Pope Francis is in hot water with conservative Catholics. He recently responded to a question on marriage by saying that most (later changed to “many”) marriages were invalid because the couple didn’t understand the sacrament of marriage. They did not, he said, fully comprehend what they had agreed to as they exchanged those vows. His antagonists began piling on, saying that he was making the entire Catholic community wonder if their marriages were legit, and “muddying the waters” of the Roman Church even more than he already has with his liberal attitudes towards gays, divorcees, and others living beyond the pale (their pale, that is). You could almost hear the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments as they proceeded to excoriate the Pontiff, as if he were an ordinary Joe off the street instead of the Vicar of Christ.
But Francis is on to something important. Marriage doesn’t mean as much as it used to. It’s been plutoed. The Pope’s point is that those contemplating marriage are not being prepared properly for its demands, and that’s why there are so many seeking annulments (the Catholic Church does not recognize divorce). They are too willing to call it a day and go on to the next partner on their dance card.
There are two things going on here. The first is the need to recognize that there are going to inevitably be some bad marriages and those people need to split up. Maybe it’s nobody’s fault, maybe you can lay the blame at somebody’s feet, but every marriage is not going to be forever. People change. They get married too soon, too young, too unaware, blinded by passion and then one day they open up their eyes to a different person than the one they thought they knew. They should be able to go their separate ways and start over.
But the second point jives with what Francis is trying to tell us. There is a sanctity in marriage, and not just for the Christian Faithful, but for everyone. Our partners in life, those with whom we beget our children should be our best beloved, and in that deep, ineffable affection and the intimacy of sexual union we find the Divine. Call it God, call it whatever you want, it’s sacred. Marriage should ideally be for the long haul. But we live in a world of refunds, retooling, redecorating, and regifting. We have even invented the word “trial marriage”, an irritating phrase if ever there was one.
Forget for a moment the annoyance you may feel at celibate men of the Church ordering you around in this realm of intimacy and domesticity. The world would be a better place if marriage were viewed as a sacrament instead of a tax benefit. The Pope is doubtlessly correct that many of us are woefully unprepared to be good spouses. But what is sacramental about the union of two souls, is not what happens in front of an altar as a priest utters some magic words. The sacrament lies deep in the heart of the bride and groom if they really care about each other and are willing to make sacrifices for each other and work together to make the marriage more important than either of their own individual lives. It is that depth of feeling that unites them, and makes them married in a spiritual sense. It is Divine. But you have to work at it.