Rorate Caeli

Pope Francis' catastrophic remarks of June 16, 2016 - Part I of Commentary.

1. Pope Francis says that "great majority of sacramental marriages are null", but some cohabitations are real marriages.
2. How Amoris Laetitia and Mitis Iudex paved the way for Francis' statement.
3. Bergoglio welcomed his niece's defiance of Church teaching on marriage

In a short but already overheated papacy littered as no pontificate before with an avalanche of papal words, Francis' remarks during his Q & A on June 16, 2016 are surely among the worst that he has spoken. Our commentary is divided into two parts. This one is on his statements regarding sacramental marriages and cohabitation, and the antecedents for his statements in his previous teachings and actions. The second part will be about Francis' denunciation of the desire for precise doctrine and "rigidity" on divorce, remarriage and baptism.

[NC: One important editorial note. This morning, the Vatican released a transcript of the papal talk, scandalously tampering with what was really said by the Pope. What the Pope said, and was recorded, and is available on video here (starts at 1:14:20), was, "una grande maggioranza dei nostri matrimoni sacramentali sono nulli" ("a great majority of our Sacramental matrimonies are null"). The transcript released by the Vatican says, "una parte", "a part/portion", instead of "a great majority".]

I. What the Pope said on sacramental marriages and cohabitation.

For the record:

Pope Francis said Thursday that the great majority of sacramental marriages today are not valid, because couples do not enter into them with a proper understanding of permanence and commitment.

“We live in a culture of the provisional,” the Pope said in impromptu remarks June 16. After addressing the Diocese of Rome’s pastoral congress, he held a question-and-answer session.

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 10 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.”

And also this:

He added that a majority of couples attending marriage prep courses in Argentina typically cohabitated.

 “They prefer to cohabitate, and this is a challenge, a task. Not to ask ‘why don’t you marry?’ No, to accompany, to wait, and to help them to mature, help fidelity to mature.”

He said that in Argentina’s northeast countryside, couples have a child and live together. They have a civil wedding when the child goes to school, and when they become grandparents they “get married religiously.”

“It’s a superstition, because marriage frightens the husband. It’s a superstition we have to overcome,” the Pope said. “I’ve seen a lot of fidelity in these cohabitations, and I am sure that this is a real marriage, they have the grace of a real marriage because of their fidelity, but there are local superstitions, etc.”

(Source: Catholic News Agency, Most marriages today are invalid, Pope Francis suggests. June 16, 2016.)

It should be pointed out that Pope Francis did not merely "suggest" that most sacramental marriages are invalid; he actually stated it, straight out, as a fact. Nevertheless it is a pleasant surprise that CNA has come out with a headline that, at least, does not try to completely bury the outrageous character of what the Pope just said.

The implications of the Pope's remarks are already being discussed all over social media and will surely be the subject of numerous commentaries in the coming days. Dr. Edward Peters -- with whom we do not always agree but whose learned take on matters we do respect -- has already published a strong reaction: The great majority of Christian marriages are valid. Suffice it to repeat what he says about the impact on the Pope's words -- because they do have impact -- on many troubled marriages:

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.’

We will add that if indeed the great majority of sacramental marriages are null, then the Church has been running a scam since time immemorial when it comes to the Sacrament of Matrimony. Why allow couples to get married in church and to think they are truly married when they have not undergone the extremely strenuous and prolonged "preparation" that Francis' mind seems to demand before a relationship can become part of the select few of valid sacramental marriages? It is essentially a charge that the Church does not know what it is doing, and has not known what it is doing since, well, almost the beginning. Combined with Francis' view that a cohabitation can be a real marriage too, then ... perhaps it is better for couples to just enter a live-in relationship!

We might also ask -- where is the trust in God's grace in all of this? Is anyone ever truly fully prepared and worthy to be married or, for that matter, to be ordained? Or even to receive Holy Communion? Is it not the case that we seek the help of God's grace precisely because we know that our weakness demands constant support, and that it is only by His grace that every temptation and weakness can be overcome in whichever state of life we find ourselves in? Here we see one of the great paradoxes of Francis: he lowers down the bar for receiving the Most Holy Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ in Holy Communion, and for Baptism, while effectively raising the bar to far less attainable levels for Holy Matrimony.

The Pope's musings shouldn't take us by surprise, though. His belief that a great majority of sacramental marriages are null while cohabitation can be a good thing were already clearly foreshadowed in Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus and Amoris Laetitia respectively.

II. Mitis Iudex and the destruction of the principle that a marriage is presumed valid until proven otherwise.

Let us first return to Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus and the reform of what is commonly called the Church's "annulment" process. Remember that when this reform came out, the man appointed by Francis to design it, Msgr. Pio Vito Pinto, asserted in L'Osservatore Romano that it was an invitation to the bishops to ramp up the number of annulments "from the restricted number of a few thousand annulments to that immeasurable [number] of unfortunates who might have a declaration of nullity"? Or that respected canon lawyers -- no "radtrads" or "mere bloggers" -- warned that the Mitis Iudex will pave the way to the "Catholic version of no-fault divorce" and to serious abuses of the "shorter process" of obtaining declarations of nullity? In the words of the canon lawyer Benedict Nguyen:

What Mitis Iudex has effectively done is overturn in practice the all-important principle found in canon 1060, where marriage is presumed to be valid until proven otherwise. In allowing the shorter process for cases deemed to be null “by particularly evident arguments”, Mitis Iudex is allowing a sort of pre-judgment of a marriage as null before a process is even selected.

(We invite our readers to revisit our collection of posts on Mitis Iudex [Catholic Divorce], especially the following: 1) Catholic Divorce - Head of Vatican Commission Admits in Official Paper: Surge in Number of "Annulments" Intended; and 2) Catholic Divorce - Canonical critiques of annulment reform are piling up: Will the Vatican, the bishops, and the Francis "Amen corner" listen?)

Unfortunately, these serious warnings and even the in-your-face statements of Msgr. Pinto were brushed off at the time as alarmist or exaggerated, or were simply ignored. Mitis Iudex came into force last year (December 8) with nary a murmur. Perhaps the only exception has been in Italy, where the bishops have resisted the attempts by Bishop Nunzio Galantino (Secretary-General of the Italian Episcopal Conference) and the Roman Rota to dissolve the 15 regional tribunals that handle declarations of nullity and replace them with more than 220 diocesan tribunals instead -- a situation that will obviously lead to far less competent hands handling the process, surely leading to a flood of marriages being declared null and void on flimsy grounds. (See How will the reform of marriage nullity cases proceed in Italy? published earlier this week by CNA.)

Now that the Pope has openly stated that in his view most sacramental marriages are null, the reforms come into clearer focus. It is now undeniable that the reforms are a direct effect of his views on marriage. Indeed, his reforms only make sense if seen through his lens. Why expose the process for declaring marriages null to an extremely slipshod and casual process, and why desire an "immeasurable" number of declarations of nullity, unless you think that most marriages are null anyway? Indeed, as canon lawyer Benedict Nguyen pointed out, the "shorter process" itself overturns the principle that marriages are presumed valid until proven otherwise.

Instead, it seems that for Pope Francis, a marriage is presumed null until proven otherwise. After all, if one believes that the "great majority" of marriages are null then logic dictates that a given marriage is more likely to be null than valid. There is no escape from this conclusion, although the Apologetics Industry will most likely try to find one. (It will be no surprise if they even find ways to show that the Pope did not really mean what he so clearly said.)

III. Amoris Laetitia and the approval of cohabitation

Francis declares that cohabiting couples ought NOT to be asked, "why don't you marry"? Instead, we must "accompany, to wait, and ... help them to mature, help fidelity to mature", while not telling them to get married. The implications are easy to see: for Francis, cohabitation can and does result in maturity and is helpful to fidelity. The Church, far from exhorting them to marry, should just wait for them to decide to get married, all the while "accompanying" them without bothering to remind them of marriage.

(Incidentally this is one more proof that when Francis speaks of "accompaniment" he is not talking about reminding or teaching those in irregular situations to finally start living according to the law of the Church, as some 'conservatives' have desperately tried to maintain. Furthermore, with Francis' asserting that some cohabitations are real marriages, it has to be asked -- to what end are such couples to be "accompanied"?  Is accompaniment for its own sake?)

Most of all there is no mention whatsoever of the Church's traditional approach to cohabiting couples: to tell them to separate and to live chaste lives first, fleeing in horror from all occasions of sin. (In the case of cohabiting couples that already have children and for various reasons have a shared domestic life that could not be ended without great harm, the Church has still historically commanded that they observe chastity until they are married in the sight of God.) Indeed if Francis' advice is to be taken seriously then cohabiting couples are not to be told to separate at all -- otherwise there would be no couple to "accompany" in the first place.

The Pope's approval on cohabitation is not surprising either when one considers what he says about it in Amoris Laetitia (henceforth AL). One of the less-studied aspects of AL is its openness to cohabitation or live-in relationships.

In number 33 of AL, we find this intriguing comment:

Yet if this freedom lacks noble goals or personal discipline, it degenerates into an inability to give oneself generously to others. Indeed, in many countries where the number of marriages is decreasing, more and more people are choosing to live alone or simply to spend time together without cohabiting. 

If "spending time together without cohabiting" is a manifestation of "not giving oneself generously", then is "spending time together cohabiting" a form of generous self-giving?

Cohabitation is treated at greater length in the infamous Chapter 8 of AL, specifically in nos. 293 and 294:

293. The Fathers also considered the specific situation of a merely civil marriage or, with due distinction, even simple cohabitation, noting that “when such unions attain a particular stability, legally recognized, are characterized by deep affection and responsibility for their offspring, and demonstrate an ability to overcome trials, they can provide occasions for pastoral care with a view to the eventual celebration of the sacrament of marriage”.

On the other hand, it is a source of concern that many young people today distrust marriage and live together, putting off indefinitely the commitment of marriage, while yet others break a commitment already made and immediately assume a new one. “As members of the Church, they too need pastoral care that is merciful and helpful”. For the Church’s pastors are not only responsible for promoting Christian marriage, but also the “pastoral discernment of the situations of a great many who no longer live this reality. Entering into pastoral dialogue with these persons is needed to distinguish elements in their lives that can lead to a greater openness to the Gospel of marriage in its fullness”. In this pastoral discernment, there is a need “to identify elements that can foster evangelization and human and spiritual growth”.

294. “The choice of a civil marriage or, in many cases, of simple cohabitation, is often not motivated by prejudice or resistance to a sacramental union, but by cultural or contingent situations”. In such cases, respect also can be shown for those signs of love which in some way reflect God’s own love. We know that there is “a continual increase in the number of those who, after having lived together for a long period, request the celebration of marriage in Church. Simply to live together is often a choice based on a general attitude opposed to anything institutional or definitive; it can also be done while awaiting more security in life (a steady job and steady income). In some countries, de facto unions are very numerous, not only because of a rejection of values concerning the family and matrimony, but primarily because celebrating a marriage is considered too expensive in the social circumstances. As a result, material poverty drives people into de facto unions”.Whatever the case, “all these situations require a constructive response seeking to transform them into opportunities that can lead to the full reality of marriage and family in conformity with the Gospel. These couples need to be welcomed and guided patiently and discreetly”.

Before everything else we need to ask if material poverty ever truly "drives people into de facto unions" or cohabitation. Do the poor not have the option of choosing not to enter into a "de facto union" in the first place? And since when has poverty been an obstacle to sacramental marriage? The desire for an expensive marriage is not an excuse to cohabit because expensive marriages are not a requirement of the Church at all -- it is merely an expectation of secular society to which no one needs to submit. There is no shame in a simple marriage.

We can add that four important realities are omitted from this treatment:

1) Many cohabiting couples request the celebration of marriage in Church, not because their cohabitation "matured" them into doing so, but because they came to repent of their situation, or came to learn that they must get married and not live in sin anymore. Indeed, not a few break up their cohabitation first and move back to separate residences before entering into the preparation for a serious Christian marriage. (Of course, many others choose to completely break any contact in order to definitively turn away from a life of sin.)

2) Many couples choose to cohabit for no higher reason than that it enables them to have sexual relations more conveniently and frequently -- until they tire of each other. For this reason it also happens that many cohabiting couples separate so they can find new and more "satisfying" partners with whom to live-in. And so the vicious cycle continues.

3) The repeated studies that confirm what the Church in her wisdom has known through the centuries: that cohabitation, far from being a good preparation for marriage, is a tremendous factor in making later marriages fail. Even secular studies now acknowledge that cohabitation increases the chances of a divorce.

4) Last but not the least, there are cohabiting couples characterized by true bondage, wherein one partner (oftentimes but not always the woman) remains in that relationship against her better judgment simply because she thinks that she has nowhere else to go, while the other partner adamantly refuses to enter into a real marriage while refusing to end the relationship. This is a particularly serious situation where both the civil authority and the Church, far from trying to transform the cohabitation into marriage, should instead counsel and actively support the break-up of the relationship. (Naturally the cohabitation should not have come about in the first place.)

Going back to AL nos. 293-294, aside from the four omissions noted above, the entire thrust goes into welcoming and somehow developing a cohabitation into marriage, just like in Francis' speech yesterday. Cohabitation is one of the situations that "require(s) a constructive response seeking to transform them into opportunities that can lead to the full reality of marriage and family in conformity with the Gospel. These couples need to be welcomed and guided patiently and discreetly”. In here we find the official, "magisterial" support for Francis' proposed new orientations on how to accompany those in live-in situations.

IV. When Francis, as Archbishop Bergoglio, welcomed her niece's decision to break Church law:

Now, some might argue that what Francis really has in mind when speaking of cohabitation are couples who do not know Church law, or who are for one reason or another unteachable. Aside from the absurdity of such a claim (for even children can be taught moral norms) there is the damning testimony of Pope Francis' niece María Inés Narvaja, who claimed that her uncle welcomed her decision to contract a civil marriage with a man whose Church marriage had not yet been declared null.

The news, which never received much circulation, was first published in English in September 2014 by DICI, then again on the English-language version of Aleteia last September (Francis’ Annulment Reform Born of Personal Knowledge):

In an interview previously published on Aleteia, she explains how Pope Francis, when he was still just Jorge Mario Bergoglio, took an interest in her marital situation. “I married my husband in a civil marriage first, and then in the Church four years later,” she admits. She explains that her uncle “had submitted the paperwork for an annulment and the decision took a long time to arrive, so I had to wait for those four years… All that time he was like a great father to me, and I am very grateful to him for that.” 

The interview with María Inés Navaja shows two aspects of Pope Francis’ personality that help us to understand the changes he is implementing. “My uncle has two characteristics: The first is an impressive memory, and the second is that he listens a lot, but doesn’t judge, and never tells you what you have to do. I remember when I told him that I couldn’t wait to until getting married in the Church, that I was a grownup now and I was going to get married in a civil marriage; he answered that ‘it’s the best news you’ve given me.'”

(To be continued early next week).