Pope Francis shares with Donald Trump a tendency toward rhetorical overreach. The difference is that the Holy Father is responsible to a living tradition of church teaching, while Donald Trump is loyal to, well, Donald Trump.
And so, in response to a question about the “crisis of marriage” after an address to the Diocese of Rome’s pastoral congress, Francis embarked on his now familiar ad-lib, improv theologizing. He observed that we now live in “the culture of the provisional,” an apt term to describe our age. From this he drew the entirely plausible inference that many people today have difficulty grasping the full meaning of Jesus’s teaching that marriage is permanent.
Next came the non sequitur. “Because of this the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null. Because they say ‘yes, for the rest of my life!’ but they don’t know what they are saying.”
He’s said things like this in the past. I don’t quite know where to start in expressing my dismay.
Let me try by beginning with that apt phrase, “the culture of the provisional.” Francis is quite right. We live in a dissolving era. Capitalism—the implications of which are of great concern to the Holy Father—encourages “creative destruction.” The technological mindset he criticized so strenuously in Laudato Si treats reality as malleable raw material for us to bend to serve our ever-changing desires. Our progressive moralists tell us that we can’t even count on our bodies to tell us whether we’re male or female.
In the culture of the provisional it’s therefore bad news to learn that the sacraments instituted by Christ are also infected by impermanence. It would seem that God’s grace cannot overcome our captivity to the provisional. Our marriages are null.
The official transcript for the session was revised to say “a portion of our sacramental marriages are null,” rather than the great majority. It’s a walk-back in the right direction. But the basic logic of the matter remains: The world’s impermanence dictates the terms of the Catholic Church’s sacramental life.
Later in his comments, Pope Francis reports his pastoral practice while archbishop of Buenos Aires: He prohibited “shotgun weddings” when the bride was pregnant, requiring more time for the man and woman to develop a more mature understanding of “the beauty of the sacrament.”
Perhaps such a policy is wise. But I find myself struck by the contradictions of Pope Francis. He inveighs against the evil rigorists who make the Eucharist into “a prize for the perfect.” But when it comes to marriage, he won’t make the sacrament available to the disoriented, confused, and stumbling who turn to the Church and wish to draw upon the strength of her sacramental grace.
As I’ve written in the past, Francis doesn’t seem terribly troubled by inconsistency. He’s “pastoral.” I’ll concede him that latitude, which his vocation perhaps requires. But those of us living in the postmodern West don’t need flexibility, permission, and provisionality from the Catholic Church. Our progressive secular culture gives us plenty of that. Francis doesn’t seem able to grasp that the wounded who come to the field-hospital Church are looking for permanence in a dissolving world. They are not looking for someone to tell them that the disease they suffer from has no cure—or that it’s actually good for them.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.