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Even if the pope said it, it was reckless to repeat it

May 8, 2014

Cardinal Kasper, in a lengthy interview that shows no let-up in his push to change Church discipline on marriage, said, among other things, “I’ve spoken to the pope himself about this, and he said he believes that 50 percent of marriages are not valid.

I am stunned at the pastoral recklessness of such an assertion. Simply stunned.

Suppose the cardinal had claimed that “50 percent of ordinations are not valid”. Would not such a claim, coming from an internationally-renowned prelate and attributed to a pope, have a shattering effect on the morale of deacons, priests, and bishops around the world? Would not especially those clergy laboring under vocational difficulties immediately conclude that their difficulties were the consequence of having been invalidly ordained, whereupon most of them would just give up? And would not those preparing for holy orders be paralyzed with fear over proceeding to ordination until whatever is behind such a massive invalidity rate were discovered and remedied? Of course they would.

Well, if tossing out a comment to clergy alleging rampant invalidity of holy orders would be pastorally unthinkable, by what right does the cardinal casually tell laity that 50% of their marriages are invalid—even if the pope did say it? Does turmoil among married persons in the wake of such a remark not matter to any except those who suffer it? As I said, I am stunned that such a remark was made, even if it was a mere repetition of another’s views.

But, no matter who said it—and I have no patience left for this string of ‘guess-what-the-pope-supposedly-told-me’ disclosures—let me outline several reasons why the claim that ‘half of all marriages are null’ is not just reckless, it’s also wrong.

I preface my remarks thus: I worked in diocesan tribunals for more than 10 years and concluded that hundreds of the marriage cases I saw therein were canonically null; I have been married for nearly 30 years; and I have seen, in my own family and among my closest friends, dozens of successful and failed marriages, some of those latter being canonically null, others just ruined. In short, my perspectives here are at least as professionally credentialed and as personally experienced as anyone else’s.

1. Marriage is, before anything else, a natural contract. Any claim, therefore, about “marriage”—including the shocking claim that half of all marriages are invalid—must be true about marriage as entered into by the great majority of the world’s population; that, or it must be abandoned. So, does Cdl. Kasper really think that half of the marriages around the world are invalid? If not, he should never have expressed himself so.

2. But perhaps the prelate only had in mind sacramental marriages (marriages entered into by two baptized persons) when he asserted that half of all marriages are null. But, if sacramental marriage perfects natural marriage and if grace builds on nature, what would make Christian marriage less stable than natural marriage?

Actually, a few things come to mind.

Some Catholic marriages are invalid for reasons having nothing to do with natural law, because they were, say, entered into by boys under age 16 contrary to Canon 1084 or by renegade priests contrary to Canon 1087. But those invalid marriages represent a proverbial drop in the bucket of invalid unions; their presence hardly allows one to claim that half of all marriages among the baptized, or even among Catholics, are invalid.

Admittedly one source of canonical nullity has no foundation whatsoever in natural law yet accounts for thousands of invalid marriages among Catholics: what I have described as the outdated requirement of canonical form. But, while this requirement allows tens of thousands of Catholics to walk away from ‘marriages’ that we would require Protestants (and indeed all non-Catholics) to honor, violation of form does not occur in numbers that would make half of all marriages, even among Catholics, let alone among Protestants, to say nothing of non-Christians, invalid. Not even close.

Or perhaps Cdl. Kasper wants to take on the “automatic sacramentality” point of Church teaching on marriage (see 1983 CIC 1055), and from there tease out a contractual invalidity argument for any sacramentum fidei attentatum sine fide, but I’ve seen nothing so complex offered yet.

Well, there is much more to say, but keeping in mind that this is only a blog post, let me conclude by reminding all that a long, long tradition of Church teaching recognizes humans’ natural capacity for marriage, reminds Christians that the grace of matrimony adds to the stability of marriage, and presumes the validity of all marriages unless and until it is proven otherwise.

In short, the validity of marriage far exceeds the odds one enjoys in a coin toss. +++

Update: Two more posts on this matter are: Cdl. Kasper’s claim cannot be ignored (8 may 2014), and Does Canon 1066 amount to a coin toss? (9 may 2014).

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