Pope Francis, Marriage, and the Missing Middle Term

As happens so often when amateurs plunge into technical areas that they do not understand, Francis has taken a very narrow but plausible point and grossly exaggerated it.

For some twenty years I have responded to charges that American tribunals are lax in upholding marriage by, among other things, correlating the jump in American annulment numbers to several changes put into canon law by Rome itself and, more importantly, by arguing that, if pervasive social and catechetical decay really is the danger that intelligent people think it is, then annulment numbers should be rising in response to it. My thesis has earned grudging respect among some very tough tribunal critics—at least among those who think about hard issues instead of simply emoting about them—but, I need hardly say, all of this is complex stuff requiring careful analysis by qualified persons.

Yesterday, however, Pope Francis waded into one part of this long-standing controversy with the preposterous claim that “the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null” ostensibly because people do not understand what permanence is. As happens so often when amateurs plunge into technical areas that they do not understand, Francis has taken a very narrow but plausible point—namely, that a rise in marriage nullity can be linked to a drop in social commitment to permanence—and so grossly exaggerated it that, not only has he damaged his credibility in this regard, he risks contributing to the very downward spiral of failed marriages he decries by, in effect, telling struggling Christian couples that their efforts to save difficult marriages (i.e., frankly, just about every marriage I’ve ever seen) are effectively doomed given that the great majority of Christian marriages are (allegedly) already null!

As we have seen before during this papacy, some claim the pope’s remarks were “off-the-cuff” (a description belied by the video of his remarks) and the Vatican Press Office offers an Orwellian rewriting of what the pope plainly said (suggesting how severe the backlash is this time), but the bottom line is, I fear, that the pope has now given the “All Is Lost” crowd exactly what they suspected: proof that the Church is distancing itself from Christ’s hard teaching on the permanence of marriage.

May I offer amid this mess two preliminary points and a more important third?

1) Being pope makes Francis the “Legislator” but it does not make him a lawyer. Francis apparently has no training in canon law beyond whatever seminary courses he took some 60 years ago. He does not like law or lawyers and shows little awareness of the positive role that law plays in the life of any society including that of the Catholic Church. His opinions about what does or does not constitute technical things like matrimonial ‘validity’ or ‘nullity’ simply cannot be taken at face value.

2) Francis shows little understanding of how tribunals actually go about their difficult and largely thankless mission and he has apparently never experienced a functional tribunal system. Those of us who have experienced functional tribunals do not understand the mean descriptions of tribunal operations and personnel that Francis regularly offers.

Now, about that “middle term”.

3) Setting aside the bleak anthropological and theological assumptions that must underlie the claim that “the great majority” of Christian adults have failed to enter the state in life that all of them are suited for by nature and that baptized persons are especially equipped for by sacramental grace, Francis’ point that a general lessening of appreciation of ‘permanence’ is negatively impacting marriage would be generally accepted by qualified observers. But his suggestion that people’s ignorance of “permanence” (assuming that ignorance can be shown to exist on the massive scale that Francis opines, and for many reasons it cannot be), would, even if true, still fail to prove his claim of rampant marriage nullity because it skips the vital middle term of the pro-nullity argument: very briefly, ignorance and/or error about something like ‘permanence’ does not nullify marriage unless it sufficiently damages an individual’s will to enter marriage. That claim, folks, while possible to prove in specific cases, requires a demanding inquiry by persons who know and respect marriage doctrine and law, and hardly constitutes the stuff of which sweeping pronouncements about pan-Christian marriage collapse can be made. In short, even if Francis is right about growing, society-wide deficits in understanding about ‘permanence’, he is wrong to suggest that such deficits routinely (nay, he holds, in the great majority of marriages!) result in marriage nullity.

In 1988, Pope St. John Paul II, reflecting a great tradition on this point, commented in his address to the Roman Rota that the Church understands that most people enter marriage with some psychological, emotional, and formational deficits in play; nevertheless they marry confident of the validity of their marriage (even if they don’t know that technical term). Married couples, especially Christian married couples, may be sure that Christ understands their difficulties and they should presume about their marriage, even in troubled times, what the Church presumes about their marriage: that it is valid, grace-laden, and fulfilling. 

[This essay originally appeared on the “In the Light of the Law” blog and is posted here by kind permission of Dr. Peters.]

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About Edward N. Peters 120 Articles
Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD has doctoral degrees in canon and common law. Since 2005 he has held the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. His personal blog on canon law issues in the news may be accessed at the "In the Light of the Law" site.