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Debacle at the Lateran – Part II

by Christopher A. Ferrara
June 22, 2016

In my last column I discussed the explosive controversy — the umpteenth of this pontificate — arising from Francis’ declaration on June 14 at Saint John Lateran that “the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null” and that couples who cohabit can have “a true marriage, they have the grace precisely of marriage, because of the fidelity they have.”

The canonist Dr. Edward Peters calls this opinion “preposterous.” Just how preposterous is shown by Francis’ own explanation of his view:

... [W]e live in a culture of the provisional. A bishop, I heard him say, some months ago, was presented with a young man who had finished his university studies, a fine youngster, and he said: “I want to become a priest, but for ten years [laughter].” It is the provisional culture. And this is happening everywhere, even in the sacerdotal life, in the religious life. The provisional. And for this reason a great majority of our sacramental marriages are null, because the spouses say: “Yes, for life”, but they don’t know what they say, because they have another culture. They say it, and they have good faith, but they don’t have the awareness.

So, according to Francis, the “provisional culture” somehow deprives couples of  “awareness” of the meaning of the very words they are speaking at the altar even when they say them in good faith without merely pretending to agree. Yet Church law, as well as common sense, presumes “the internal consent of the mind… to the words or the signs used in the celebration of a marriage.” (CIC 1101.1) That is, the Church presumes that people actually agree to be married for life when they say they agree.

Francis, however, has another idea. It seems he thinks that because of the “provisional culture” people who, even in good faith, acknowledge “Yes, for life” when they are marrying somehow are not “aware” that the words “for life” mean permanently. That’s odd, because Francis would hardly claim that the “provisional culture” excuses people from other binding statements of commitment. Some examples: contractual obligations that often last for most of a lifetime, military service from which there can be no escape once agreed to, the ethical rules of various professions, oaths of citizenship under penalty of treason, judicial oaths in legal proceedings, and so forth.

Nor would Francis allow that this “provisional culture” excuses people from binding commitments to fulfill obligations he constantly condemns people for ignoring, such as care for the environment, social justice, an end to the arms trade, the death penalty and discrimination against women, the redistribution of wealth, and so on down the litany of causes dear to him.

How is it, then, that the “provisional culture” is an impediment to consent only when it comes to marriage, where valid consent requires merely that one “be not ignorant  that marriage  is a permanent partnership between a man and a woman ordered to procreation of offspring by some means of procreation,” which ignorance “is not presumed after puberty.” (Canon 1096, §§ 1, 2) It seems to me that the “provisional culture” is simply a rhetorical device to justify what is really an unsupported and indeed preposterous opinion: that most Catholic spouses are not really married. When a Pope seriously proposes such a thing, we can know that we are in the midst of the final battle between the Church and the devil of which Sister Lucia spoke: the one over marriage and family.

More on this scandal in my next column.