In an unscripted response to a question during the June 16 opening of the pastoral conference of the Diocese of Rome, Pope Francis remarked that due to a contemporary culture of impermanence “a great majority” of Catholic marriages are null. However, “a great majority” was quickly corrected to “a portion” in the official published transcript of the event. Many commentators—including the pope himself, if we count the correction in the transcript as a kind of commentary—were quick to point out that it is not literally accurate to say that the majority of Catholic marriages are null when we are discussing the factual realities of marriage in today’s Church.
At the same time, for many people even the Holy Father’s original off-the-cuff rhetorical hyperbole still seemed to ring true on some level. After all, it is common knowledge that many young people today lack adequate catechesis on the Catholic understanding of marriage, the positive formative experience of growing up within a stable family life, or both. And there is a not-incorrect popular perception that misconceptions on the true nature of matrimony can be a factor in declaring the nullity of a marriage.
How is a “lay” reader supposed to make sense of these issues? It might be helpful to be familiar with a few basic points of consideration:
- Human beings in general are capable of marriage.
Marriage is the primordial vocation to which all men and women are naturally called. “From the beginning” (cf. Matthew 19:4), God intended marriage to be the ordinary means for attaining human fulfillment and growing in holiness. Therefore, entering into a valid marriage does not require any unusual gifts of grace, special talents, or extraordinary levels of human achievement. While there are rare situations where an adult man or woman is truly incapable of consenting to marriage, these cases are exceptions rather than the norm.
- Marriage enjoys the favor of the law.
Consequently, because healthy, functioning adults are normally considered capable of marriage, the Church always presumes a marriage is valid until there is clear proof to the contrary (cf. canon 1060). Even when a couple might strongly suspect that their marriage is invalid, in the process for obtaining a declaration of nullity the marriage in question is always regarded as valid unless the tribunal judges determine otherwise with moral certainty based on objective evidence.
Given this, while we can legitimately note that today’s secular culture provides a less-than-ideal environment for nurturing healthy marriages, and while at times it could be appropriate to consider how this may potentially affect the validity of some Catholic marriages, the Church would still have us assume that the vast majority of marriages are indeed valid.
- For a valid marriage, intention is more important than intellectual understanding.
While all Catholics ideally should be able to explain the Church’s specific understanding of marriage—namely, that marriage is a life-long and exclusive union open to new life, and for Christians a sacrament—technically, for a valid marriage an individual must only have the intention of de facto committing to marriage in this way. (cf. canon 1099)
For example, even if a couple were mistakenly but sincerely to believe that divorce was an acceptable possibility for most marriages, but they themselves truly intended to be faithful to each other until death, they would still have a valid marriage. The crucial point to keep in mind is that marriage involving this kind of lack of understanding would only be invalid if the error in question directly impacted the couple’s will and intentions in actual fact.
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Simply being in error regarding an aspect of the sacrament of matrimony would not by itself invalidate a union. Likewise, as much as it is to be desired that engaged couples come to appreciate the depth and beauty of the Church’s sacramental theology, this level of comprehension is not a prerequisite to marrying validly.
- A valid marriage is not automatically the same thing as an exemplary marriage.
Although the ability to contract a valid marriage is not in any way unusual, a spiritually fruitful marriage does require a particular (and perhaps even, in this day and age, unusual) focus on growing in selflessness and the other virtues. For Catholic couples, appropriate catechesis on the Church’s teachings on marriage is another important element in enabling them to go beyond a merely valid marriage towards the fullness of Christian sacramental married life.
With this in mind, we might seek to recognize and acknowledge Pope Francis’ larger point on the urgent pastoral need for fostering truly Christian marriages for couples in all walks of life.