Pope Francis says half of marriages today are invalid. He's wrong.

And his pessimism is an insult to all believers

Beneath Francis' compassionate veneer is a deep cynicism.
(Image credit: (Getty/Jeff J. Mitchell))

To much fanfare in the press, Pope Francis has started a "dialogue" about the Catholic Church's marriage practices. The part that has received the most attention is whether civilly divorced and civilly remarried Catholics should be admitted to Holy Communion, without having to abandon their second marriage, which the church recognizes as continuing adultery. This issue will be addressed by the bishops of the Catholic Church at a "Synod on the Family" over this year and next.

Unfortunately, the pope's favorite theologian and the pope himself have initiated this discussion in a befogging cloud of pessimism. The pope is said to have speculated that 50 percent of Catholic marriages are invalid, which is to say they were somehow deficient in form (how the sacrament was conducted) or in intent (the couple didn't intend to marry as the church teaches) and thus are eligible for annulments. Such a dire assessment reeks of high-handed clericalism. Worse, it amounts to the pope doubting not just the sincerity of many Catholics, but the grace of God himself.

First, some background. On the one side there is the Catholic Church's doctrinal watchdog, Cardinal Muller, the German prelate leading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who fired a pre-emptive shot last year. The words of Christ forbid remarriage, and the theology of the church proclaims that the marital union reflects the faithfulness of Christ to the church. As Muller put it, "Faithfulness to marital consent is a prophetic sign of the salvation that God bestows upon the world."

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On the other side, the pope has raised the profile of another German theologian, Cardinal Walter Kasper, who for 30 years has been tub-thumping for marriage reform, saying it is a kind of mercy. He holds that while civil remarriages cannot be recognized by the church, asking the civilly remarried to abandon their second marriage or be excluded from communion is untenable. During a media blitz earlier this month, Kasper revealed to Commonweal magazine the pope's eye-popping assessment that half of Catholic marriages are likely invalid.

But when Cardinal Kasper was confronted with the arguments of his opponents — namely that others in a state of mortal sin are required to confess their sins and make some kind of change to remedy their state of life — he balked at the suggestion that the civilly remarried should be required to live according to the church's teaching, that is, with sexual fidelity to the first, valid marriage. "To live together as brother and sister?" he asked. "Of course I have high respect for those who are doing this. But it's a heroic act, and heroism is not for the average Christian."

This is exactly where the game is given away. In the cardinal's theology, there are "average Christians" who cannot be expected to live up to the Christian ideal of marriage, even though it was their vocation. The pope's own reported view that 50 percent of marriages may be invalid is another sign that clerics at the highest level of the church regard the vocation of family as simply beyond the reach of many of the church's members. Kasper continued, "Many canon lawyers tell me that today in our pluralistic situation we cannot presuppose that couples really assent to what the church requires. Often it is also ignorance."

In other words, Christians are too confused and ignorant to know what a marriage is. They do not understand or take seriously the vows they make. Poor things. This dire reading of the signs of the times allows the "solution" that reformers like Kasper have been demanding, a de facto abandonment of the church's teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. And it justifies this change — or at least, smooths its reception — by too eagerly embracing a conservative premise: The culture of marriage has gone to the dogs.

Even contemplating this reform indicates how far we are moving away from a Catholic Church that used to bestride the world with confidence, recognizing and affirming the goodness of marriage, even marriages made outside itself. Instead we are being confined in a more crabbed and doubting institution, one that dismisses many of the extant marriages within the church as no more sure than a coin flip.

Perhaps the cardinal should speak more plainly. He is not defending the dignity of "average Christians"; he's condemning many of his co-religionists to a life as semi-Christians. His idea of mercy is to tell believers that, in view of the way things are — pluralism and all that — there's no need for them to live as Christians have lived before them. Come to Communion, but leave Christian heroism to the experts.

My prediction is that the synod will issue a document strenuously claiming to affirm the indissolubility of marriage, while instituting a practice that contradicts it. The remarried will be encouraged to examine their consciences and consult with pastors in the hope of having Communion. The practical effect will be a new perceived "right" for the divorced to approach the altar, and much acrimony for any pastor who objects in any case, not only from his parishioners, but from his bishop as well.

In the context of adjudicating annulments, Polish Bishop Antoni Stankiewicz said that any view that dismisses so many unions as invalid reflects an "anthropological pessimism" that would hold that "it's almost impossible to get married, in view of the current cultural situation." If the pope's view is that 50 percent of Catholic marriages are invalid, it is not just an insult to our natural human ability to marry, but also an insult to St. Paul, who said that the moral law is written on men's hearts. And it's an insult to God's grace to imagine that our own age is somehow different, that we cannot depend on God's help to live out the vocations He gives us.

If marriage is, as Cardinal Muller holds, a reflection of God's faithfulness to those He loves, then the obverse holds as well. As such, Cardinal Kasper's belief amounts to nothing less than a slur on God's fidelity. If Christians can't expect God to help them live the married life, if they cannot expect him to be faithful to His promises, why the fuss if we are not faithful to our own?

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Michael Brendan Dougherty

Michael Brendan Dougherty is senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is the founder and editor of The Slurve, a newsletter about baseball. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, ESPN Magazine, Slate and The American Conservative.