Could Pope Francis be right about invalid marriages?

Posted by Anna Githens on

A comprehensive look at what could be harming marital bonds today.


There was a great deal of backlash over recent comments Pope Francis made regarding what he perceives as invalidity in a portion of marriages today, and it’s not the first time the Pope has revealed his concerns. Back in August 2013, the Pope made a public reference to the possibility that “50 percent of marriages are not valid.” Portions and percentages aside, it’s clear that Pope Francis has noticed a troublesome shift that has taken place in the minds and hearts of couples seeking marriage and their understanding of its meaning.

While I understand how the Pope’s comments could offend many happily married Christian couples, perhaps considering the point of view of someone from the “dark side” would be helpful. As a practicing Catholic and a divorced mother of three, I may be able to shed some light from a different angle, as I share the Pope’s opinion and would like to explain why.

Although I was raised by wonderful, devout Catholic parents who taught me the importance of living in accordance with the tenets of our faith, I regret to say that at times I lacked the forbearance to oppose the strong counter culture. Through God’s good graces, however, I have come to see the error of some of my previous ways, and I am grateful that my transgressions have become valuable stepping-stones on my faith journey. Several years ago I had a profound, personal encounter with God, which inspired me to wholeheartedly embrace my Catholic faith.

Catholic News Agency recently released a very informative article entitled, “What actually makes a marriage invalid?” The article addresses important points, such as the object of a couple’s consent to marry, their capacity for consent, or possible ignorance of the nature of marriage, or a grave defect in their will or in their cognition.

Of course when discussing marital validity Pope Francis is talking about the marital sacrament. So, on the flip side what makes a marriage valid? I believe that couples preparing for marriage and those seeking to determine the validity of a previous marital vow should ask themselves the following crucial questions: Did you prayerfully discern God’s will in your lives and do you believe that He has blessed your union? Most couples, whether seeking marriage or divorce, will know the answer to these questions with utmost certainty.

So often we hear about the indissolubility of marriage and the permanence of the marital bond. Rarely are we told that the decisions we make before marriage will have a critical and lasting impact on our hearts, lives, emotional well being, and future relationships, and may very well determine the success of our marriage. Most importantly, our decision to partake in or abstain from pre-marital sex will either weaken or strengthen our marital foundation.

Presently, we live in a culture that encourages cohabitation and celebrates sex out of wedlock. Pre-marital sex is essentially accepted as a given. Many today “marry” themselves to others without first seeking the Lord’s approval, and without His Blessed Sacrament. Many couples after “courting” this way for a long period of time then determine whether or not they would like to “make it official.” Subsequently, the wedding is conducted as a mere formality, often when a couple decides they would like to have children. How can this type of culture uphold, or give credence to, the sacredness of the Sacrament of Matrimony?

Engaging in pre-marital sex may significantly impact a person’s, and therefore a couple’s, capacity for sound judgment when deciding whether or not they should marry.

I am someone who has experienced first hand the devastating consequences of the so-called “woman’s movement” and “sexual revolution.” These personal life experiences have shown me the importance of preserving the conjugal act of marriage for marriage alone, and the consequences one may incur when one does not. Through my experiences and through corroborating with other parents and young adults, I have concluded that engaging in pre-marital sex may significantly impact a person’s, and therefore a couple’s, capacity for sound judgment when deciding whether or not they should marry.

Allow me to explain further, if I may. I will use the second point of view for sake of simplicity.

When you are intimate with someone too soon in a relationship, you are, to a certain degree, playing Russian roulette with your heart. Though young adults are often forewarned about the risk of disease or pregnancy, they are seldom told about the permanent effect that sexual relations outside of marriage will have on their heart.

In deciding to conjugate outside of marriage, two things can happen. You can either effectively numb your heart, so you do not feel the emotions that naturally accompany the physical act of love, or you can allow your heart to feel the emotions and fall in love (or think you have fallen in love) with the person with whom you share sexual intimacy. Either way, you are changing the state of your heart, for it is impossible to un-know something once it becomes known.

Indeed, it is evident that the first instance is harmful to one’s emotional well-being since one can easily perceive how making this a habit over time will eventually harden the heart. No human being has succeeded at reducing what was meant to be an exquisitely beautiful, physical expression of love to casual amusement without incurring deep-seated emotional wounds.

The second instance is a bit more involved. When you give yourself to someone without really knowing him or her well enough - although sometimes you may think you do - the intense feelings you are having may deceive you into believing that you are closer, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, to that person than you actually are. Emotions greatly impact your thoughts and feelings. Sometimes you may even project desirable attributes onto that person to compensate for what you do not know about them. You construct delusions of grandeur, a fantasy in your mind, of what you wish the relationship to be.

What happens is your head tries to play catch-up to a relationship in which your heart is already fully vested. In other words, your body and heart are behaving in a loving way but over time, when your partner reveals more of him or herself to you, your head may say, “Wait a minute…. I don’t think this person is right for me.”

What happens is your head tries to play catch-up to a relationship in which your heart is already fully vested. In other words, your body and heart are behaving in a loving way but over time, when your partner reveals more of him or herself to you, your head may say, “Wait a minute…. I don’t think this person is right for me.” Well, now you have unfortunately made yourself a rock in a hard place. You are in love with someone your head might have reasoned you not to be had you not prematurely consummated the relationship. This happened because you formed a bond before you consulted God. Had you courted each other the way God intended, perhaps you would have learned more about your partner before investing yourself so deeply into the relationship.

The love your heart feels for this person has strong power over your will, even though your intellect is telling you to back off. So now you have effectively formed a split within yourself in which the will and intellect stand in direct opposition to one another. This internal split will inevitably be followed by confusion, distress, and even despondency. Consequently, the strong effect this has on your emotional stability, reasoning capacity, and potency of judgment may very well impair your ability to make a rational, informed decision about your future. Sometimes, because of the deep intimacy you shared, you may feel obligated to marry this person out of loyalty, or because you’ve grown to know and love your partner’s family.

Every time a couple chooses to be intimate outside of marriage, even if in the “casual” sense, both hearts are changed and will never again be the same. If a person decides to share one’s whole self with someone – mind, heart, body and soul – it changes how one sees oneself, one’s partner, and the world. In a relationship, this choice will instantly take a couple to a whole new level, even if they are not ready to be there, and even if they have not taken the time to truly get to know one another. So realistically, the closeness they feel is illusory because it was fraudulently attained. Moreover, it is unlikely that they will be cognizant of this while they are experiencing it.

Nevertheless, sharing oneself in that way with another person out of wedlock will have permanent, lifetime consequences on the present relationship and any future relationships one might have. Furthermore, this decision may significantly affect the validity of the couple’s marital vows. The problem today is that a couple most likely already made the decision to conjugate once they approach the Church to be married.

However, some couples may say their marriages were not adversely affected by pre-marital sex, and there are various reasons for this. Many times people happen to choose the right partner. Some of us are better at this than others. In the game of roulette, there are winners as well as losers. Perhaps they waited farther into the relationship and developed a real and lasting friendship before becoming sexually intimate. Maturity and self-awareness are integral components of any relationship. Yet, self-awareness calls for understanding that physically giving oneself completely to another without the parallel promise of eternal commitment through marriage results in half-measured unity. One thing I have learned is we cannot go wrong if we do things in the order God intended, and if we consult Him and prayerfully discern His intentions. The question is, how many couples are doing this today? How many marriages has God really joined together? For, it would seem, God’s marriages are divorce-proof.

In this fast-paced, technical world where contraception is available at anyone’s disposal for immediate gratification – even to minors or young adults - we no longer strive to teach our young how to develop the virtue of temperance. And as we appeal to advancements in science to modify our beliefs and justify our actions, we have become indifferent toward the priceless virtues we are forsaking. Throughout a child’s years of faith formation leading up to his or her Confirmation, virtues such as chastity and temperance are hardly mentioned as valuable means for sustaining inner strength to resist the counter culture. Bl. Paul VI warned “it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break [the moral] law” (HV17). As Catholic educators and parents, our silence on the moral law as it pertains to chastity has helped promulgate this ease. He specifically addressed those in education to “create an atmosphere favorable to the growth of chastity so that true liberty may prevail over license and the norms of the moral law may be fully safeguarded” (HV22). Somehow, despite twelve years of Catholic education, I missed out on this wise counsel.

God knows the fallibility of the human condition. He is well aware of the strong emotions that accompany the conjugal act of love and the sensual power it has on the human heart and mind, which is why it's best to preserve it for marriage. Many couples will say that they need to determine if they are sexually compatible. This is a lie contrived by the father of lies himself, and we have the divorce statistics to prove it. Couples need, most of all, conversation, communication, and real courtship - to take the time to truly get to know one another. Cohabiting skips over all the prerequisites, all the necessary stages that help to fortify a bond, and takes them right into the married phase.

Jesus told the Pharisees that Moses allowed them to divorce their wives because of their “hardness of heart, but from the beginning it was not so” (cf. Matt 19:8). In the beginning, our Lord said, “a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife and the two shall become one flesh” (Matt 19:5). Yet, we have broken God’s laws, we have disregarded His tenets for a fruitful marriage. Many join as one flesh before they are married in the Sacrament, before they even ask Him to sanction their union. Have our hearts become hardened today as Jesus described to the Pharisees?

St. John Paul II notes that modern society often makes the same appeal as the Pharisees did during the time of Christ, however not to the Law of Moses, rather to other contemporary laws and various circumstances, such as scientific advancements. In his Theology of the Body, St. John Paul explains that human beings of all times raise questions about this same topic. “The same is true about our contemporaries,” he explains, although their questions “are charged with problems unknown to the interlocutors at the time of Christ” (TOB 23:2). However, St. John Paul believes that Christ would not be surprised by any of the unique or diverse predicaments in which our contemporary culture finds itself today, and says that Christ’s answer would fundamentally be the same: “I suppose that he would continue to refer above all to the ‘beginning,’” he says (TOB 23:2).

Perhaps Pope Francis has been able to perceive the damaging effects of the “sexual revolution” and its devastation on the human heart. And I believe this is why he has reformed the Church’s annulment process. Our Lady of Fatima told the shepherd children, “Many marriages are not of God and do not please our Lord.” While the Lord may not approve of every marriage on earth, it would seem that He blesses them anyway. This is evident by all the beautiful children in the world.

Since, at times, we are willful and determined to have things our way, it seems, out of respect for our free will, the Lord acquiesces to our choices. And because we are His children He blesses us; He allows our marriages to bear fruit; He opens his daughter’s wombs and forms His children in them. He never stops loving, giving, and providing for us, despite our refusal to seek Him when we should.

As for Pope Francis, I believe he is trying to explain how to minister to those who have already made these life choices. He is the Vicar of Christ standing amidst his people in a field hospital assessing their wounds. Some are in the process of healing, some need mending, and others are gradually improving, but all must be treated with gentleness. The Church should act like a mother nursing her wounded children back to health. The Pope is caring for his people as if they have come off a battlefield during a revolution – a revolution that has threatened their lives and attacked their very soul.


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