Maybe you heard that on Sunday, September 14, 2014, Pope Francis married twenty couples at St. Peter’s Basilica.
I learned about it first from an old friend who doesn’t think there has been a real pope in Rome for about a century. He included a link to an ABC news story with his own comment: “Bergoglio personally okays fornication before marriage.”
Just about every news outlet jumped on this story in their predictably negative way.
The headline of the Telegraph on this story was “Pope Francis to Marry Couples ‘Living In Sin’ In First for His Papacy.”
The UPI lede was “Pope Francis presided over 20 marriages Sunday, including men and women who had cohabited and at least one couple with a child from the bride’s previous marriage.”
The ABC lede my friend linked to was “Pope Francis is making good on his insistence that the Catholic Church welcome all faithful — not just those who obey church teaching perfectly. He’ll marry 20 couples this weekend, including some who already live together and those with children, technically a sin in the eyes of the church.”
Note, right off the bat, that it is not a “sin” of any kind to get married if you have a child. Also, note the reporter’s implications. The pope thinks the Church should welcome sinners. Of course. There is nothing controversial about that. But also, The pope is insisting that the Church should extend all rights and privileges to unrepentant sinners. That calls for some evidence, none of which is offered. Finally, ABC has evidently discovered a new kind of sin, technical sin. I guess that is a sin that doesn’t count.
These stories refer to a press release from the Diocese of Rome, but they all seem to be derived from a story from the Catholic News Service.
Quoting the Diocese of Rome press release, Carol Glatz, the CNS reporter wrote:
The couples also come from all kinds of situations with some “who have been engaged for a long period of time or for not as long; there are those who are already cohabitating; who already have children; who got to know each other in church,” it said.
Some of those things are not like the others! Getting to know someone in church, or how long you have been engaged, are not the same kind of thing as cohabitation or having a child out of wedlock. Shouldn’t a reporter from Catholic News Service know that? Shouldn’t the diocesan spokesperson who wrote the press release know that?
No wonder my friend on the right, and practically all the news sources which are on the left, jumped to all sorts of conclusions. No wonder faithful Catholics also feel another punch to their spiritual solar plexuses. The implication of “there are those who are already cohabitating; who already have children” is that the Holy Father is saying, “Living together? No big deal. Having children out of wedlock? No problem.”
Has the pope done something novel?
I don’t think so. My wife and I assist in teaching in the marriage preparation program in our diocese. We know, because they self-report that a number of couples are cohabitating, or are otherwise engaging in premarital sex. Many of them seem not to know that sex before marriage is wrong. It is encouraging to learn that some of them, once they know the Church’s teachings, are open to stopping having sex before marriage and even to separating if they are cohabitating. There are also couples who have been living together for a long time and/or are civilly married and/or have children. They now want to have their situation regularized and to live out a sacramental marriage and a Catholic family life.
Did these cohabitating couples in Rome go to confession and live chastity prior to their marriage? Why can’t we assume the answer is yes? If it is yes, we Catholics should be happy.
In its favor, the CNS article does include this:
While cohabitation is not in itself a canonical impediment to marriage, it is contrary to the church’s teaching on marriage and sexual love. The church urges that pastoral ministers help couples preparing for marriage by showing them the witness of Christian family life in such a way as they may regularize their situation before their wedding ceremony.
I think for most readers, and certainly most journalists, this clarification went in one ear and out the other. It needs explication, something a working group at the USCCB has done in its resource paper “Marriage Preparation and Cohabitating Couples.”
For example, it considers the question “If a couple is cohabitating, can marriage be denied or delayed?” Here is what it says about denial of marriage:
Since cohabitation is not in itself a canonical impediment to marriage, the couple may not be refused marriage solely on the basis of cohabitation. Marriage preparation may continue even if the couple refuses to separate. Pastoral ministers can be assured that to assist couples in regularizing their situation is not to approve of cohabitation.
However, there may be prudential reasons for the Church to delay or postpone a marriage.
For example, in the Diocese of Rapid City, there is a policy that “If there is not sufficient awareness on the couple’s part of the essential elements of Catholic teaching on the sanctity of marriage and sexual relations and of the commitment, fidelity, and permanence needed in marriage, then the marriage should be postponed until such awareness has developed.” The reason is that one or both of the spouses might not yet be capable of giving proper consent.
However, the resource paper continues, “Since couples have a natural and canonical right to marriage, any delay beyond the normal waiting period for all couples is a serious matter. Care must be taken to ensure that delay is not used as a punishment for a couple’s continued cohabitation.”
What about causing scandal to the Catholic faithful?
Scandal is how my friend reacted to the CNS story and Diocese of Rome news release with its “there are those who are already cohabitating; who already have children.” There was no need whatsoever to mention those two details. To its credit, the Zenit article on these weddings ignored them.
If there was a valid reason to tell the world that some of the couples had been or still were cohabiting or that one or more of the spouses already had children, then why did the journalist or whoever wrote the original press release not anticipate the confusion this would cause?
The USCCB resource paper points out that with two generations of cohabitation behind us, the danger of scandal is not what it used to be; in fact, the scandal, if there is one, falls on the cohabitating couple and our sexually permissive society.
Surprisingly, the paper points out that scandal can also be created by people who won’t welcome back a couple who wants to regularize their relationship and be married in the Church properly. That is why it warns against “punishing” them by not letting them marry.
It is novel for a pope to marry a large group of people. But there is no reason to think these couples whose weddings Pope Francis blessed are any different than couples getting married in every diocese in the Western world.
The problem is in the glib, un-nuanced, and in my opinion, moronic way the diocesan spokesperson announced it and CNS reported it, as well as in the way so many media outlets ran amuck with it to advance their own anti-Catholic agendas.
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About the Author: Kevin AldrichKevin lives with his wife and seven children in Springfield, IL. He is currently doing freelance curriculum and research projects and teaching. In his free time he writes screenplays, TV pilots, novels, and non-fiction books and articles. His homiletic lectionary-based blog is Doctrinal Homily Outlines. He is also pursing a MA in Theology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary via distance learning.
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