Friday, June 17, 2016

The Pope is wrong about Catholic marriages being invalid

Yesterday Pope Francis gave a press conference at St John's Lateran.

NBC News:
"Young people say 'for life,' but they do not know what it means," he said. And because they get married with the philosophy that a marriage can be ended if it becomes an "inconvenience," their marriages are "nulli," he said, using an Italian word that can be translated as "baseless" or "invalid."

“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.”


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 said that in Argentina’s northeast countryside, couples have a child and live together. They have a civil wedding when the child goes to school, and when they become grandparents they “get married religiously.”

“It’s a superstition, because marriage frightens the husband. It’s a superstition we have to overcome,” the Pope said. “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.”

I can't find anything approaching a full and chronological transcript, but the audio is available for those who speak Italian. There doesn't seem to be much doubt about what he said or what it meant.

(Update: there is a transcript in Italian, but that's a story in itself.)

It fits in not only with what Cardinal Kasper said about the Pope's views on this subject a while ago, but with the reform of the annulment process which Pope Francis promulgated last September. This created a fast track process for granting a decree of annulment for supposedly easy cases, and the architect of the reform remarked at the time that it should be used by large numbers of people. This idea, that a huge number of Catholic marriages are invalid, seems to be floating around at the highest levels in Rome.

Pope Francis' latest remarks are not, of course, magisterial in form. There is no question of his invoking his teaching authority. It is important to say, nevertheless, that they are wrong, and the spread of this idea in the Church would be a very negative thing.

What Pope Francis is saying is not that couples are marrying with explicit reservations about the commitment to marriage, such as would traditionally satisfy a marriage tribunal ('the bridegroom told his friends the day before the wedding that he would divorce her if the marriage became difficult': things like that). He does not say that they pronounce the vows insincerely, or with cynicism. He says that they are incapable of understanding the notion of permanence, because of cultural factors.

Perhaps what the Pope has in mind, to borrow a line of argument from Amoris laetitia, is that while intellectually understanding the teaching of the Church, they do not grasp it deep down. I can understand this line of reasoning, and it may well be true. People who have been brought up in the culture of cohabitation and divorce do not have those habits of mind, those expectations and patterns of behaviour, which are so important in making a permanent commitment stick, and which (in an Aristotelian way) can be described as necessary at a complete grasp of a moral concept. However, this does not undermine the validity of their marriages.

Validity is not dependent upon such 'deep down' virtues, or a deep down 'grasp' in this sense. It depends on a relatively superficial, intellectual comprehension, and the assent of the will to that comprehended idea. We all capable of understanding what a life-time annuity is, a life-time driving ban, or an indelible tattoo. There is nothing hard to understand about the indissolubility of marriage, either. Young people may be poorly prepared to live it, but they know what it is. Furthermore, they have a right to marry, and the rest of us have an obligation to respect the validity of a marriage, unless it is shown to be invalid.

I am reminded of Pope Benedict, who remarked, on this subject:

We run the risk of falling into an anthropological pessimism which, in the light of today's cultural situation, considers it almost impossible to marry.

This is not all, however. As well as suggesting that sacramental marriages are invalid, Pope Francis suggests that de facto unions which are neither sacramental nor civilly formalised are 'real marriages' with 'the grace of a real marriage'. However, this is not so. They are not real marriages in civil law, in canon law, naturally or sacramentally, and the couples are not in a state of grace, and do not receive the sacramental grace of marriage. It is possible that the couples are acting in good faith, but you can't receive the grace of a sacrament which you haven't bothered to receive. Pope Francis' explanation for their refusal to marry is not helpful to their cause: the 'husband' is afraid of the commitment. So in these cases there is an explicit refusal of a life-long commitment. Even among non-Catholics, not obliged to follow the Church's form, such a union could not be sacramental. Even among pagans, this could not constitute a natural marriage. It may have a measure of fidelity, but it lacks the intention of permanence.

Pope Francis is down-grading at least most putatively sacramental marriages, and up-grading at least many co-habitations. The way he talks may even suggest that the 'real' marriages of the co-habitees are better than the 'nulli' marriages of those who've tied the knot in church, but I don't suppose he means that. Rather, they may meet in the middle somehow. Such a view is wrong, however, because it implies that there is no advantage to getting married after serious reflection and with sincere intentions, over co-habiting. There are advantages: married couples get the sacramental grace and have the chance, within their union, of living in a state of grace; co-habiting couples do not.

Many people are writing on this subject; I recommend Edward Peters, who approaches the matter from a canon law point of view. I don't see this as a conservative or traditional Catholic vs. liberal issue. I can't see liberal Catholics wanting to say that their marriages are invalid; even divorced and remarried couples sometimes resist that conclusion about their first marriages. This is an issue on which Pope Francis has developed his personal views, and is wrong.

Support the work of the LMS by becoming an 'Anniversary Supporter'.


  1. I am tired of Know-it-all Catholics taking the pope to task for this that and the other. This is a modern trend and an unsavoury one. Pope Francis often speaks pastorally and without a prepared text. He is not the theologian that Pope Emeritus Benedict is - nobody said he needed to be. Not everything he says has to be an ex cathedral statement. Sometimes, he is just being being the world's Parish Priest.

    1. He's not a theologian, he's not speaking authoritatively, he's not got a prepared text... so why do you object to people saying he's got it wrong?

    2. "Pope Francis often speaks pastorally"

      I think that Dr Shaw and Ed Peters, among others today, have given some compelling reasons why these remarks will actually do much more pastoral harm than good - whatever the Pope's intentions may have been.

      And there's nothing pastoral about that.

    3. Anonymous5:04 am

      No, he is definitely NOT a theologian, but then as a Catholic man, much more so the POPE, he's not supposed to be a heretic, either.

    4. I am tired of sycophantic half-wits who will constantly attempt to justify, spin and excuse the most diabolical heresies, ambiguities and errors through misguided human respect and false piety, merely because the one who utters them is the "Pope".

  2. I do not think the Holy Father has to be a theologian. That's a slightly more dubious qualification than being a Papal Diplomat. Canon Lawyers seem to make reasonably articulate popes on the whole. What no pope is or should be is the world's parish priest. That is slanderous ultramonantism run amok.

    "I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.”

    1. A Pope does not have to be a theologian but he does have to be a Catholic! Bergoglio is neither.

  3. The Pope is wrong - finally you can say it!

  4. What happened to mortal sin? Is this now no longer valid...thus the sacrament of reconciliation - confession - no longer needed? Who will be "accompanying" all the poor souls as they descend into the darkest abyss of all .. called Hell?

    1. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, of course!

    2. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, of course!

  5. What happened to mortal sin? Is this now no longer valid...thus the sacrament of reconciliation - confession - no longer needed? Who will be "accompanying" all the poor souls as they descend into the darkest abyss of all .. called Hell?

  6. I'm inclined to believe him on this particular issue. Have you casually asked any adult Catholics if they can tell you what makes for the Sacrament of Matrimony? Nine times out of ten, you get a quizzical look and no solid explanation. If they cannot tell you what makes for a Sacrament, I'm bettin' they knew even less the day they entered into it. If you don't know the basics, how can you swear to God on that day to keep it? Hello? You have to know about this before you enter into it for it to be valid. And that basic ignorance is why he's drawn the conclusion that he has. Way to go Francis! Get 'em mad as all get out. Maybe then they'll start educating people so they can actually enter into valid sacramental marriages again. God bless. Ginnyfree.

    1. A theological understanding of the sacraments is never necessary for their valid use. Anglicans can get married validly and Methodists can validly baptise. Look up the conditions of validity for yourself.

    2. Have you casually asked any adult Catholics if they can tell you what makes for the Sacrament of Matrimony?

      As Dr Shaw says, validity doesn't require all of that. Really, how many typical medieval peasants - or for that matter, even artisans or nobles - could have provided a clear theological definition of matrimony? And all of those marriages were always presumed to be valid by the Church. It is for this reason that Dr Shaw's recalling of Pope Benedict XVI's warning about the danger of "falling into an anthropological pessimism" about the innate capability of modern Catholics to even enter into marriage.

      Pope Leo XIII put it succinctly in Casti Connubii (1931): "[F]reedom, however, regards only the question whether the contracting parties really wish to enter upon matrimony or to marry this particular person; but the nature of matrimony is entirely independent of the free will of man, so that if one has once contracted matrimony he is thereby subject to its divinely made laws and its essential properties." (CC #6)

      Maybe then they'll start educating people so they can actually enter into valid sacramental marriages again.

      And exactly whose fault is it that these Catholics haven't been properly educated about marriage, or for that matter, the faith? And given comments then-Cardinal Bergoglio made about such marital failures in Buenos Aires, it might be fair to ask him about his role as chief shepherd there, too. How much educating did *he* do as a shepherd of his flocks?

    3. Wow, I know this is way late to finally reply, but way back in time before the modern elimination of basic catholic catechesis, all catholics knew the basics about our faith. We didn't need to give long theological explanations but we knew our faith. I never said you need to be able to give a elaborate theological definition of the sacrament of matrimony to enter into it. Folks just need the basics and if those basics are learned and known, they can easily be explained to others, that is the nature of evangelisation we all do it naturally, or used to anyway. Parents teach children, teachers teach children, priests teach their parish. This is evangelisation and it is powered by our own love of Christ. Love for Christ causes this to naturally flow outwards to others in our lives. It doesn't happen because many folks these days are smouldering wicks and not bright shiny lamps. The claim that ignorance serves God in anyway is ridiculous. Medieval peasants? You're stereotype of laypersons not born in the modern age is nauseating. Do you think this highly of all persons of the past? The truth is that the priest of the mere peasant took his time to actually educate the intending couple so that they would and could enter into their marriage in the way Christ intended when he interviewed them before the wedding. If they were lacking in knowledge, he provided it. That is why he could actually stand up in the congregation and witness for the Church, which means he swears to God at that moment in his life, that these two persons are ready, willing and able (no theologian will dare to touch that simple definition) to get married. Yeppers. When the priest announces, "You may kiss your bride." to all watching, he has just sworn to God publically that these persons are capable of entering valid sacramental marriage and his eternal salvation is dependant on this action. It is a mortal sin on him if he hasn't done all his Christian duty demands of him as a priest of God up to this point in time. When a couple presents themselves to be married to a priest, he has agreed to help them enter into the Sacrament validly. It isn't just finding an empty spot in the parish calendar to fit them in. He is required to make sure they know exactly what they are going to do. The validity of their sacrament is in his hands at this point. If he loves Christ, he will naturally engage the engaged couple to find any faults that may impede or even nullify their intended sacramental bond. If you haven't noticed, few priests actually bother with the couple anymore, accept to make the paperwork works. An invalid marriage passed off as if it is a Sacrament is just as much a failure of the priesthood as it is the couple. This is another of the reasons why this issue gets swept under the rug and dismissed. Sorry for the late reply. God bless. Ginnyfree.

    4. You don’t seem to have noticed that Athelstan and I are *defenending* the ability of the ‘peasants’ to get married validly.

  7. I do not comment on the opinions of the current Holy Father, although more than happy to do so with regard to the other previous 265 ones .

    However, marriage is indissoluble and is for life, regardless of problems of any kind, illness, financial, faithlessness, imprisonment and so on.

    Life can be for 6 months, say a car crash, or another 80 years, who can say?

    Now that is a relatively easy concept to understand. It can, and should be put to each prospective partner, individually, by the priest some time before the marriage. The very few people who cannot understand this, possibly about 1% of the population are of defective mind and not able in any case to enter into a valid marriage.

    If anyone says no to this then they should not be married and indeed the marriage would be openly invalid from the start.

    That is Church doctrine and must be the starting point of any procedures on marriage by any Catholic.

    ps : what Argentinian peasants or any others, get up to is irrelevant.