Pope Francis recently said the following, “a great majority of our sacramental marriages are null” (or “some of our sacramental marriages are null” according to later Vatican editing of the text) 1, and I agree—in a certain sense.
Technically, for a marriage to be both valid and sacramental all the following criteria must be satisfied:
- Both parties are baptized
- The spouses are free to marry
- They have the intention to marry for life
- They have the intention to be faithful to one another
- They are open to having biological children together
- Consent is given in the presence of two witnesses and before a properly authorized Church minister.
But is it possible to have a valid marriage without a valid understanding of marriage? I think it is.
In the U.S. we become legal adults at age eighteen and are treated as such under the law (with some exceptions like purchasing alcohol). This is good since we need clear definitions to avoid endless debates about what being an adult really means. But do all “valid” eighteen year olds act in an adult manner? Does something instantly change about our mind, body or soul on our eighteenth birthday? Could we not find some seventeen year olds that understand what it means to be an adult more than any number of people over the age of eighteen?
Whether defining marriage or adulthood, I think it’s very common to meet a quantitative definition without a qualitative understanding, and I think this gap in understanding for marriage can be best expressed in terms of covenant vs. contract.
The story of God and man can be spoken of in terms of covenants. This is what many of the stories in the Bible are all about. In the Catholic view, the Bible is not a science book or a history book; it’s more of a story about a relationship between God and man. Simply put, covenants are about God reaching out to bond with man over and over again. For example, Moses was a covenant mediator for the nation of Israel that didn’t turn out as planned; King David was a covenant mediator for the Kingdom of Israel that also had its difficulties. In fact, every covenant of the Old Testament ended up less than stellar, but the convents were valid nonetheless.
For clarity, it should be emphasized that a covenant and a contract are two different things that are worlds apart. A contract is a promise you make binding your name, often via a signature. It involves the exchange of goods or services, like building a house for example. A covenant is swearing an oath invoking God’s name, and it involves an exchange of persons, like marriage. So a covenant carries much more weight in terms of blessings and curses. Hence the reason why people use terms like, “I swear to God”, or “I’ll be damned”, when they are very serious about something. 2
How many understand the bullet points above, and at the same time think of marriage as something that can be brought to an end and forgotten with some time, money and lawyers? So one could be in a valid marriage, but hold an invalid view of marriage as a social contract, and regrettably, I think this wrongheaded approach is indeed the case for “a great majority of our sacramental marriages”.
We are validly married!
- Benedict Nguyen, National Catholic Register [Website], “Are Many Marriages Today Invalid?” (20 June 2016), Site address:http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/are-many-marriages-today-invalid/#ixzz4CJfI6j9J
- Scott Hahn, A Father Who Keeps His Promises (Beacon Publishing, 1998) p. 24.