Despite the critics' choler, Pontiff right on invalid marriages

Pope Francis/

Ross Douthat, the conservative Catholic columnist for The New York Times, was spitting chips last week. In the middle of one of the most volatile presidential campaigns in living memory, he took time out to compose 20+ tweets about Pope Francis, writes Fr John Flader.

They were not at all complimentary. "Extraordinary, irresponsible and ridiculous" was a typical outburst

The issue was an off-the-cuff comment made by the Pope after his opening address to the Ecclesial Congress of the Diocese of Rome, on June 19. According to media reports, he said that most Catholic marriages are in fact null because the spouses are incapable of committing themselves for life.

This is not really a fair summary of his words, but they sparked so much criticism in secular and even in Catholic media that they do beg for some background and context.

The Congress was dealing with the theme "The joy of love: The way of the families of Rome in light of the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia of Pope Francis."

After his opening address, the Pope answered three questions (only available in Italian) put to him by participants in the Congress. The third questioner began by saying that today we hear talk of the crisis of marriage and then asked how we can educate young people in love and in sacramental marriage, overcoming their resistance, their scepticism, disillusionment and fear of the definitive.

The Pope took up the last phrase and said that today we are living in a "culture of the provisional."

The Pope gave examples from Argentina when he was a bishop there.

He had forbidden people to marry in the Church when they were expecting a baby because they were not really free and several years later he had seen them come back for a sacramental marriage, truly understanding what they were doing.

In this broader context of the Pope's remarks, we can see a true pastoral approach that recognises that many couples are not ready to enter into a definitive, indissoluble marriage when they first approach the Church, and that it is better to accompany them while they mature and come to a better understanding of what true sacramental marriage is. This is wise and the fruit of much pastoral experience.

Is it fair to say that because of this culture of the provisional and spouses' lack of understanding of the definitive nature of marriage, some marriages are null?

Undoubtedly it is, although determining which marriages fall into this category is not easy. It was interesting to note that the leading Catholic academic in the US, Princeton University's Robert P. George, went to bat for Pope Francis on Twitter, saying, "This is entirely possible. The erosion of the understanding of what marriage is has consequences for what people do."

What we should not do is seize on an off-the-cuff comment and use it to criticise the Pope as if he does not know what he is talking about.


The real story behind the Pope's controversial remarks on invalid marriages (

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