My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
From July 25 to July 31, World Youth Day will take place in Kraków, Poland, culminating in the closing Mass with Pope Francis on July 31. I plan to participate along with about 65 pilgrims from our diocese. At the last World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2013, about three million young people participated. A huge crowd is expected this year as well.
A papal event with so many people always draws a lot of attention. Among reporters, one of the favorite features of the current pontificate is the press conference that Pope Francis holds on his airplane during the return trip home. In a recent press conference aboard the papal plane on June 26, during his return flight from Armenia to Rome, Pope Francis again made headlines with his comments, particularly his assertion that “the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null.” After a firestorm of criticism erupted, the Holy Father himself authorized an amended transcript of his official remarks, changing his statement to say instead that “a portion of our sacramental marriages are null.” While it is only speculative to say that “the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null,” it is certainly true to say that “a portion of our sacramental marriages are null.” Still, it will be helpful to explain that statement in some detail.
First, the assertion that “a portion of our sacramental marriages are null” may cause some people who were married in the church to wonder if their marriages are valid. Canon 1060 of the Code of Canon Law reassures people who have such concerns, stating, “Marriage possesses the favor law; therefore, in case of doubt, the validity of a marriage must be upheld until the contrary is proven.” Moreover, canon 1101, §1 provides that “the internal consent of the mind is presumed to conform to the words and signs used in celebrating marriage.” This means that marriages are presumed valid unless proven otherwise when a couple exchanges their vows in the required form of their wedding ceremony.
In the very next paragraph, however, canon 1101, §2 says that if “either or both of the parties by a positive act of will exclude marriage itself, some essential element of marriage, or some essential property of marriage, the party contracts invalidly.” The first provision is rather straightforward: if someone says the words of the marriage vows but is just going through the motions and does not really intend what he or she is saying, the marriage is invalid. That would be unusual, but it does happen. The next two are more complicated but perhaps more common. The essential elements of marriage include the right to conjugal life and openness to the procreation of children. Per canon 1056, the essential properties of marriage are unity and indissolubility. Unity requires that marriage be an exclusive and faithful relationship between one man and one woman. Withholding consent from one or more of these essential elements or essential properties of marriage is where problems with validity arise.
A report dated Sept. 2, 2015 from the Pew Research Center shows that while the vast majority of Catholics believe that a “traditional family” is “ideal” (“traditional” meaning a married man and woman raising children), a full 55 percent of Catholics believe that a man and woman cohabitating is “as acceptable and good as any other way of life.” Moreover, 70 percent of Catholics believe that a husband and wife choosing not to have children is “as acceptable and good as any other way of life.” However, if a spouse enters marriage intending never to have children, that marriage is invalid.
Spouses must also intend the permanency of their marriage for there to be valid marital consent. An underlying attitude of “if things don’t work out, we’ll just get a divorce” invalidates marital consent since a valid marriage requires that a couple intend to stay married for life. Pope Francis referred to this attitude as a mark of the current “provisional culture” in which we live, namely, a culture that does not understand or embrace permanent commitments and which opts out of promises as soon as things get difficult.
Along these lines, many Catholics might be surprised to learn that adultery is not grounds for obtaining a declaration of nullity. In fact, canon 1152 “earnestly recommends that a spouse, moved by Christian charity and concerned for the good of the family, not refuse forgiveness to an adulterous partner and not disrupt conjugal life.” Recognizing that this may be difficult for some people to do, the innocent spouse has the right to separate under certain circumstances, doing so under the guidance of “the competent ecclesiastical authority, which after having investigated all the circumstances, is to consider whether the innocent spouse can be moved to forgive the fault and not to prolong the separation permanently” (canon 1152, §3). Even in such cases of separation of the spouses due to adultery, the bond of marriage remains. If, however, a spouse enters marriage thinking that adultery on the part of his or her spouse is a reason to end the marriage, then that
spouse has not intended to enter a permanent marriage, and the marriage would be invalid.
Other grounds for invalidity of marriage are psychological reasons under canon 1095 that impair a person’s use of reason or capacity to understand or give marital consent. The analysis and interpretation of these psychological grounds are too complex to go into detail here, but it must be emphasized that whatever the grounds for declaring a marriage invalid may be, the Diocesan Tribunal is looking at the factors that invalidate a person’s consent at the time of the wedding. This is essentially what distinguishes a declaration of invalidity, popularly known as an annulment, from a divorce, which in civil law simply dissolves a lawful marriage.
It is important for couples entering into marriage to have a clear understanding of what the church teaches about the meaning of marriage so that they may enter into a valid marriage and receive the sacramental graces that flow to the baptized as husband and wife.
May God give us this grace. Amen.