An Unsettling Comment About Marriage

Pope Francis is the first pontiff in history to be social-media-savvy. Accordingly, I think we should start a new hash tag campaign: #iammarried.

All the usual disclaimers need to be made here. When the Holy Father remarked last week that “a large majority of sacramental marriages are null,” he surely was not making an ex cathedra pronouncement. He was simply speaking off the cuff, as he so often does. Catholics are not bound out of loyalty to agree with him, and ordinarily when the pope says unfortunate things, it’s best to sigh and hope the storm blows over quickly.

This remark is especially upsetting, however, in the context of the last two years of Francis’ pontificate. Regularizing divorced and remarried Catholics has clearly been a major goal for this pope. He has streamlined the annulment process and given a public platform to prelates who are vocally in favor of admitting the divorced and remarried to Communion. His most recent encyclical beautifully reiterated many Catholic teachings concerning marriage, but maintained a stinging silence concerning the open, throbbing controversies that Francis himself had helped to stir.

All things considered, his words on marriage are unsurprising, and entirely harmonious with what we’ve already seen from this pontiff. They still hurt.

Marriage is not meant to be the domain of the elite and the privileged. Peasants and servants and sailors and street-sweepers have been marrying for millennia, often as young as seventeen or eighteen. No doubt many were illiterate and largely uncatechized. Their cultures may have been drenched in vice. Their life circumstances were often hard. The Church at least still took their vows seriously and expected them to abide.

Speaking of young brides and grooms, the Holy Father opines, “They say ‘yes, for my whole life,’ but they do not know what they are saying because they have a different culture.”

Is it possible that the eighteen-year-old bride, or the groom who’s only barely finished growing, have ever really understood the words they spoke? Idiotic, thoughtless teenagers have been publicly “having and holding” one another since time out of mind, and there is always a slight absurdity to it. That’s part of the mystery. A wedding vow is one of those commitments (like baptismal promises or vows taken before ordination) that can only truly be appreciated gradually over time. It actually becomes more meaningful as it recedes into the past, and that is by design. The whole point of such promises is to draw us to greater heights of love and self-giving, by enabling us to commit ourselves to something enormous. We take an enormous bite, and then spend years trying to chew it, with the help of some sacramental graces.

Modern people frequently complain that marriage is too hard. Hasn’t it always seemed too hard? It often seems beyond our natural capacity to honor such grandiose promises. Many lives have broken against those perilous rocks. At the same time, the incredible dignity of Christian marriage lies in our belief that even while spouses themselves are selfish and imperfect, the married estate remains honorable, and the bond remains secure. We don’t need to understand the vows fully in order to make them, and married life itself is sometimes bearable only because we believe that it has a meaning and purpose that transcends the highly imperfect motives of the human participants. In a time when so many other sources of meaning seem to be eroding beneath our very feet, the Church at least needs to bear patient witness to these realities, which are so essential to community and to civilization as a whole.

Of course we can all appreciate Pope Francis’ concerns. This pontiff has spoken very often about our “throwaway culture,” in which anything (a sweater, a faith, a spouse or child) can be discarded if it no longer thrills us. This is a serious problem indeed.

Still, suggesting that these cultural defects actually render the great majority of Catholics incapable of marriage is drastic to the point of insanity. The mind reels at the implications. What kind of dystopian world must we have today if men and women can no longer truly give themselves to one another? How can we even begin to rebuild families, communities, or cultures if this foundational plank has de facto been removed?

The correct response to a throwaway culture is not to validate the intuitions that lead people to walk away from their commitments. Many millions of modern people feel that their marriages are not worth saving. It would seem that Pope Francis agrees. If the great majority of Catholic marriages are in fact not valid, we naturally have to ask: which are the valid ones? Which modern people are still fit to shoulder the burdens of matrimony and parenthood? Only those with an elite Catholic education? Only those who themselves come from solid, intact Catholic families?

If we really must look for a small and select class of marriage-capable Catholics, almost any identifying features we name are likely to favor the materially comfortable and the educated, who are more likely to come from intact homes, and to be adequately catechized. In America as in much of the world, social breakdown is notably worse among lower-income people. The penalties of a dissolute society always fall hardest on those with comparatively few resources to help them adapt. Poorer people already have a more difficult road to finding decent jobs and establishing respectable households. Are we now to accept that, in addition to these other challenges, most of them can’t even get married anymore?

Pope Francis clearly feels compassion for the wayward and the dispossessed. Compassion can be dangerous, however, when it leads us to infantilize people to the point of dehumanization. If ordinary people can’t get married, we have no real hope of rebuilding Catholic communities. Faithful Catholics around the world need to tell Pope Francis: we appreciate your concern, but acknowledge that we are married.

(Photo credit: Daniel Ibanez / CNA)

Rachel Lu

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Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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