Pope Francis has a problem. He believes he heads a religious organization so inept and impotent, it cannot even marry its own members reliably.
While participating in a conference for the diocese of Rome last week, Pope Francis unburdened himself of the opinion that the sacrament of marriage within the Catholic Church is now defective. Because the West is afflicted with a "culture of the provisional," the pope said that the "great majority of our sacramental marriages are null." In Catholic-speak "null" means that the marriage never happened.
He followed up this astonishing observation about the Church being capable only, in the vast majority of cases, of placebo unions, with another doozy. "I've seen a lot of fidelity in these cohabitations, and I am sure that this is a real marriage," the pontiff said. "They have the grace of a real marriage because of their fidelity."
Previously, the pope's thoughts on this matter were matters of hearsay. Now they can't be denied. And it turns out that the pope isn't just unguarded and especially candid; he's juvenile and irresponsible. Maybe even a little stupid.
"What if Catholic marriages are mostly shams, and the sham marriages are mostly Catholic?" is a sophomoric, dorm-room level effusion. And it would be good for a laugh, save for the fact that this was the freaking pope expressing his Olympian contempt for his co-religionists. In effect, he told millions of Catholics that they are not just unmarried, but were incapable of being married, because the modern world has corrupted them and because the Church failed to "catechize" them. This is a view of such sour pessimism, it is hard not to spit.
It's doubly hard to take from a pontiff who rails against high-handed clericalism. What else is this, but the highest cleric telling everyone that most of his billion co-religionists are semi-Christians, at best. Pope Francis' pessimism about marriage would be a mere curio of his very curious papacy, if it weren't the basis for his annulment reforms and the novel parts of his recent document on Christian family life.
The pope's statement openly contradicts the constant teaching and practice of the Church, which put great faith in the ability of humans to marry one another, and in the sacraments of the Church to be effective. The pope may be right that we live in a culture marred by impermanence. Previous cultures that the Church stepped into were marred by tribalism, or even local prejudice and tradition. Special pleading is not new to the world with modernity. The presumption of validity still applied to marriage bonds made inside or outside of the Church.
The Church has always held that valid marriage occurs whenever a single man and a single woman freely vow to marry one another, and intend to live faithful to that union for the rest of their lives. They don't even have to be Catholics. The Church confidently strode into pagan Europe and affirmed the marriage bonds of non-Christians, who had never had a chance to be "catechized" or who married under greater social and familial pressures than any modern Westerner.
It is telling that the Vatican even "corrected" the transcripts of what the pope said, inserting "some" where he really said "vast majority." That may reflect Francis wishing to step back from what he said, or it may just be an act of charity by Vatican staff to "cover his nakedness," so to speak.
A pope's off-the-cuff statements and personal opinions are not, and never have been, infallible guides. This presents no existential crisis for Catholicism.
So, what to do? The best advice, informed by centuries of history, is to just ignore or laugh at the pope when he says something so stupid. Popes in the past have expressed novel and erroneous views on matters of faith before. Pope John XXII argued for erring views on the afterlife. Pope John XII, who raped female pilgrims to Rome, was credibly rumored to have openly professed paganism.
In these cases and others, the "vast majority" of Christians held on to their faith, as best as they understood it, with no reference to their pope's day-to-day controversies. Now that the meticulously careful theologian Josef Ratzinger is neither the pope, nor the pope's ghostwriter, we're likely to deal with many popes expressing themselves in spectacularly unhelpful or stupid ways. Forgive them, and move on.