Two weeks ago, I watched as two of my friends were wed in a Catholic ceremony in Stowe, Vermont. Afterward, a reception was held in a mountain meadow. As Ella sang, I drank a local craft brew and tried to avoid the photographers sent to cover the wedding by the New York Times. (The headline they chose—“The Sound of Music Is in His Blood and Now His Heart”—makes me fear for the groom’s health.)
I don’t know how many other Catholic couples were married that day. It must have been thousands—people from all walks of life, with vastly differing levels of income, education, and commitment to the Catholic faith. And according to Pope Francis, most of those couples are not really married.
Yesterday Francis said, in off-the-cuff remarks, that “the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null.” He explained that most couples on their wedding days are insufficiently acquainted with “the beauty of the sacrament” and the realities of lifelong commitment. So when they exchange their vows, “they don’t know what they are saying,” and the sacrament is invalid. The official transcript has since been revised to say, less contestably, that “a portion of our sacramental marriages are null” (emphasis added). But Francis’s original remark was no anomaly. It is a reiteration of a view he has stated before, and according to which he is reordering Catholic discipline.
Were my friends really married? Because both are pursuing Ph.Ds in Catholic theology, I suspect that Francis would concede that they “knew what they were saying” when they exchanged their vows.
What about people with less education, who haven’t staged performances of The Jeweler’s Shop, read Heart of the World, or participated in a Theology of the Body discussion group? The poorly educated and the poor are unlikely to have the time or ability to get up to speed on sacramental theology. If the sincere exchange of vows doesn’t make their marriage valid, what does? Must all sacramentally valid marriages resemble my friends', beginning only after a few years of theological study, during a Mass set to music by Mozart?
Even in the United States, where 60 percent of all annulments are handed out, only 28 percent of Catholic marriages end in divorce. By the pope’s strange reckoning, a great number of Catholic marriages that last for life are shams.
Catholic theologians may object to this view, but they’re not the ones targeted by it. According to Francis, their marriages are probably valid, while those entered into by the rest of us probably aren’t. I don't have a theology degree, so I think I'm going to need another of those craft beers.
Matthew Schmitz is literary editor of First Things.