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The June 23rd airing of EWTN’s World Over hosted guests who voiced concerns over pope Francis’ in-flight comments regarding the validity (or lack thereof) of most marriages. According to the pope in an improtu interview, most marriages today are invalid because most do not enter into them with the intention of a life-long relationship. Thus, says the pope, most marriages today are likely null. 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.
I do have some concerns about the panel’s conclusion and use of the word “reckless.” Let us begin with the former comment 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. Marriage has certain requirements in order to be valid. And if those requirements are not met, then the marriage is not valid. So the pope, evidently, felt that most marriages today have not met the requirements for validity. Now granted, saying that most marriages are null is quite a lofty statement. But was it reckless? Is the pope really devaluing marriage, as this EWTN guest suggested? I would argue not. In fact, rather than devaluing the sacredness of marriage, it can be argued that the pope is actually holding it to a higher standard. Why. 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?
If it is reckless to say that most marriages today are null, I would argue it is even more reckless to suggest the opposite—as this EWTN guest stated—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. And while it may seem an affront to marriage tribunals to speak on their behalf, the pope can do that if he wants to; for he does have that authority. Granted, he cannot arbitrarily say “everyone on the west coat is invalidly married, while everyone on the East coast is.” But he did not say this. All he said was “most,” i.e., 51% or more. This is an estimation, a rough guess, based on his experience and infused knowledge by the Holy Spirit. He was not subverting marriage tribunals, but only summarizing their findings. As pope, he can do this. And we as the faithful owe him some respect in this regard, given his office.
Now let us move on to the latter comment, that some cohabitating couples could be validly married. Let us first note that the Church has always taught this throughout history. So there is nothing intrinsically “reckless” in such a statement. 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 makes me wonder 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 teaching. They start from a presumption of doubt—as if I were to read the New York Times (which, admittedly, I never would—not without also starting from a presumption of doubt and suspicion). Even among many respected clergy, their is spring board of 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-formed 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.
Let us also remember that every Catholic owes the pope religious assent. Religious assent means that we begin with a posture of humility and charity, not one of doubt and suspicion. It means we make every effort to interpret the pope’s statements in the most charitable way possible that still does not conflict with Church teaching. 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 granted, we are not barred from disagreeing with him on certain matters. But if we disagree, at least make sure it is done with clarity and impartiality, not with poor scholarship as many political pundits do. Clarity is what is desperately needed in debates such as this.