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Debacle at the Lateran – Part I

by Christopher A. Ferrara
June 20, 2016

It seems that Pope Francis is determined to be more and more provocative with each passing week, as if to reveal deeper and deeper layers of what appears to be a liberal, seventies-era Latin American Jesuit’s constitutional disdain for the supposed “rigidity” of orthodox Catholicism. 

By now the whole world knows that on June 14, during his customary rambling remarks, this time at a “pastoral conference” at Saint John Lateran, Francis declared that “the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null” because the spouses “don’t know what they say” when they say “Yes, for life.” He also dropped the bomb that in his view couples in the countryside of northeast Argentina who cohabit out of the husband’s superstitious fear of marriage vows, avoiding Catholic nuptials until they are grandparents, have “a true marriage, they have the grace precisely of marriage, because of the fidelity they have.

In other words, according to Francis, it is quite literally the case that among Catholics most marriages are not really marriages, whereas many non-marriages are.  With these remarks, Francis simultaneously undermines confidence in Holy Matrimony while legitimating unholy relationships which the Church, following Our Lord Himself, can only view as adultery or simple fornication. The Vatican’s frantic post-conference “correction” of the transcript of Francis’ remarks changes “great majority” to “a part,” but it leaves unchanged Francis’ mind-boggling and really quite nonsensical assertion that cohabiting couples afraid to marry can have a “true marriage.”

Changing the transcript of this particular outburst of heterodoxy does not change what Francis actually believes. For as he declared without correction in September 2015, during the flight back to Rome from the “beach party Mass” in Rio (citing his predecessor as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Quarracino): “half of all marriages are null…. Why? Because they are married without maturity, they get married without realizing that it’s for an entire lifetime, or they are married because socially they must get married.”  That is what Francis really thinks.

In my last column I praised Dr. Jeffrey Mirus for having the intellectual honesty to protest the “sermon heard round the world” on June 9, wherein Francis, provoking yet another storm of controversy, falsely depicted Our Lord’s teaching on sexual morality thus: “But do that up to the point that you are capable.” This week, in view of the debacle at the Lateran, other members of the “mainstream” Catholic commentariat have reached their limit. Philip Lawler, for one, is no longer willing to make excuses for the continuing scandal of this pontificate. Unimpressed by the emergency “correction” of some of Francis’ remarks, he writes:

“Should we conclude, then, that everything is fine, and no harm was done? Absolutely not!  First, because those shocking statements were widely disseminated through the news media, to be heard or read by millions of people who will never see the official transcript.
“Second, the Pope’s remarks were consistent in their tone — a tone that encouraged listeners to question the authority of Church teachings….
“Third, and most important, this pattern keeps recurring: the astonishing statements, the headlines, the confusion, followed by the explanations and clarifications that never clear away the fallout. When will Pope Francis realize — when will other prelates make clear to him — how much damage he does with these impromptu remarks?

Even more scathing is the commentary by the renowned canonist Dr. Edward Peters. Francis, he writes, has provoked

“a crisis (in the Greek sense of that word) over marriage… that will, I suggest, come to a head over matrimonial discipline and law…. I think the marriage crisis that he is occasioning is going to come down to whether Church teaching on marriage, which everyone professes to honor, will be concretely and effectively protected in Church law, or, whether the canonical categories treating marriage doctrine become so distorted (or simply disregarded) as essentially to abandon marriage and married life to the realm of personal opinion and individual conscience.”

What a devastating assessment from an ordinarily reserved commentator. Clearly, the ecclesial crisis has entered a new phase of intensification in which anyone of good will can see that something has gone terribly wrong.

Peters rightly discerns that the Pope’s remarks at the Lateran are no mere slip of the tongue, but rather form part of a pattern of “something deeper” that is emerging. That something deeper, he surmises, is an inclination to reduce the institution of marriage to a matter of “personal opinion and individual conscience” rather than an objective state that either exists or does not exist. 

But I would say that the problem emerging is deeper still: we have a Pope who is convinced that in all matters, not just marriage, the Church ought to be conformed to the way he thinks things ought to be, regardless of all prior teaching and discipline. In Evangelli gaudium he so much as told us so: “I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.”

Francis is literally living his dream; and for the Church the dream has become a nightmare, as more and more Catholics are beginning to see.  In my next column, I will take a closer look at the devastating implications of Francis’ view of Holy Matrimony.