Pope Francis was perhaps hyperbolic. But marriage preparation shows real failings to resist the 'culture of impermanence'

Pope Francis’s most recent impromptu remarks on marriage have caused a bit of a stir, not least among those working in and around marriage tribunals.

In response to a question following the opening session of the Diocese of Rome’s pastoral congress, the Pope seems to have opined that the “great majority” of sacramental marriages are invalid because couples enter them without a true understanding of permanence and commitment. Taken at simple face value, this comment is extraordinary. Marriage is not, according to the Church, a doctrinal formulation in which people are (or are not) properly instructed; it is held to be part of the natural law. That one man and one woman should freely commit to a lifetime together in fidelity, support, and openness to life is considered the most basic impulse, naturally and spontaneously arising in humanity throughout history.

It cannot be doubted that this natural, or if you prefer “traditional”, understanding of marriage is currently under assault and has been, at least in the western world, since the beginning of the 20th century and the advent of increasingly easy civil divorce. All of us, and perhaps most of all young couples preparing for a life together, are being fed on a steady cultural diet of “the provisional”, as the Pope rightly pointed out. But regarding the specific assertion that the majority of sacramental marriages are invalid, I suspect Pope Francis may have been giving into hyperbole – it was, let us remember, an unscripted and unprepared remark in answer to a question.

Certainly the effects of the pervasive divorce culture are observable within many Christian marriages, and both St John Paul and Pope Benedict highlighted the damage this was doing to many couples’ ability to consent. But we need to bear in mind the distinction, which is basically philosophical but canonically enshrined, between simple error and what is called determinative error.

A couple, indeed many couples, perhaps even most couples, may well marry with an erroneous understanding of permanence and indissolubility. It is not hard to see the corrosive and pervasive effects of the modern divorce mentality and how this can plant a serious misconception in the minds of many. But the Church believes, and canon law defines, that because permanent, faithful, indissoluble marriage is such an ingrained part of human nature even those couples who exchange their consent under the genuine misapprehension that marriage can end in divorce marry validly because the basic human instinct is still towards permanence and the natural intention of couples in marriage is “till death do us part”.

Error concerning permanence only invalidates where it “determines the will”, meaning the decision to marry is taken only because it is believed to be a temporary arrangement. However bad you believe things are, I suspect few people, the Pope included, believe that the majority of couples marrying in the Church are only doing so because they can divorce if they want. The venerable canonist Ed Peters succinctly describes such a situation as “the matrimonial version of nuclear winter”, and I share his scepticism that this is where we have come to.

Nevertheless, the Pope’s point, however imprecisely expressed, is well taken: many who get married, even in the Church, are far more formed by society than by the faith. In the Q&A session, the Pope was asked about the paucity of marriage preparation in many dioceses, and I have seen at first hand how bad the provision can be. Couples in many places are routinely sent on one-day workshops where they are far more likely to be lectured by an accountant or a lawyer than given any real sacramental preparation. Francis has repeatedly called for serious reform of pre-marital preparation and, thus far, this seems to be something many dioceses are rather more disposed to “reflecting upon” than actually doing anything about.

In truth, there could hardly be a simpler message to deliver than the fullness of the Church’s teaching on marriage, nor one which provides a more radical witness in the face of contemporary society. This was the thrust of the Pope’s recent exhortation Amoris Laetitia. The way in which some in the Church desperately sought to warp that document into a mitigation against permanence in marriage is perhaps indicative of where the root of the problem lies; many of those who should be ensuring the true nature of marriage is taught, accepted, and celebrated are themselves more sympathetic to “the culture of the provisional”.

The crisis point, according to the Pope, appears to be the formal institution of marriage – the binding exchange of consent. This has certainly been the battleground between the Church and the state in different countries, and this has been the focus of the most relentless attempts to subvert the Church’s position. Yet for all this, the natural law truth of permanence and fidelity can still be observed in human nature, and Francis was acknowledging as much when he spoke about seeing elements of “real marriage” in stable cohabiting couples. Of course, cohabitation is not “real marriage”, the Pope’s turn of phrase notwithstanding, but the challenge remains for dioceses to rediscover how to nurture and champion the most basic of human impulses in the teeth of a society pulling the other way.