Thursday, June 23, 2016

Real Marriages

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.”


  1. Michael CummingsJune 24, 2016 at 6:35 PM

    What do you suppose happened in those communities that remained faithful but had no priest for multiple generations? Were all their marriages is invalid?

    1. This is a different situation and I do not see how what you describe can provide justification for the remarks of Pope Francis.

      Priests do not marry a couple. The man and woman marry each other and the priest is a witness for the Church.

      Choosing to live together when you could get married is very different from not having a priest witness your marriage because there isn't one available.

  2. Regan,
    In truth, the comments from Pope Francis were certainly startling overall at first. I have definite thoughts on his intent but no more than prudential certitude.

    For me, the template for Pope Francis is the text of Evangelii Gaudium and Amoris Laetitia. These two documents are sublime in their depth, demand, and beauty of his spirituality, ecclesiology, and doctrine. I truly had been completely baffled by his spoken comments until I read EG in 2014. To truly understand him, I am convinced it has to begin with an unbiased read of his major documents.

    Both documents have melted away my doubts about his orthodoxy, "agenda", intelligence, aptitude, theology or fidelity to Christ and His Church. After reading certain paragraphs, I was convince I was reading a mystic.

    AL struck me even more deeply by his sublime treatment of marriage and family in the modern world. I am in awe of his fearless intimacy with - and trust in - Jesus Christ, and how "far" we must go to bring Christ people. Documents seem to give him more freedom to ponder the universal, objective truths of the faith we expect from popes. And, he is surprisingly gifted explaining these truths.

    When Pope Francis speaks to people, though, - including reporters - his instinct is to speak to the "particular" person or situation, then (possibly) draw to the "universal" and objective truths. This is very different than BXVI and JPII who by comparison more readily accepted the public expectation that every utterance from the Pope is presumed to be doctrinal, moral, precise, and universal to all listeners in every culture.

    I believe PF sets connecting with people ("accompaniment") as the first task of all Christians. When a believer in Jesus Christ makes a heart to heart connection with another person he "becomes" Christ for them AND sees Christ anew in them. It is always a miracle, but the greater the sinner, the greater the miracle!

    So, when Pope Francis speaks to people (especially reporters!) I trust him at his written word in matters of doctrine, and listen to a father drawing sons and daughters back to Jesus with a "scandalous" outpouring of mercy.

    I don't think he has an ideological dichotomy. I think it is mercy that has this effect of simultaneously comforting the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable.

    1. Thanks for the reply, Damon. Yes, there are style differences with Francis that explain some. But we also have troublesome teachings from official documents: Amoris Laetitia Chapter 8. The link below is a post that gets into it more. But very briefly: (1) The world was expecting an answer on communion for divorces and re-married and AL does not provide one -- leaving the door open which is being exploited. (2) AL quotes JP II out of context in a misleading manner. Very serious. I am not happy to cite these but the facts are what they are.