Defending the Pope, Defending Marriage

( Pgaborphotos/Dreamstime)
Marriage is in crisis; the pope was right to address it, even if he did so clumsily at first.

Marriage is a simple agreement. It requires what philosophers call a speech-act. By freely saying and intending the marital words “I do,” a man and a woman actually become husband and wife. Free consent, then, is the key to forming the marital bond. But as everyone knows, you really have no idea what you are consenting to when you enter into marriage. Many feel trepidation before the act, but our consent to marry proceeds from mysterious wellsprings of trust, love, and hope. Few enter marriage thinking that it’s just a short-term, non-exclusive contract that will never bring about new life or care for the next generation. We make the presumption, naturally, effortlessly, that a man and woman are married when they have said “I do.”

And yet, things aren’t so simple. Western civilization is confused about the nature of marriage. Not only have gender ideologues seized upon our crisis by attacking the basis of marriage in sexual differentiation and complementarity, but even with a proper understanding of marriage as between a man and a woman, we still seem confused. Americans have moved from “the divorce culture” to “the cohabiting culture,” as more young people choose to enter into looser, more provisional bonds that have some shadowy resemblances to the goods of marriage, such as the hope, rather than promise, of lifelong fidelity and openness to life. This cultural confusion about marriage affects everyone, Catholics included.

Enter Pope Francis. It’s clear that — after two years of the Synod on the Family, the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, and regular “off-the-cuff” remarks — one of his highest priorities is to speak to cultures around the world about this crisis. It is a crisis he often associates with “provisionality,” attacking the idea of a “throw-away culture” not simply with respect to the environment, or the unborn, but also with respect to marriage and the inter-generational family.

RELATED: Pope Francis on Love, Marriage, and the Family

This past week, following a session of the Diocese of Rome’s pastoral congress, Pope Francis stirred this stew once again. Speaking freely in response to pastors’ questions about the state of sacramental marriage in the Church, the Holy Father made the extraordinary claim that “the great majority” of sacramental marriages are invalid because men and women marry without understanding the permanence and fidelity that marriage entails. However, even if the language of validity and invalidity sound foreign to non-Catholic ears, most people actually do think marriage is about permanence and fidelity. So these remarks seemed to challenge not only the Catholic presumption of the validity of all sacramental marriages, but also the good will of all people with respect to our understanding of the nature of marriage. The conservative Catholic blogosphere erupted, and the mainstream press followed suit with some measure of puzzled curiosity.

As a matter of canon law, the Church presumes your marriage is valid. This is why, if a marriage fails, and a Catholic asks a tribunal to investigate whether annulment is possible, the Church assigns a “Defender of the Bond,” usually a canon lawyer who gives judiciary defense in favor of the marriage bond. This codifies in the processes of ecclesiastical law what the Church holds to be of natural and divine law: Men and women are able to consent freely to marriage, and no one should put asunder what God has united.

In fairness to the pope, the context of the question must have brought to mind the great pastoral difficulties that priests face, and surely reminded him of his own pastoral work in Argentina, where he saw up-close the personal cost not only of marital breakdown, but of the failure of Church tribunals to work effectively. Pope Francis carries with him, then, a certain pastoral burden for healing the root causes of the marriage crisis. His comment, that “the great majority” of sacramental marriages were invalid, was more of an empirical ex post facto observation than an a priori definitive one. But that’s not how his comment was taken, and with good reason.

#share#No matter how many invalid marriages a pastor may see on the other side of an annulment tribunal, the presumption for validity must be preserved. (Police officers and prosecuting attorneys lose balance in life if they start viewing the “great majority” of people as criminals. Just as we all understand “innocent until proven guilty,” we might understand “valid until proven invalid.” It’s a bad analogy, but bad analogies can be helpful too.) By presuming the validity of marriage, you are presuming that human beings have rational souls and are capable of exercising free will as responsible agents; all the more so for free and rational agents made in the image of God, who instituted marriage as the most instinctive basic principle of human relation. In a word, the presumption for validity represents respect for saying and meaning “I do,” and thus respect for the very humanity of those saying it.

The pope had no intention of contradicting the Church’s teaching concerning the validity of sacramental marriage, only to observe a crisis.

This is why it was so important that the Holy Father approved the Vatican’s prompt “edit” of his remarks. The pope is free to revise anything he says, of course, and in this case he allowed his “great majority” to be changed to something much more modest, namely that only a “portion” or “part” of sacramental marriages are invalid. That’s not simply an edit, but a substantial internal correction of a problematic claim. Such an official correction also points, ironically, to the provisional status of the Holy Father’s frequently occasional remarks. It is perhaps the greatest irony that this pope should so often challenge a culture of provisionality in such a thoroughly provisional way. This is a significant point. The Holy Father seems to find it increasingly difficult to reconcile his personal, informal, spontaneous style with the expectation that you can implicitly trust that every word of a pope will be grounded in the settled teaching of the Catholic Church. We find in Pope Francis a dialogical pope, even a dialectical one. He is frequently revising, even correcting himself, and it’s fair to say that this is unprecedented. The Holy Father wants a conversation more than he wants to exercise his teaching authority.

The official edit is a response to criticism. The pope had no intention of contradicting the Church’s teaching concerning the validity of sacramental marriage, only to observe a crisis. Critics heard him speaking against the presumption of validity, and so were rightly concerned with defending the marital bond. But just as the presumption for validity speaks to the cause of marriage in free consent, the pope’s observations about invalidity were concerned solely with the effect or consequence of seeing so many broken marriages in the Church. In context, speaking to pastors about marital brokenness on the ground, the remark is true enough; but it is to the credit of this pope that he allowed his occasional remarks to be corrected in such a way as to avoid the false impression he was teaching against the Church’s presumption for validity.

Not all conservatives are pacified, however, and for an underreported reason.

While the main story concerned the validity of sacramental marriages, Pope Francis also stated in response to another question that a great many cohabiting couples are really married: “I’ve seen a lot of fidelity in these cohabitations, and I am sure that this is a real marriage, that they have the grace of a real marriage because of their fidelity.”

#related#That is a truly problematic claim that has not yet been “walked back.” It should be. Without any correction whatsoever, the upshot of his remarks could be taken to mean: “People who marry in the Church are probably not really married. People who simply live together, probably are really married, and moreover have the grace of real marriage!” But if we follow the logic of the initial correction, this cannot be what the Holy Father intends. Cohabiting couples are not “really married,” and the Church does not teach that such couples enjoy “some” of the sacramental graces of marriage. The couple lack the very thing which makes a marriage — the explicit exchange of free consent — and so it is impossible for cohabiting couples to be really married, or enjoy the graces of marriage.

If and when the Vatican edits the Holy Father’s remarks on cohabitation, a correction and a distinction could be drawn which makes his second controversial claim less problematic as well. The Church teaches that marriage is an institution that God has written into the fabric of creation, inscribed on our human nature, created in God’s image, male and female. Cohabiting couples, the Holy Father seems to want to say, imperfectly reflect this natural law in their fidelity to one another. Their fidelity should encourage them to actually marry, and so enjoy the graces which God wills for them. This correction would have the same advantages of the earlier edit, as it would move the dialogue further away from provisionality and the throw-away culture that the Holy Father rightly condemns, and towards those bonds of human affection on which the whole human family depends.


The Latest