Pope Francis made some remarks last week regarding invalid marriages, and I’ve received a large number of requests for comment, so here goes . . .
1. When did Pope Francis make his remarks?
During a question-and-answer session on Thursday, June 16 at the opening ceremony for a diocesan congress dealing with his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (the document that he released after the two synods of bishops). So they were unscripted remarks.
2. What did he say?
Unfortunately, the Vatican doesn’t yet have a full transcript available in English. But there is one in Italian.
Without an English transcript to quote, we must rely on news reporting, according to which:
A layman asked about the “crisis of marriage” and how Catholics can help educate youth in love, help them learn about sacramental marriage, and help them overcome “their resistance, delusions and fears.”
The pope answered from his own experience.
“I heard a bishop say some months ago that he met a boy that had finished his university studies, and said, ‘I want to become a priest, but only for ten years.’ It’s the culture of the provisional. And this happens everywhere, also in priestly life, in religious life,” he said.
“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.”
3. “The great majority of our sacramental marriages are null” — he really said that?
Yes. He really said that. It’s on video (in Italian) on the Vatican’s YouTube channel.
4. Is this Church teaching?
No. The Church does not have a teaching about what percentage of marriages (ostensibly sacramental or otherwise) are invalid.
Besdies, Q&A sessions are not the venue in which new magisterial teachings are promulgated. At most, this would be an expression of pastoral opinion on the part of the pope.
5. Does anyone agree with this opinion?
I know of no competent expert in canon law, biblical studies, or theology who would hold the opinion that “the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null.”
In fact, I don’t know of anybody—expert or not—who would hold this view. If Pope Francis holds it, he would be the only one I am aware of.
6. Why do you say, “If Pope Francis holds it”?
Because I’m not certain that he does.
Pope Francis has shown himself to be a man who makes dramatic and inexact statements, particularly when speaking off the cuff.
This is related to his “make a mess” philosophy, according to which it is better to get people’s attention and shake things up rather than let the Church slide into cultural irrelevance.
In a fashion, he seems to be trying to imitate Jesus, who frequently used hyperbole to make arresting statements that tweaked the pious sensibilities of his age. Thus Pope Francis sometimes compares those he critiques to Pharisees and doctors of the law—the same groups that opposed Jesus.
On occasion, everybody blurts out things without thinking them through, and I can’t rule out the possibility that this was simply a case of hyperbole gone wrong—particularly in light of the problems with the claim in question.
Perhaps the pope meant to say something like “a vast number” and ended up saying “the vast majority” instead. Even a moment’s thought would reveal that the claim is seriously problematic, suggesting that this is not the pope’s settled opinion but something that he said without giving it serious thought.
7. Why do you say that?
There are multiple problems with the claim. Some emerge from considering the statement from a canonical perspective. However, I would point to two additional considerations, one from a theological perspective and one from a biblical perspective.
8. What’s the theological argument?
From a theological perspective, the claim is extraordinarily sweeping. It’s not just that many Catholic marriages are invalid, or even that a majority are (which even so would exceed credibility), but that the “vast majority” of such marriages are invalid.
That would mean that Christ and the Holy Spirit have allowed conditions to degenerate so far among the baptized that the “vast majority” of those committed enough to follow the Church’s teachings and practice on marriage enter marriage invalidly. That’s inconceivable.
9. What’s the biblical argument?
From a biblical perspective, we don’t see Jesus taking this line in his day.
It is easy for us to imagine that attitudes toward divorce were stricter in the ancient world—particularly among first-century Jews—than they are today, but this wasn’t the case.
Basically everybody in the ancient world—except Christians—held that marriage did not prevent the possibility of getting divorced and remarried.
This was true among the Romans, the Greeks, and the Jews. Indeed, a prominent school of Jewish thought held that a man could divorce his wife over nothing more than a burned meal.
And even the Jews who had a more restrictive view of divorce—such as the rival school that held a man could divorce his wife if she committed adultery or did something else to bring shame on him—always understood that divorce carried with it the right of remarriage.
The culture that Jesus lived in was just as much a “culture of the provisional” with respect to marriage as ours.
And yet Jesus didn’t treat marriage as invalid but as valid. He stated:
Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery (Mark 10:11-12).
Jesus would not have spoken this way if he viewed the “vast majority” of marriages in his day as invalid. Without a valid first marriage, there would be no adultery in an attempted second marriage.
Jesus thus indicated that one can enter into a valid marriage without understanding it as precluding the possibility of divorce and remarriage.
The Church has understood it likewise. Merely thinking you could, under some circumstances, divorce and remarry is not grounds for an annulment.
10. Have there been any developments since the pope made his remarks?
Yes. According to news reports:
When the Vatican released its official transcript of the encounter the following day, they had changed the comment to say that “a portion of our sacramental marriages are null.”
This is not unusual. It is common practice, extending back multiple papacies, for the official version of a pope’s remarks to be amended to correct misstatements, sources of potential confusion, etc.
When the matter concerns something of substance, it is normal for the change to be personally approved by the pope, which is what happened in this case:
In the Vatican blog “Il sismografo,” Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi said that this change is a revision approved by the pope.
“When they touch on subjects of a certain importance, the revised text is always submitted to the pope himself,” Father Lombardi said. “This is what happened in this case, so the published text was expressly approved by the pope.”
11. What should we make of all this?
The fact Pope Francis made the remark at all is a source for concern, and it should prompt him to reflect on and reevaluate the way he answers questions in public. This is far from the first time something like this has happened when he has answered questions off the cuff.
We may be thankful that there was sufficient presence of mind on the part of those around the pope to propose the change to the official version of the remarks, and we may be thankful that the pope approved the change.
Given the amount of confusion regarding the marriage issue, in society and even in Church circles, let us we keep the matter in prayer.