Pope Francis’s three-year-old papacy, marked by controversy from the beginning, has hit a new low.
After Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected to succeed Pope Benedict XVI in 2013, he quickly justified his reputation as an unconventional character who put himself on both sides of an argument with vaguely worded pronouncements.
From his “Who am I to judge?” statement on gay people that seemed to offer a hint at a change in church teaching, to his fumbles on contraception, to his recent claim that Donald Trump is not Christian, his off-the-cuff remarks cause headlines across the globe, often followed by some sort of “clarification” from the Holy See Press Office.
His papacy has been a litany of confusing statements for the faithful on the most sensitive and delicate topics. While clear on political topics dear to his heart, but where Catholics can legitimately hold differing opinions, such as immigration, economics and climate change, on matters of doctrine, Francis muddied the waters to an extent that many well-meaning Catholics feel they no longer know where the Church stands on issues of faith.
Most recently, in his latest off-the-cuff ramble on Thursday, he was asked about marriage. He said:
“It’s provisional, and 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. Because they have a different culture. They say it, they have good will, but they don’t know.”
To say that the “great majority” of Catholic marriages are null, or invalid, is a statement that is neither true, wise, nor fair. The Vatican has since toned down his remarks in the written transcript to say “a part of our sacramental marriages are null,” in apparent recognition of the damage Francis’s statement might cause.
For a “pope of the people” he certainly doesn’t give Catholics much credit. For a Catholic marriage to be valid all that is needed is the freedom to marry, consent from both parties, and the intention to marry for life and be open to children. That’s it.
Over the years, some clerics have used an interpretation of canon law to suggest “emotional immaturity” can be a reason for not understanding the responsibilities of marriage, and therefore as invalid and open to annulment. But marriage is not hard to understand, and the Catholic rite of marriage, as well as the preparation couples go through beforehand, makes clear what marriage involves.
For Pope Francis to say the great majority of marriages are null implies that the great majority of Catholic are ignorant fools who cannot understand the responsibilities of a bedrock of society that has existed for thousands of years.
It also suggests severe doubt in the mercy and grace of God. The rule of thumb when the validity of sacraments, whether it be marriage, the Eucharist or the priesthood, is concerned, is to assume validity unless something clearly contradicts that. So just like a priest doubting his faith as he is ordained is still a priest, a bride with jitters is still validly married -- God makes up for our frailties.
Francis’ words put the devil’s doubt into the hearts and minds of good Catholic couples who may be going through a rough time, and who instead of saying “We’re Catholic, we’re married, this is until death parts us,” may now say, “Well, the pope says most marriages aren’t valid anyway...maybe ours isn’t either” and give up.
Francis’ statement demonstrates a lack of faith in the Church and its ability to vet couples seeking marriage, to teach them about what marriage is, and to administer the sacraments effectively. If most marriages are invalid because couples don’t understand a life-long commitment, does that mean most priestly ordinations are invalid too? If so, are most masses invalid? Most confessions?
The Church’s authority rests, in part, on its claim to be able to communicate the sacraments and the teachings of Christ. Francis has cast doubt on the former, has done a poor job of the latter, and by doing so has brought the Church’s legitimacy into question.
His comments come after he dealt more confusion to Catholic marriages by allowing the liberal Cardinal Walter Kasper to take control of last year’s Synod of the Family -- who turned the whole thing into a referendum on gay people and communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.
Francis made things worse this year with his vague document on the family -- Amoris Laetitia -- in which he buried the hot topic of divorced and remarried Catholics in a footnote, and muddied the waters some more by saying that such couples could receive sacraments “in certain cases.” When asked to clarify he said “I don’t remember the footnote.” Wonderful.
Once upon a time Catholics would have been stuck with a bad pope, but since Pope Emeritus Benedict opened the door for a pope resigning when he can no longer do his job, it is time for the faithful to look at Francis and ask -- “is this man able to lead the Holy Catholic Church?”
At this point it is clear, Bergoglio has repeatedly proven himself unable to lead, and is doing incalculable damage to the Church that will take decades to heal.
Pope Francis should resign, and Catholics should demand it, so the Church can begin recovering from the havoc his ill-advised and arrogant papacy has wrought.