There was a comical moment after the Chilean marriage conducted by the Vicar of Christ in the air. Papal spokesman Greg Burke was emphatic: “It was totally legit.”
“Totally legit” is extra-canonical language meaning that impromptu is not invalid, as it usually would be in regard to a wedding on the fly. But there was confusion aplenty about the wedding of two flight attendants, and alarm in knowledgeable quarters that Pope Francis had agreed to a wedding without reasonable assurance that it would be valid.
After all, if the Holy Father proposed the impromptu marriage himself, then the true freedom of the couple to marry would certainly be in doubt. When asked in public by the supreme pontiff if they wished to marry – in front of the CEO of their airline, with the press corps a few feet away – would either party truly be free to decline?
In any case Pope Francis, answering press questions on his flight back to Rome, explained himself. The Holy Father’s account was radically different than what the couple reportedly told the media. Pope Francis said that it had been discussed the day prior, the couple had done their marriage preparation and had gone to Confession. He further questioned them, most likely about their understanding of sacramental marriage.
It remains unknown why the bridegroom initially told the media that the idea for an impromptu wedding “was his” – that is, the Holy Father’s.
It seems that the couple really wanted a wedding on the plane with the Pope. One wonders why they did not make the same request of a local priest in the last seven years, even after the births of their two children.
The whole episode had a slight feeling of a publicity stunt, but Pope Francis agreed to it, explaining that he feared that they might never get validly married at all if he did not grant their wish. The Holy Father had rather low expectations of the seriousness of the couple. I think he was right about that, given how they described the event afterwards.
The episode gives an important insight into how the Holy Father approaches the sacraments.
Traditional Catholic sacramental theology holds that the sacraments are objective encounters with God’s grace. If the sacrament ritual – matter and form – is done correctly, God promises to convey His grace. At the same time, those receiving the sacrament ought to be properly disposed to receive it.
The Church’s tradition insists on that proper disposition under pain of grave sin, lest the sacraments be conceived of as rituals that confer benefits independent of the understanding and intent of the recipient, akin to magic.
That’s why those not in a state of grace cannot receive Holy Communion. It’s why before baptism, catechumens – or the parents of a baby – must make a profession of faith. That’s why in Confession it is required that the enumeration of sins be complete and true contrition be present. If the subjective disposition is not present, the sacrament should not, and in some cases, cannot be administered.
Pope Francis does not dispute this doctrine, but adopts a differing approach. He treats the sacraments as encounters with grace which the clergy either grants or withholds. To withhold a sacrament thus is akin to being inhospitable, or even hostile.
That’s why in 2013 he could tell an Italian single mother during a short phone call that he would baptise her child without making any inquiries about her practice of the faith. It’s why he could tell an Argentine woman in 2014, again on the phone, to simply go to another parish to receive Holy Communion if her pastor would not permit her to receive, given that she was living with one man while being married to another. It’s why the Holy Father married the airborne couple.
Their request was clearly absurd, to be married at work – they continued serving breakfast afterward – in a profane environment by the Pope who was actually on his way to offer the Holy Mass, where such matters are more suitably attended to. It indicated an odd, if not disqualifying, disposition. But instead of challenging the couple to purify their disposition and get married properly, Pope Francis put the onus on himself. If he did not give in, they might not marry at all.
Pope Francis shifts the emphasis from the lay faithful properly disposing themselves, as indicated by canon law and sacramental discipline, to the apparent disposition of the priest. Is he generous, or is he is stingy? Does he follow the Church’s law, or does he set it aside?
It is this elevation of the role of the priest that explains why Pope Francis can be so harsh with those priests he judges to be stingy. If it is the priest who grants and withholds the sacraments, then those who insist on a proper disposition are not faithful stewards of the mysteries of God, but rather cruel officials who enjoy throwing stones at people, to employ the favoured image of the Holy Father.
Pope Francis was kind to the couple, but he assumed the responsibility that belonged to the couple. It is a kindly clericalism, but clericalism it remains.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca
This article first appeared in the January 26 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here