By Msgr. Steven Aguggia
The Holy Father, Pope Francis, recently stated in some remarks to a Diocesan Pastoral Conference of the Diocese of Rome, of which he is, of course, the bishop, that many marriages may be invalid because of people’s lack of understanding of the nature of marriage and the commitment involved.
Naturally, the remarks of the Bishop of Rome go beyond his own diocese and are heard by the world. That is true no less of these remarks on marriage. In fact, it might be somewhat concerning to people to hear that the Holy Father thinks that many marriages may be invalid. It’s important to understand these comments in the light of the teaching of the Church on marriage.
A marriage comes about by the act of consent of a man and a woman who are free and capable to make such a consent.
When something is lacking in what goes into making such a consent, the consent (which may look perfectly fine) would instead be invalid.
One of the things that could make a person’s consent invalid is if a person does not fully understand the nature of marriage as a permanent, indissoluble bond. The Holy Father alluded to the fact that today many people do not think in terms of permanence or even of commitment. This may be a result of contemporary culture and many other factors that could seriously inhibit a person’s understanding of Catholic marriage. Even the excellent preparation programs in which we engage are perhaps not always completely effective in dealing with this issue due to the depth of the problem in our society. This does not mean that marriage preparation is poor; it means that our marriage preparation must involve much more than just a few months before the wedding. It begins with a solid preparation in religious education of the sanctity of marriage and family life.
However, even if many people may fall into the error in thinking that commitment is unimportant or that marriage is not permanent, the Church teaches that the validity of a marriage must be presumed unless (or until) it is proven otherwise. So, people should not panic and think that their marriages are invalid. It is only when there is reason to doubt its validity that a petition is presented to the Tribunal to investigate a matrimonial consent.
Marriage as a sacrament is a gift from God that provides a couple the grace needed to create holy Catholic families. Our obligation is to support and defend marriage and Christian family life.
Let’s all do what we can to build up family life in our society which, as the Holy Father rightly points out, is in desperate need of being reinvigorated.
Msgr. Steven Aguggia is the Judicial Vicar of the Diocese of Brooklyn. He also serves as pastor of St. Margaret’s parish, Middle Village.