150. Pope Francis: Are the Great Majority of Sacramental Marriages Null?


You’ve seen the reports of Pope Francis’s recent impromptu response to a question about the crisis of marriage. In his unscripted comments, he initially said that “the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null.” When the Vatican released the official transcript of his comments, with papal approval, it read “a portion of our sacramental marriages are null.” Here’s a link to the story.

Like many instances of Pope Francis’s off the cuff comments, this caused a stir. Here are a variety of responses reported by the Washington Post.

It may not have been prudent for the pope to “plop” this statement out there without more context and nuance. Nonetheless, Pope Francis may well be giving a realistic assessment of the extent of the crisis in the Church today regarding marriage.

[tweetthis]Couples must mean that marriage is a faithful, permanent union of one man & one woman that is open to children.[/tweetthis]


A lot of Catholics have the idea that marriage is something that “happens” to them by virtue of going through a wedding ceremony in the Church. But marriage doesn’t happen unless the ministers of the sacrament (the bride and groom) commit to what marriage is. And one of the conditions for making such a commitment is what the Church calls a proper “knowledge of the sacrament.” Put another way, “ignorance of the sacrament” is grounds for an annulment. In short, couples must mean what the Church means by marriage: a faithful, permanent union of one man and one woman that is open to children.

I took about 2000 couples through marriage preparation when I was the Director of the Marriage and Family Life Office for the Archdiocese of Denver. I’m not a canon lawyer, but based on circumstantial evidence, I would have to guess that, despite sincere efforts to catechize them and invite a change of heart, a majority of those couples did not intend what the Church intends by marriage. For example, how many people marrying in the Church today believe that it is an “injustice” that the Church “denies marriage” to people of the same sex? Those who do not understand why only a man and a woman can marry are suffering quite dramatically from “ignorance of the sacrament” and it can be argued quite strongly that that level of ignorance incapacitates them from entering the sacrament validly.

Francis could have been clearer and more nuanced in his statements. But he is not in error to point out the extent of the crisis. That’s my take. What do you think?

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Photo: Francisco Moreno/Unsplash.com.