If you are Googling about looking for a good summary, I recommend Catholic News Agency here, a summary that will at least provide the parameters of the controversy. If you don’t have time, I will summarize his remarks here as most of the secular media has done: “the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null.” This statement was softened a bit in an official statement issued later by the Vatican with the pope’s approval, but there is no getting around the central point of Francis’ contention that in his opinion a good many couples who married or are currently married are not really engaged in a sacramental union. The pope’s argument rests on his belief that in modern culture couples do not have a well-founded basis in permanence and commitment.
So what are the actual sacramental/legal requirements for a valid Catholic marriage? Bear with me for a second in a quick review of sacramental theology for a moment. Over the past several months we have looked at the development of Church thinking on the sacraments, breaking off on our blog at the time of the Black Plague around 1350 A.D. At that juncture, the Church taught that sacraments were outward signs and experiences of an invisible or metaphysical work of God. After the Plague, and the later Protestant Reformation, the Church came to put more legal emphasis upon the inward sacramental experience resulting from the exact and precise celebration of the outward rite. This is the ex opere operato approach to sacraments (“by the work of the work”), and while the Church has maintained that a “proper intention” of the faithful is important, the state of the faithful does not impact the legitimacy of the sacrament.
Marriage, as a sacrament, has presented numerous difficulties for theologians. In the first instance, it is the only sacrament not celebrated or presided over by a Catholic cleric; the parish priest is “the official witness.” As a priest, I did not marry couples; I witnessed couples conferring the sacrament upon each other. (I was responsible for many aspects of a couple’s wedding, including marital preparation and liturgical preparedness, such as planning with them their Matrimonial Mass, but I did not “confer” marriage upon them; the couple did this for each other.)
By Church Canon Law, which overlaps with sacramental law in many places, the legal Church declaration of validity for a sacramental marriage is made when a couple—where both are baptized and free to marry--makes vows before a priest, deacon, or other approved representative of the Church. This can include a Protestant minister, with the proper permission. The other factor for sacramental validity is sexual relations. (Yes, tribunals do grant declarations of nullity where a marriage in the Catholic Church was never consummated; fortunately, I never had to process such a case.) The reason for the inclusion of sexual intercourse goes back to the joint nature of the purposes of marriage: unity and procreation. (See Canon 1061)
Canons 1095ff discuss the legal reasons why one’s consent to the marriage vows might be judged faulty, and thus grounds for a possible annulment, and if you have the patience to wade through the legalese, there is intriguing material in the Code. It is also true that the Code places significant responsibilities upon the official Church clerics who are preparing a couple for marriage. But at the end of the course, the day of a wedding, there isn’t a pastor alive who doesn’t harbor some doubt about the true state of mind and soul, or the actual readiness of the couple standing before him. As a mental health counselor who devoted many hours to marital counseling, I encountered a great number who began their marriages in what I started to call the “Marital Bermuda Triangle.” The couple first meets at a club on a Friday night, under the influence. They immediately enter that phase of intensive erotic preoccupation with each other, decide to marry within a year and devote that year to planning the ceremony. Three irresistible distractions during what should be a time of sober—literal and figurative—reflection on what they are undertaking.
Pope Francis, in his Thursday remarks, indicated what a lot of priests think—that for both personal and societal reasons it is very hard for a couple to enter a marriage with the full consent and understanding that is necessary for the sacrament of marriage. As one blogger noted on another site, and I have to agree from past experience, the Pope sounded like a priest in a rectory rec room after 10 PM acknowledging, as we often did to each other, that we crossed our fingers on some of the couples we married. In fact, on occasion I would slip a note into the new marriage file in the parish vault that I had some reservations, even though I had met the spirit and letter of the law, and thus if the Tribunal had reason to pull the file down the road, I would be willing to lay out my concerns in testimony.
Pope Francis stressed the absence of “permanence and commitment” in today’s culture. The Vatican in my lifetime has put considerable emphasis on societal trends, possibly misreading them at times. When I was in the active ministry it was always rumored that priests who were ordained during the time of Pope Paul VI (as I was) were more likely to receive laicization than those ordained under John Paul II, on the grounds that my generation was ordained in an atmosphere where a married clergy was often discussed by theologians and churchmen. I can’t consciously recall such influence impacting me at the time of my ordination, and in the case of couples marrying today, I would have to see research on attitudes of marital candidates and how they are shaped by cultural influences today.
What the pope’s words imply in Church law is that if you dig deep enough, you will find an invalidating factor of attitude in many marriages that might be worthy as grounds of annulment; that couples have married “provisionally,” without the intention to stick it out to the end come heck or high water. The irony, it seems to me, is that his words seemed to be a commentary on those presently validly married. His words might have had better impact on Catholics who have forsaken any interest in a “church wedding” with all that this implies.
The second point I would like to make is that human beings—and certainly couples—are a work in progress. The entire purpose of the year of mercy rests upon the premise that humans can change and grow in grace and nature. This certainly applies to married couples: the pair who lives together in marriage for 50 years, for example, has passed through several major stages in normal human development: the art of bonding, making one’s professional bones in the world, generation, mid-life assessment, seniority and preparation for destiny. This is a lot of territory to transverse, individually and with a partner.
I think I know what the pope meant here, but his idea that married persons (ages undetermined) suffer from a provisional attitude to their bond does not do justice to how couples change after they have children and all the other rites of passage. Perhaps he has acknowledged this in his Amoris Laetitia encyclical. But in any event, the union of marriage and its rewards and challenges is a much more diverse mystery than his words would suggest.