Monday, June 20, 2016

Cunning plan, Francis?

Late last week, perambulating around the Twittersphere I noticed the following extraordinary claims of Pope Francis, reported in this way by the Catholic News Agency,

"the great majority of sacramental marriages today are not valid, because couples do not enter into them with a proper understanding of permanence and commitment."

This is quite extraordinary. Go slowly through this. The Pope, no less, says that "the great majority of sacramental marriages." Not just a few exceptional cases, "the great majority." The Pope says that the great majority of sacramental marriages are "not valid." And for these reasons: they are not entered into with a proper understanding of permanence and commitment.

But, wait, there is more. A later report says that the Vatican has revised "a large majority" to "a part" in its official transcript of his remarks.

Oh, well, if the Vatican is going to go that way, it is very hard to be sure what the Pope ever says about anything (other than an official, formal publication). That kind of revision may or may not assuage globally read conservative Catholic journalists. Damian Thompson is worried. Ross Douthat, on Twitter at, is aghast (but points out that he more or less saw this coming via a Walter Kasper interview in 2014). Joseph Shaw of the Latin Mass Society thinks the Pope is straight out wrong.

Now, I will leave it to experts on sacramental theology (e.g. many commenters to the above articles and respondents to Tweets) to sort out the ways in which Francis is right or wrong or both about the sacrament of marriage. There seem to be comments/posts in favour of all three options :).

(Now, as a Protestant Anglican I think that much of this confusion in the papal remarks would be avoided if there was a fronting up to the fact that marriage is not a sacrament. Whatever Jesus said about marriage he said about all marriages, whether contracted according to tribal custom, Roman civil law, Jewish law or Kiwi law. When attempting to size up the situation about marriage in the modern world, nothing is gained or rescued by distinguishing between "marriage" and "sacramental marriage". Marriage is marriage, according to the time immemorial custom of a man and a woman being joined together for life. Validity relates to marriage between a man and a woman. It might be later determined invalid for some reason such as force or fraud (a person forced into marriage against their will, a person married to someone who turns out to be a bigamist), but not for reason of "insufficient understanding". But then, you would expect a Protestant Anglican to say such things!)

What clearly is not expected is that the Pope should say what he said (or revisedly said). But here is the thing, did Francis speak out of turn or did he voice something which is part of a cunning plan? You see, we know the Pope is concerned to ease the pathway for the divorced-and-remarried to receive communion, but that pathway has been blocked in one direction. Why not open up another direction?

That other direction is to make annulments simpler (he has already done that) and easier. And what could be easier than declaring that "a great majority" of even sacramental marriages are invalid due to "insufficient understanding." That is tantamount, is it not, to saying that even sacramental marriages stand a good chance of being found to be invalid and thus annulled.

Of course I could be wrong. There could be no cunning plan, just mis-spoken words.

UPDATE: Perhaps I am both wrong (there is no cunning plan per se re the remarks themselves) and right (Pope Francis may truly believe some contradictory things about marriage/"marriage", the force of which is that more annulments may be possible if he has his way), so Nick, commenting below, and the very erudite post by canon lawyer Edward Peters here.

NOTE: this is NOT an opportunity to expound on same-sex marriage or same-sex blessings. Time off on those comments until July. I will NOT publish comments which so much as mention, even in passing, SSM or SSB. But please do tell me I am misunderestimating or misoverestimating the clever logic of Francis!


Anonymous said...

Hi Peter,

Canon lawyer, Edward Peters, essentially agrees with you here on the plan and the problem of sacramentality:

I'm not so sure that it is a particularly cunning plan, though. The Pope's suggestion assumes a very high degree of incompetence on the part of priests, which, if true, could not reflect well on the Pope or his predecessors (two of whom he has canonised).


Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Nick, and for the link.
Yes, always a moot point when we "bewail" the state of something in the church: are we also bewailing the state of the episcopacy, priesthood, laity, all of the above? Are we even wondering how God could let us down so badly?!

Peter Carrell said...

Dear Ron
At the foot of the post above I wrote this:

"NOTE: this is NOT an opportunity to expound on same-sex marriage or same-sex blessings. Time off on those comments until July. I will NOT publish comments which so much as mention, even in passing, SSM or SSB."

Your recently submitted comment failed to observe this stricture and therefore it was deleted.

You are welcome to submit another comment along similar lines but minus the offending words. I am NOT restarting debate on "that" subject until July.


Peter Carrell said...

Dear Ron
THank you for a new comment. It is minus the "offending words" but it is not minus reference to debates in our church on "that" issue.
So, I say, again, Not in June.
By all means discuss the Pope's words, my reflections on them, or those of others, but do so with reference to what the Pope is talking about which is heterosexual marriage.
Further, I object to your language in your submitted comment: I as an Anglican commenting am not "vilifying" His Holiness and it is wrong of you to imply that I am.

Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Andrei
I am putting the link to the document on my Hermeneutics and Human Dignity site.