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Pope’s comments on marriage, cohabitation widely criticized

'Did he mean to say that? What does he really think? What authority do his words carry?'
Mon Jun 20, 2016 - 1:46 pm EST
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June 20, 2016 (LifeSiteNews)—Pope Francis’s remarks on Thursday that the “great majority” of Catholic marriages are null while some cohabitating couples are in a “real marriage” drew widespread criticism from Catholic writers, theologians, and commentators.

“The great majority of Christian marriages are valid,” rebutted Dr. Edward Peters, a well-known canon lawyer. Citing the Church’s teaching that when baptized individuals enter into the “quintessential human relationship” of marriage, “Christ adds the special graces of a sacrament and assists married Christians to live as signs of his everlasting spousal union with his Church,” Peters wrote that if Pope Francis’s assertion was correct, it “would be the matrimonial version of nuclear winter.”

This is reportedly not the first time that Pope Francis has expressed similar pessimism about the state of marriage in the Catholic Church.

In May 2014, Cardinal Walter Kasper alleged in an interview with Commonweal Magazine that the Holy Father had said he believed half of all Catholic marriages were invalid.  

At the time many commentators expressed disbelief, and urged caution, given that the pope’s words were being repeated second-hand. This time, however, the pope made the remarks, which were even more stark than those reported by Cardinal Kasper, in a public forum in front of a large crowd of listeners.

In his remarks, the pope began by speaking of living in a “culture of the provisional” recalling a story of a boy who wanted to be a priest, “but only for ten years.”

“It’s provisional, and because of this the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null,” he said. “Because they say ‘yes, for the rest of my life!’ but they don’t know what they are saying. Because they have a different culture. They say it, they have good will, but they don’t know.”

While the Vatican has since altered the transcript of the pope's remarks to state that "some" rather than the "great majority" of Catholic marriages are invalid - reportedly with the approval of the pope himself - the pope has not issued a formal retraction, and the original remarks have been widely reported in the media.

“If last time was bad, this time is very bad,” Dr. Peters warned.

Phil Lawler, the editor of CatholicCulture, posted an article entitled: “The damage done (again) by the Pope's statements on marriage.”

In posting the article to Facebook he wrote, “Don't blame the reporting. Don't blame the editing. The Pope's shocking remarks on marriage fall into an unsettling but consistent pattern.”

In the article itself he lamented, “[T]his pattern keeps recurring: the astonishing statements, the headlines, the confusion, followed by the explanations and clarifications that never clear away the fallout. When will Pope Francis realize—when will other prelates make clear to him—how much damage he does with these impromptu remarks?”

He concludes: “There are two problems, really: that the Pope speaks so often without first considering what he is about to say, and that when he makes these impulsive remarks, his first unguarded thoughts so rarely show the imprint of sound Catholic teaching.”

Father Thomas Petri, a moral theologian and the Academic Dean at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC, tweeted that Pope Francis’s speech was “erroneous” and that “the grace of office doesn’t protect [Pope Francis] from speaking erroneously or unclearly”:

Dr. Peters’s son, Thomas Peters, a Catholic blogger and advocate who has defended Pope Francis from criticism throughout his papacy, said that the pontiff’s remarks were “antithetical” to his “wider belief” in mercy:

Jansenism is a heresy that holds, among other teachings on grace condemned by the Catholic Church, that some of God’s commandments are impossible for just men to follow.

Also on Twitter, conservative Catholic New York Times columnist Ross Douthat released a string of responses to Pope Francis’s claims:

“Leaders of a church that teaches marriage makes spouses into saints now flirt with the idea that only saints can become spouses,” quipped Matthew Schmitz, deputy editor of First Things.  

Schmitz noted that only 28 percent of American Catholic marriages result in divorce, meaning “If Francis is right, not only many of the Catholic marriages that fail but also a good many that succeed aren't marriages at all.”

R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things, in a piece titled “Francis’s improv theology,” wrote: “I don’t quite know where to start in expressing my dismay.”

“I find myself struck by the contradictions of Pope Francis,” he continued. “He inveighs against the evil rigorists who make the Eucharist into ‘a prize for the perfect.’ But when it comes to marriage, he won’t make the sacrament available to the disoriented, confused, and stumbling who turn to the Church and wish to draw upon the strength of her sacramental grace.”

“As I’ve written in the past, Francis doesn’t seem terribly troubled by inconsistency," he continued. "He’s ‘pastoral.’ I’ll concede him that latitude, which his vocation perhaps requires. But those of us living in the postmodern West don’t need flexibility, permission, and provisionality from the Catholic Church. Our progressive secular culture gives us plenty of that. Francis doesn’t seem able to grasp that the wounded who come to the field-hospital Church are looking for permanence in a dissolving world. They are not looking for someone to tell them that the disease they suffer from has no cure—or that it’s actually good for them.”

Damian Thompson posted a blog at The Spectator, titled: "Pope Francis says most marriages today are ‘invalid’. This is a disaster for the Catholic Church."

"The Pope, thinking aloud in the manner of some maverick parish priest after a couple of glasses of wine at dinner, has just told millions of his flock that they are not really married," he wrote. "Did he mean to say that? What does he really think? What authority do his words carry?"

"And why should Catholics even have to ask these questions?"

“For a ‘pope of the people’ he certainly doesn’t give Catholics much credit,” FoxNews.com politics reporter Adam Shaw wrote in an article urging Pope Francis to resign. “For a Catholic marriage to be valid all that is needed is the freedom to marry, consent from both parties, and the intention to marry for life and be open to children. That’s it…For Pope Francis to say the great majority of marriages are null implies that the great majority of Catholic are ignorant fools who cannot understand the responsibilities of a bedrock of society that has existed for thousands of years…It also suggests severe doubt in the mercy and grace of God.”

Dr. Peters wrote that, “If ‘the great majority’ of Christian marriages are, as alleged by Francis, already null, then couples struggling in difficult marriages and looking for the bread of spiritual and sacramental encouragement may instead be offered stones of despair—‘your marriage is most likely null, so give up now and save everyone a lot of time and trouble.”

“The bottom line is, I fear, that the pope has now given the ‘All Is Lost’ crowd exactly what they suspected: proof that the Church is distancing itself from Christ’s hard teaching on the permanence of marriage,” concluded Dr. Peters.


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