UPDATE 5/28/2017: Edited to include a quote from the Council of Tent.
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 latter concern first, the statement that some cohabitating could be validly married. Quite simply, the Church has always taught this throughout history. It is not pope Francis who is in error, but the EWTN guest panel. As the Council of Trent States;
“There is no doubt that secret marriages, entered by free consent of the parties, are true and valid marriages, as long as the Church has not made them null.” (Council of Trent, Session 24, B. Chp. 1)
Granted, the Church discourages such marriages, and has always warned the faithful against them (the technical term here is “Clandestine marriages,” which has been an ongoing subject of debate throughout history). But just because they may be illicit, does not make the invalid. If Fr. Murray had done his homework, he would have known this. It is unfathomable to me that a theologian would appear on national television and “shoot from the hip” with his responses without really researching the topic first (unfortunately, canon lawyers can sometimes suffer from tunnel vision, judging everything according to the limited purview canon law).
Now let us move on to the former concern, the statement that most marriages are invalid (this one requires a bit longer of an explanation);
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 marriage? Or what if they were brought up to believe that marriage is merely a social contract, a religious 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. If “I do” was all that is required for a valid marriage, then virtually everyone would be validly married..
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?
But the EWTN panel did not seem to think this through enough. Erring on the side of charity does not mean assuming a posture of doubt and suspicion. 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 doing so with tact, modesty, and discretion—preceded by thorough research into the question at hand—so as not to sow a spirit of disobedience and cynicism in the faithful.
Granted, the pope is not always right. And this does not mean that we cannot disagree with him on certain matters. But if we disagree, at least make sure you do so with scholarship and impartiality, not with a posture of a political pundit, who speaks more with emotion than actual substance.
What I see in the manner of criticisms from otherwise stellar and orthodox clergy, is an inherent lack of acknowledgment 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.
But should off-the-cuff comments on an airplane be taken as infallible decrees on Church teaching? No, course not. This is the error that many seem to be making. In order for discipline to change, the pope would have to state it explicitly, clearly an unambiguously, in writing from his teaching office, not when answering questions of reporters. His responses to reporters on an airplane should be taken as him expressing his own opinions, more so than him proclaiming an infallible teaching.