After Pope Francis on Thursday said “the great majority” of Catholic marriages are religiously null because people don’t understand the concept of a lifetime commitment, some prominent traditional Catholics lambasted the pontiff as “irresponsible” and that his statement could possibly discourage people from working on their marriage relations.
Francis’s comments, which were reported by the Catholic News Agency, came during the question-and-answer session of a meeting of the Diocese of Rome.
According to the CNA, a layperson asked about the “crisis of marriage” and how Catholics can help young people overcome their “resistance, delusions and fears” about marriage.
Francis, who in his three-plus years as pope has regularly made news with his off-the-cuff remarks that at times seem to conflict with church doctrine, cited a case in which he’d heard of a young man who wanted to become a priest, but just for 10 years. The culture is too provisional, Francis said.
“It’s provisional, and because of this the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null,” the pope reportedly said. “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.”
Reuters reported Friday that the Vatican issued an Italian transcript changing Francis’s words to say “some” instead of the “great majority.” A Vatican spokesman said the pope’s off-the-cuff remarks are sometimes edited after consulting with him or among aides, Reuters reported.
Edward Peters, a popular canon lawyer and blogger, wrote Friday that the pope’s comments were the equivalent of a “nuclear winter” because they suggest that most people have failed at “the most natural” of human efforts.
“But beyond the arresting scope of the claim that nullity is rampant, there is the debilitating effect that such a view can and doubtless will have on couples in difficult marriage situations. After all, if ‘the great majority’ of Christian marriages are, as alleged by Francis, already null, then couples struggling in difficult marriages and looking for the bread of spiritual and sacramental encouragement may instead be offered stones of despair — ‘your marriage is most likely null, so give up now and save everyone a lot of time and trouble,’ ” Peters wrote.
Ross Douthat, a popular Catholic conservative who writes commentary for the New York Times, let loose a series of tweets critiquing the pope, starting with this one:
Again, extraordinary, irresponsible and ridiculous.
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) June 16, 2016
Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology at the Catholic Villanova University, was among church experts who saw the comments differently:
When the pope says what the vast majority of pastors, theologians, and canon lawyers think https://t.co/LJ0XIwso91
— Massimo Faggioli (@MassimoFaggioli) June 16, 2016
Other leading Catholic conservative voices stayed in the middle. Robert George, a constitutional law professor at Princeton University, tweeted this:
This is entirely possible. The erosion of the understanding of what marriage is has consequences for what people do. https://t.co/HrKpv3ngnz
— Robert P. George (@McCormickProf) June 16, 2016
Francis has spoken regularly and in accessible language about the challenge of relationships, and of marriage. He devoted two years to high-level meetings on the challenges to the modern family, and in April released a document that is the church’s warmest welcome in modern times to divorced and remarried couples, saying they shouldn’t be judged, discriminated against or excluded from church life.
Catholics had anxiously awaited the document, as their faith excludes people who have divorced and remarried outside the church from the core rite of Communion. Francis, in the April document, encouraged their priests to be merciful in considering whether such Catholics can receive Communion.
Marriage, in Catholic teaching, is a sacrament, an “original gift from God to humanity,” says the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops website. “It is a permanent, faithful, fruitful partnership between one man and one woman. The USCCB says divorce “claims” to break marriage, but only a church tribunal can say that a marriage isn’t valid because a real bond never existed. One of the reasons church courts may give for annulling a marriage is to say that the parties were unprepared.
In his comments Thursday, Francis noted that when he was archbishop in Buenos Aires, he had prohibited marriages in the case of “shotgun weddings,” where the prospective bride was pregnant, CNA reported. He did this on the grounds there was a question of the spouses’ free consent to marry.
“Maybe they love each other, and I’ve seen there are beautiful cases where, after two or three years they got married,” he said. “And I saw them entering the church, father, mother and child in hand. But they knew well (what) they did.”
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.