Among the latest eye-brow-raising comments from Pope Francis, the one receiving most attention is his claim that the “great majority” of sacramental marriages are null – despite a Francis-approved correction of “great majority” to “a portion”. Francis was just using hyperbole. Possibly. But we need to look at his original statement in context to better understand Francis and the full implication of his comments. Three brief points on this.
1. The "great majority" comment has become a bit of a red herring. There has been no Vatican correction or blog spin-doctoring (that I have seen anyway) of the pope’s claim that cohabitors can have a “real marriage with grace”. Wait. Let's look at that one again. Two people merely living together (traditionally called “living in sin”) can have a real marriage with grace. Understood that the Holy Father is not protected by infallibility in this setting. But even outside of infallibility, the pope’s words have a profound effect. So he saw fit to correct the “great majority” line; but as of yet has left alone the line about cohabitors having a real marriage with grace. We must surmise he thinks no correction is needed.
2. According to Francis, they "have the grace of a real marriage because of their fidelity." Two consequences of this. (a) Rather than their commitment to fidelity, it is their fidelity itself that effects the marriage. So if fidelity fails, this manner of thinking would suggest that there no longer is a marriage. (b) A few days after these comments from Francis, we heard from Reinhard Cardinal Marx speaking in Dublin, Ireland: “We have to respect the decisions of people. We have to respect also, as I said in the first synod on the family — some were shocked, but I think it’s normal — you cannot say that a relationship between a man and a man, and they are faithful, that it is nothing, that has no worth.”
So just as (for Francis) fidelity between a man and a woman makes a real marriage with grace, so too (for Marx) two men who are "faithful" to each other also have a relationship of worth - even if not a marriage. So long as there is fidelity, living in sin is a marriage with grace; and sodomy is something positive and has value.
3. Francis juxtaposes (a) great majority of sacramental marriages are invalid and (b) cohabitors can have a real marriage with grace. Taking both comments together, we see a general posture of Francis against sacramental marriages and in favor of mere cohabitors. Church weddings are more likely than not to be invalid whereas cohabitors can have a real marriage with grace. His comments are negative regarding sacramental marriages and positive regarding cohabitors.
Francis often sees the world through a false dichotomy of insiders versus outsiders. The insiders are presumed to be rule-following, sycophant, robots who are self-righteous and judgmental. The outsiders might be a little rough but are authentic. Insiders are hypocrites; outsiders are genuine. If you are not the Prodigal Son, you are branded as the Elder Brother.
Through this lens, Francis sees the “great majority” of Church weddings largely as just a grand spectacle with little true substance - hypocrisy, "like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness." (Mt 23:27) ...not valid marriages; whereas simple people who don't go in for all the pomp and just live together would be more authentic and thereby contract a "real marriage with grace."
So now when friends or family decide to cohabitate, it will be even more difficult to make the case for marriage. I already hear the reply. “The pope said most sacramental marriages are invalid anyway. We can have a ‘real marriage’ just living together.”