In July 2013, while flying home from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Pope Francis fielded a question from reporters concerning the possibility of giving communion to divorced and remarried Catholics. His answer? The Catholic Church is “on a path to a more profound pastoral care of marriage.” For the divorced and remarried, Francis mooted two options. The first is something like the Eastern Orthodox practice of oikonomia, whereby a remarried person may receive communion after undergoing a penitential rite; the second is an easing of the procedures by which annulments are granted.

Earlier this month, Francis opted for the second, more modest proposal. In two documents, he outlined a process whereby bishops would become more involved, certain cases would be fast-tracked, and mandatory reviews would end. Canon lawyers are still debating the fine points of the Pope’s declaration, but many of the conservative observers I know are celebrating it as a victory. The indissolubility of marriage has been reaffirmed! They may well be right to do so. But the prospects of Catholic teaching on marriage are determined not just by the letter of the law but also by the assumptions of those who implement it.

Right now those assumptions are grim. Many bishops have come to believe that a great number of Catholic marriages are essentially fraudulent. For this reason, the reform has been designed to open the floodgates to far more annulments than the church currently grants. As the Vatican official in charge of drafting the reform, Pio Vito Pinto, wrote in L’Oservattore Romano, the goal is “to pass from the restricted number of a few thousand annulments to that immeasurable number of unfortunates who might have a declaration of nullity.”

Pope Francis apparently shares the belief that many Catholic marriages are invalid. In that same July 2013 interview, he approvingly quoted another bishop’s claim that perhaps only 50 percent of Catholic marriages were real. While there is no global measure of Catholic divorce rates, it is telling that even in the United States, where 60 percent of all annulments are awarded, Catholics have a divorce rate of only 28 percent. If Francis is right, not only many of the Catholic marriages that fail but also a good many that succeed aren't marriages at all.

Francis pointed out that many of these couples marry without the expectation that marriage lasts for life, some marry under social pressure, and some marry without maturity. All of this is undoubtedly true. One wonders, though, whether any couple has ever entered into marriage with full maturity, whether anything is ever done absent social pressure, and whether a liberalization of annulments would do more to shore up our belief in marriage’s permanence—or to erode it.

We should not succumb to what Polish Bishop Antoni Stankiewicz has called an “anthropological pessimism.” This outlook holds that it is “almost impossible to get married, in view of the current cultural situation.” As head of the Roman Rota, the Vatican court that handles annulment cases, Stankiewicz warned against the implication that “only saints can have valid marriages” and that ordinary people are “incapable of marriage, yet perfectly capable of doing everything else.”

The pessimists assume that our culture today is uniquely unable to hear the Christian truth about marriage. Is this really so? The people described in the stories of John Updike are hardly more blithe about their marriage vows than those in the stories of Boccaccio (neither group manages to outdo the Corinthians to whom Paul wrote his letters). When it comes to understanding and living out the Christian vision of marriage, our age is no worse than any other. Further, advances in women’s equality mean that marriages occur later than ever and more freely than ever—less subject to money pressures, disparities in age, and parents with the power to coerce.

Against anthropological pessimism, the Catholic Church asserts the power of the sacraments to overcome the deficiencies attending every human effort. Francis has listed a host of reasons for which an annulment case might be fast-tracked: lack of faith, brevity of married life, abortion, an affair, unplanned pregnancy. No one can doubt that each presents a serious case. But isn't it precisely the serious cases that put to the test the Catholic claim about marriage? Isn’t the promise of the sacrament that it imparts something more than natural assurance, that it gives a supernatural grace to husband and wife? 

One wonders what the pessimists would make of the case of Sarah Miles in Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. Greene’s heroine was married to her husband in a civil ceremony. It never occurred to either of them to accept the Catholic view of marriage. They have no children. Yet a priest nonetheless tells her to abandon hope of marrying another man she loves. She storms out:

I slammed the door to show what I thought of priests. They are between us and God, I thought; God has more mercy, and then I came out of the church and saw the crucifix they have there, and I thought, of course, he’s got mercy, only it’s such an odd sort of mercy, it sometimes looks like punishment.

By embracing what Greene elsewhere calls “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God,” Sarah finds herself united to the suffering Christ. She finds a way to become a saint. The mercy she receives doesn’t come via a fast-track bureaucratic process. It doesn’t come from a “pastoral” priest. It comes through her realization that God’s mercy is greater and stranger than any simple accommodation of our weakness and failure.

What even a precariously orthodox novelist like Graham Greene once knew, our bishops now seem to have forgotten. Leaders of a church that teaches marriage makes spouses into saints now flirt with the idea that only saints can become spouses. The truth is not so dire. People have always been imperfect, and yet the sacraments never cease to be efficacious. The Church must put forward not anthropological pessimism, but theological hope—trusting that marriage is God’s doing and not just our own.

Matthew Schmitz is deputy editor of First Things.

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