It “shouldn’t” be, but a question has been nagging at me: How many of us are secretly wondering if Pope Francis’ off-the-cuff statement that “a great majority” of Catholic marriages today are invalid was actually spot on? And while the Vatican quickly revised the pope’s comments to say that “a portion” of marriages are null, one can’t help but wonder when examining the evidence whether the Pope was, in fact, right in his assessment of the current state of Catholic marriages (at least in the developed world).
One need look no further than the dismal report published by the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops in 1999, “Marriage Preparation and Cohabiting Couples,” to recognize that there is a serious problem at hand in our own nation. The report begins by stating forthrightly: “Today almost half the couples who come for marriage preparation in the Catholic Church are in a cohabiting relationship.” And while cohabitation is in itself not a nullifying factor in the conferral of marital consent, the report’s stated “reasons for cohabitation” certainly could be—chief among them are an “aversion to long term commitments” that cohabitors profess.
The report goes on to say that cohabitors “are less committed to the institution of marriage and more accepting of divorce.”They are, therefore, “more likely to seek divorce as the solution” when problems and issues arise in the marriage and are, in point of fact, twice as likely to get divorced after marriage.
Assuming the USCCB report is accurate, it doesn’t take a genius to do the math and draw some logical conclusions here. If half of all Catholics are living together before marriage and, as the report claims, tend to have a serious aversion to long-term commitments, there is obviously a critical attitudinal crisis regarding the permanency of marriage—and therefore the conferral of valid marital consent—among Catholics. The underlying attitude of “if things don’t work out, we’ll just get a divorce” is a deal breaker in validly conferring the Sacrament of Marriage, which requires that a couple intend to stay married for life. Pope Francis referred to this same attitude as a mark of the current “provisional culture” in which we live; a culture that does not understand or embrace permanent commitments and which, all too sadly, opts out of promises as soon as things get difficult.
Lest we immediately jump to the hopeful conclusion that things have improved in the Church since the somewhat dated 1999 report, recent surveys by the Pew Research Center indicate otherwise. A report dated September 2, 2015 shows that while the vast majority of Catholics believe that a “traditional family” is “ideal” (“traditional” meaning a married man and women raising children), a full 55% of Catholics believe that a man and woman cohabitating is “as acceptable and good as any other way of life.” Moreover, 70% of Catholics believe that a husband and wife choosing not to have children is “as acceptable and good as any other way of life.” Again, while these statistics can’t prove that most Catholic marriages today are invalid, they do indicate that attitudinally, a grave problem exists among Catholics concerning openness to life and their understanding of marriage. The pertinent question becomes: how does this attitude about having no children reflect the mindset of couples who are entering marriage, where the intention to “accept children lovingly from God” is necessary for the valid exchange of consent, and thus the creation of a sacramental marriage bond?
The last bit of evidence to which I refer is personal experience itself. In recent years, I’ve spoken to and attended the weddings of far too many young Catholics who neither believe in the teaching of the Church nor intend to practice it, yet undergo the ritual of Catholic marriage for the sake of tradition. The truth is, we can “sacramentalize” people all day long, but if they are not evangelized to living faith in Jesus Christ and his Church, we are left asking, as Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) pointedly asked, “whether every marriage between two baptized persons is ipso facto a sacramental marriage.” (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Some Objections to the Church’s Teaching on the Reception of Holy Communion by the Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful, 1998.)
In the same document, Ratzinger stated that “faith belongs to the essence of the sacrament; what remains to be clarified is the juridical question of what evidence of the ‘absence of faith’ would have as a consequence that the sacrament does not come into being.”*
Pope Francis is, in so many words, raising the same question as Ratzinger, and I believe this is both timely and necessary. Not for the sake of judging or condemning others, but for sake of shaking the Church out of its denial—for the sake of the New Evangelization.
*Note: Ratzinger also asked in the same article “whether non-believing Christians – baptized persons who never or who no longer believe in God – can truly enter into a sacramental marriage.”
[Editor’s Note: Take the Poll – Are the majority of Catholic marriages invalid?]