatever extenuating reason, cannot find or does not know to find a witness? I believe so.
This example I just provided shows the kind of charitable effort required in religious assent owed to the pope. While I do not necessarily agree or disagree with the argument, or with EWTN, my point is that such efforts seem to be lacking in the analysis provided by some guests on EWTN, at least in the reports I have seen. There does not seem to be an acknowledgment, at least in the manner of criticism, that the pope has supreme authority over the whole Church, “a power which he can always exercise unhindered.” (CCC, 882) The pope’s authority is so supreme, in fact, that it outweighs all bishops and cardinals of the world combined. As the Catechism states, “The college or body of bishops has no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, as its head.” So in matters of discipline and practice–which canon law is composed mostly of–the pope is the final judge. He can change it if he so desires.
Does this mean that off-the-cuff comments on an airplane should be taken as formal decrees on changes in Church discipline? No, certainly not (In order for discipline to change, the pope would have to state it explicitly, clearly an unambiguously, from his teaching office).
My only point is that we are called as Catholics to a life of virtue, to stand out from our inordinately critical and cynical American culture as beacons of humility, docility, and restrained strength. It means to be signs of true virtuous living, of being open to being corrected, of exercising restraint of the tongue. And the first place this starts–the first place a Catholic begins to be Catholic–is in how we treat our Holy Father, the one man on earth who represents the unity of the Catholic Church. In a certain sense, the pope is the Catholic Church (every schism in history begins by a rejection of his authority). And his authority spans also to canon law. Popes can change–and have changed–canon law. For example, it used to be required that women wear veils in church. Now that law has been abrogated. This shows that canon law is not the final arbiter. It is a servant to the Church–whose head is the pope–not its ruler. Again, exceptions do not break the rule, because, ultimately, God is not bound by His own laws.