Saturday, June 25, 2016

I Agree with Pope Francis

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 agreein 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!

  1. Benedict Nguyen, National Catholic Register [Website], “Are Many Marriages Today Invalid?” (20 June 2016), Site address:
  2. Scott Hahn, A Father Who Keeps His Promises (Beacon Publishing, 1998) p. 24.


  1. You are right in your article, but not right in your title. To say that sacramental marriages are "null" means something. If you have to change what a person said in order to agree with him, then really, you don't agree with him. If Pope Francis said, "Most people go into marriage without a strong understanding of what marriage entails," he would be correct and I think you'd agree with him. But that's not what he said.

    I think of marriages in the past, which I think were thought of very differently from the way we think of marriage. Not because they recognized permanence, but because they valued something other than "love" in a marriage, certainly something other than romance. People would be anxious to marry off their daughters simply because it gave them one less mouth to feed. We have to remember that people not only lacked degrees in theology, most of them lacked the ability to read. I hardly think such people had a deep understanding of Church teaching on marriage. What they did have was a society that encouraged them to be adults, take on adult responsibility, and live out their commitments. That is something that is lacking in our supposedly romantic view of marriage - and that has left us with a high risk of decidedly unromantic divorce proceedings.

    Anyhow, there is so much to think of in regard to marriage. People say that Pope Francis encourages us to think about these topics, and I agree, but most of what I think about leads me to very deeply disagree with our Holy Father, whom I truly love as Christ's representative. Offering our highly undisciplined culture yet another easy out is just not the way to strengthen marriage, and certainly doesn't present marriage as a permanent bond.

  2. It is interesting that Jacinta, one of the three children of Fatima, said that,"Many marriages are not good; they do not please Our Lord and are not of God." Since she was only a child, she would not have understood fully why this was true a hundred years ago. Certainly there is no reason to think that things have improved since then!

    1. Interesting. Thanks!
      The post assumes that this is basically what the Pope meant also, since he must be aware of the objective definition of a valid marriage, but of course, it is not what he actually said.