Can Catholic Marriage Be Saved?

Part Two of a series on the future of Christian marriage.

By John Zmirak Published on September 14, 2015

Catholic marriage is in trouble. No, Pope Francis hasn’t launched an annulment “app” with a name like Sever (modeled on Uber). But after his Apostolic letters last week, it will be henceforth easier and quicker to get a Catholic annulment in 2016 than it was to get an American civil divorce in 1940. There’s even a “fast track” option that would reduce the wait time to no more than 45 days. Ross Douthat felt the need to point out that the pope’s decision does not

explicitly change the church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, in the way that admitting the remarried to communion absent an annulment would. This may seem like theological hair-splitting, but from the point of view of Catholic unity it’s crucial. Fast-tracking annulments weaken the credibility of Catholic doctrine, in both implication and effect. But it does not formally reverse the church’s teaching about the nature of marriage and communion. … [I]t it doesn’t directly undercut belief in the pope’s infallibility or the permanence of doctrine.

On Douthat’s analysis, the pope is not “explicitly,” “formally” or “directly” abandoning the indissolubility of marriage. He is, however, changing canon law in a way that could allow bishops to do so in practice.

Why would Pope Francis do this?

In Part One I suggested the peace-keeping motive: Francis wants to avoid a schism on the part of the wealthy German church, whose subsidies keep the lights on down in Rome. But the pope isn’t venal. He surely believes in what he is doing. And he has told us why. Quoting the bishop who preceded him in Buenos Aires, the pope told reporters:

Cardinal Quarracino, my predecessor, said that for him half of all marriages are null. That’s what he said. Why? Because they are married without maturity, they get married without realizing that it’s for an entire lifetime, or they are married because socially they must get married.

In a heartfelt defense of the dignity of marriage, the always cogent Michael Brendan Dougherty expressed outrage at this suggestion, and at Francis’ answer: easy annulments. As Dougherty wrote:

If churchmen, including the pope, really believed that half of any of the other sacraments performed by the Church were invalid, it would immediately be recognized as one of the gravest crises in the history of the faith. … If half the instances of another sacrament were invalid, the correct response would be to rush to remedy the situation and restore confidence in the sacraments. Instead, the pope asks his bishops to doubt the bleating of their own sheep.

Dougherty is right, and I’ll sharpen his point by asking what bishops would do if half the donations that pastors found in the collection basket every Sunday turned out to be Monopoly money and rubber checks. Surely would swing into action with lightning speed and decisiveness. And that’s what the church must do now to save the institution of marriage — which is the basic unit of organized society, the safest refuge for helpless children, the school of charity for adults and young people alike, and (I suppose it is necessary nowadays to add) the cradle of the human species.

Are Half of Catholic Weddings Charades?

What if the pope is right, though? A lifelong Christian marriage is quite a commitment — much less like forming a business partnership than it is like donating a kidney. It is perfectly plausible that a high percentage of the Obama voters and Trump lovers who skip into American Catholic parishes seeking to use their Gothic building as backdrops for wedding photographers are not entirely sold on the whole “till death do us part” thing. If even one party in the marriage goes into it thinking that if things “don’t work out” he can divorce and marry someone else, then the union really is void and invalid from day one. If the other partner was in fact sincere, she is the victim of an injustice — to be quite frank, of a fraud.

But wouldn’t a pastor who lends out the sanctuary of his church for such a union be an unwitting party to that fraud? It is his solemn duty to the souls whom he is called to evangelize to do all he can to prevent such sacrilegious marriages. Some priests and some bishops are taking such steps. Unfortunately, the pope has just made their job much harder. The very fact that annulments are so easy to get undermines the seriousness with which Catholics treat marriage, and ensures that this year’s crop of Catholic weddings, and next year’s, will be equally flawed and eligible for annulments down the road.

Most Catholics outside of a few traditional societies have grown up in a divorce culture, where lifelong bonds are the exception not the rule. Few of them have received decent education in their faith, either from parents or schools. The short, mostly pop psychology “Pre-Cana” classes that the church requires rarely emphasize how Christian marriage is radically different from pagan (or “natural”) marriage, and indissoluble out of obedience to Jesus. Even good pastors who do teach that lesson know that it is undermined by the church’s annulment policy. Whatever ringing, scriptural words a holy priest uses to drive home the church’s teaching to a couple, they are multiplied by zero, by the universal awareness that annulments are easier to get than debt forgiveness for student loans.

Imagine if Toyota learned that half of its cars exploded when drivers exceeded 55 mph. So its CEO decided not to stop the assembly lines until the error was rooted out and corrected. Instead, he told consumers that they could trade in their defective Toyotas, no questions asked — for new cars with the same design flaw. You wouldn’t think that executive was serious about safety or the future of Toyota.

We can pray that bishops will ask the pope to delay implementing these new policies. Instead of merely slowing down things down, however, what if Pope Francis were, instead, to take solid pastoral steps to ensure that more Catholics marriages are valid? Here is a proposal from one layman for how that might happen, derived from a piece I wrote in 2013.

I have a simple, painful, five-point plan for Catholics which if undertaken could make of believers prophetic witnesses to the reality of marriage, in the face of the pale, pansexual temporary sex contract that our laws call by that name:

  1. Each pastor could require of couples who wish to marry that they be trained in the methods and moral underpinnings of Natural Family Planning. This should be a non-negotiable part of Catholic marriage prep.
  2. A boilerplate “covenant” prenuptial agreement could be drawn up by our bishops, and provided to pastors, that binds Catholic spouses to lifelong marriage, renounces divorce/remarriage, and awards all community property to the wronged party in any civil divorce. … I don’t know that our courts would enforce any such agreements — but requiring people to sign them would weed out the unserious. Anyone who objects is admitting in advance that he lacks sacramental intent. Give him directions to City Hall.
  3. A civil divorce would no longer be a prerequisite for an annulment, but its legal aftermath. Catholics unsure of their marriage’s validity would be required to await the Church’s judgment before they seek the remedies of the state. Again, they could sign a document agreeing to this before the marriage takes place.
  4. It would then be much easier for Pope Francis or his predecessor to require annulment tribunals to be much stricter in their application of canon law — especially with marriages contracted after measures 1, 2, and 3 have been enacted. If either party, going into a marriage, secretly thinks that divorce and remarriage might be an option, that might be enough to invalidate the bond. That’s the seed of the cancer which we must root out. It’s not so much the annulments we approve that are scandalous farces, but many of the invalid weddings.
  5. The party whose intent was found to be defective in any annulment would have to wait some length of time, say 3-5 years, before contracting a Catholic marriage, complete a rigorous marriage prep that fully explicates the conditions of the sacrament — and, of course, sign a “covenant” prenup so that this never happens again.

Perhaps this would require some modifications of canon law, and perhaps it would have to be phased in over time. But a movement this radical and counter-cultural could be a beacon of bright light in the gathering global darkness, showing to all the world what Christian marriage really looks like. The question is whether the world really wants to see.

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