The Personalist Project

Accessed on January 26, 2023 - 8:37:42

Seven Quick Takes: Most Marriages are Invalid?

Devra Torres, Jun 17, 2016

Pope Francis suggested on Thursday that most marriages today are invalid. He didn't say it from the Chair of Peter, and the official transcript has replaced "a great majority" with "some," (though it's not clear whose idea that was). But still!

Did he really say it? It seems he did. Was it a good idea to say it now, in the context of "impromptu remarks"? A moot point, and people can disagree. Does it open a giant new can of worms? I think we can all concur on that one.

Here's a small sampling of those worms, in the form of reflections that have been popping into my head since I read about it:


But! But! Won't this throw everything into chaos? People are befuddled enough as it is about the difference between a declaration of nullity and a decree of divorce. Plenty already think nullity is just divorce in Catholic-speak, and plenty more are convinced that annulments are handed out like candy to the rich and famous and callously denied to the hoi polloi. Not to mention rampant misconceptions about separation of bed and board in cases of abuse, about civil divorce allowed by the Church for legal purposes, who is and isn't barred from Communion, the legitimacy of the children...the list goes on. Why make things even worse?


But if it's true--if many or most of us believe we're entering into marriage, but really aren't--isn't it better to live in the truth than to remain deluded? Isn't that always better? Should we trade in the truth for false peace and stability?

That can't be right. On the other hand, there's more than one way to lead people to the truth. There's no One Weird Trick to get people from Point A ("as long as we both shall love") to Point B (a full and conscious awareness of what-all you're getting yourself into when you say "I do"). And there's a difference between having a grasp of marriage sufficient to enter into a valid one and the kind of deep theoretical or experiential understanding gained by a canon lawyer or a 50-years-married couple. Not every valid marriage is a happy embodiment of the divine plan for spousal communion. That doesn't mean it's no marriage at all.                        


It's interesting that Pope Francis has fixed on the impediment of lacking a proper understanding of permanence and commitment. It's easy enough to understand some impediments: that a marriage can be declared null if one party is concealing a crazy wife in the attic (like Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre), or was defrauded by the mail-order-bride company into marrying a different woman than the one he had in mind (like the Patriarch Jacob, whose father-in-law substituted his intended bride's sister on the wedding night). Something is clearly off from the beginning: what appeared to be a marriage is not.


But this is something more subtle. In fact, there's a whole host of more subtle impediments, spelled out by canon law (here's a startlingly extensive list of them). If this list is accurate, it seems very plausible that most marriages don't rise to the level of validity. (And the list predated this papacy.) The Church adheres to a very lofty, very personalist standard of consent. The degree of knowledge, will and freedom required is surprisingly high. The absence of all sorts of pressure, deception, and manipulation is also demanded. According to this, not only would the marriages of Jacob and Leah, and Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre, have been invalid, but so would all shotgun weddings, all arranged marriages, and all marriages of convenience. So would all marriages in which even one of the parties was primarily seeking citizenship or to legitimize a child. Or those in which consent was conditional upon some past, present, or future quality or circumstance, or if one party had lied about an arrest record or a debt. Or if one, even implicitly, was intending to exclude fidelity, permanence, or procreation. 


It's curious that now, just when people find "adulting" harder than ever, the standard should be so high. In an age when grown men spend hours a day playing video games and young adults subsist on ramen well into their twenties, what sense does it make to hold us to such a lofty standard? But in a way it makes perfect sense. As you can read in the "What we mean by Personalism?" section of this website, a new understanding of the person really is characteristic of our age. Parents no longer choose the spouse or the profession of their children; people no longer live in unthinking and automatic solidarity with their ethnic or religious community. Each of us is alive to the need to "act in our own name," and even if, in practice, we're as susceptible to peer pressure and mob mentality as ever, we do have a new understanding of the unrepeatability and inviolability of the person.


A papal remark like this can have terrible consequences. Won't people latch onto it as an excuse for divorce, infidelity, and abandonment? Won't we get the idea that the standard of validity is so high that practically nobody attains it anyway--so why try? And the part about faithful but unwed couples having the grace of marriage--what can that do but sow confusion where there's already a surplus?


On the other hand, wouldn't it be great if it led to more serious marriage preparation? I know places where this is happening, but in most parishes that I've ever heard of, marriage prep consists of a very few sessions, imparted by well-meaning non-experts, timed so that even if any suspicion of an impediment were to turn up, there would be enormous pressure to just plow ahead anyway, because the flowers were already ordered, the reception venue reserved, the tux tailored. The Pope has a point when he brings up the example of the groom who chose a church on the basis of whether it complemented his bride's dress and was close to a particular restaurant. Or the man who wanted to be a priest, but only for ten years. Do most of us have any idea what we're doing?

Addressing the problem of our "culture of the provisional" is much harder than closing our eyes to the obliviousness of prospective brides and grooms, so as not to rock the boat.

But what's the alternative?

What do you think?

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