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The Pope’s U-turn won’t end debate

Pope Francis discusses marriage at a meeting with Rome’s parishes in the Archbasilica of St John Lateran (CNS)

Last week, for the first time in his pontificate, Pope Francis retracted a comment. But in between the comment and the retraction, he awakened a debate over marriage, canon law and modern culture which may well continue for some time.

Speaking at a Q&A session at the Diocese of Rome’s annual congress, the Pope said: “The great majority of our sacramental marriages are null. Because they say ‘Yes, for the rest of my life!’ but they don’t know what they are saying.”

At this point, those who weren’t sure of how marriage validity works turned to the canon lawyers; the canon lawyers said that, with all due respect, the Pope’s words couldn’t be accurate.

And when the transcript was published, the huge claim (“the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null”) had vanished and been replaced by “a portion of…” The Vatican said the Pope had approved of the deletion.

On the face of it, Francis had a point. According to canon law, to get married validly you need to intend to marry as the Church understands marriage – that is, as a lifelong exclusive partnership open to children – and your consent must be free.

But if someone gets married with a head full of unexamined assumptions – that love is all about how you feel, that church weddings are nice, that divorce is sadly possible – then are they actually married?

Well, yes, according to canon law. As the Catholic Herald’s resident canonist, Ed Condon, observed on our website, “Error concerning permanence only invalidates where it ‘determines the will’”.

That is, for a marriage to be invalid regarding permanence, one party would actually need to be basing a decision on the possibility of divorce (“I’d never go in for this ‘till death do us part’ stuff, but since I know I can get a divorce anyway, I am willing to see how far we can get and hope for the best.”)

Do some spouses think this way? Yes, but scarcely “the great majority”. Condon says: “Having participated in more than 200 marriage cases in eight different tribunals, I have never seen an annulment granted on error determining the will.”

The Pope’s psychological portrait – people “don’t know what they’re saying” – doesn’t come up to the benchmark for invalidity. Hence the retraction. But the episode pointed to two important issues: the effects of modern culture, and the prospect of a crisis within the Church.

Edmund Adamus, who is director for marriage and family life for the Diocese of Westminster and has been closely involved in marriage preparation for over 25 years, says the Pope’s phrase “culture of the provisional” identifies a real problem. Cohabitation “gives a false sense of security,” says Adamus, “because the sexual intimacy often masks authentic communication and dialogue”. That makes it harder for couples to face challenges when they come.

The answer, Adamus thinks, is better marriage catechesis – which must begin “long before engagement”.

No less seriously, the Pope’s comments made some wonder whether Church leaders are prepared to uphold Church teaching. The renowned canonist Dr Edward Peters, a consultant to the Vatican’s highest tribunal and no scaremongerer, sounded the alarm last week.

Although the “great majority” remark was withdrawn, the Pope has previously said that half of marriages are invalid – attributing the estimate to Cardinal Quarracino, his predecessor as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. And in the same Q&A session, the Pope said of some Argentine cohabiting couples: “I am sure that this is a real marriage, they have the grace of a real marriage because of their fidelity.”

The Church’s theology of marriage is intertwined with canon law – which draws a clear distinction between what is and isn’t a marriage. But Dr Peters suggested that the Pope appears to believe most Christian marriages “really aren’t, deep-down, marriages”, and that “lots of things that aren’t marriages (like cohabitation and civil-only weddings between Catholics) really are, deep-down, marriages”.

There is already much confusion about marriage. But when the Pope is part of the confusion, it may portend even bigger and more painful divisions – a potential “crisis”, Dr Peters wrote, over “matrimonial discipline and law.” The Pope’s retraction offers hope that it won’t come to that.