Comment & Analysis

Understanding the Pope’s remarks about marriage
Francis is saying that fidelity means sticking by someone even when they become burdensome, writes David Quinn
Pope Francis accepts a gift from a newly married couple during a general audience in the Vatican. Photo: CNS

Speaking off the cuff at a congress on the family in Rome last week, Pope Francis made some comments on marriage and cohabitation that seemed to be very odd and which did not, in fact, receive the kind of coverage they deserved.

He said on the one hand that the “great majority” of Catholic marriages are “null”, and that some cohabiting relationships “have the grace of a real marriage because of their fidelity” and in fact may be “real marriages” because of this.

Later, the Pope rowed back from the first statement and changed “great majority” to “a portion” of sacramental marriages. The comment about cohabitation stood, however.

Key for the Pope seems to be the understanding a couple have about permanence and fidelity before they enter a marriage. If they have this understanding, then they are properly married. 

Sacrament

Pope Francis attributes the crisis facing marriage to people who “don’t know what the sacrament is” and don’t know “the beauty of the sacrament”.
“They don’t know that it’s indissoluble, they don’t know that it’s for your entire life. It’s hard”, he said last week.

Given that many married couples have a very faulty understanding of the meaning of permanence and fidelity, his comments about cohabitation make more sense. If a given cohabiting couple have a better understanding of fidelity than a given married couple, then in a sense the cohabiting couple are more ‘married’ than the married couple.

We can see what the Pope is driving at, although the thinking behind it is still very logically problematic because it makes the act of actually getting married seem almost secondary. 

If a cohabiting couple can be more ‘married’ than a married couple because of their greater understanding of fidelity, then what is the point of getting married at all?

That said, the Pope is driving at something very important. He is always saying that we live now in a “throw-away” culture in which we rid ourselves of anything we have grown tired of or which now seems burdensome. This can include our marriages and our families. 

The Pope is trying to tell people that fidelity means sticking by someone even when they become burdensome. 

For one thing, we ourselves might become burdensome someday. We might have lost a job. 

We might be suffering a bout of depression or some other kind of illness. Would we like to be tossed aside for this reason? Well then, should we toss aside someone we swore our love to when they are in trouble?

When a couple marry they vow to one another that they will stand by each other in sickness and in health, for better or for worse.

It is probably true that many couples when they are marrying don’t really know the full meaning of those words. When you first marry, it seems as if nothing could ever go wrong.   

But the vows of marriage are extremely realistic. They know that life has a habit of sending all sorts of unanticipated challenges our way. Many of these challenges might not even be of the couple’s making. As mentioned, one or other might find themselves out of a job and therefore under huge financial pressure.

One might fall ill, or have become extremely irritable or unpleasant to live with because they are going through a very bad period at work.

A child might go through a very difficult patch, getting into all kinds of trouble, especially in the teenage years.

These are the kinds of things the marriage vows have in mind when they commit the couple to standing together when the bad times come. 

Marriage preparation that does not properly acquaint the couple with this kind of thing is hardly worth the paper it’s written on.

Is marriage in Ireland prone to the kind of “throw-away” culture the Pope talks about? The answer to that is yes and no. The answer is ‘no’ if we look at our levels of marriage breakdown. 

While it is the case that the level of marriage breakdown rose fivefold between the mid-1980s and the last Census in 2011, it is also true that marriage breakdown in Ireland is still a lot lower than in many other Western countries.

But on the other hand, the rate of marriage in Ireland is down around the average for the Western world, which is low, the number of births outside marriage is high at about 35% of all births, and rates of cohabitation have soared. In respect of cohabitation, our rate is lower than Britain and higher than the US.

In addition, there is a so far little remarked upon and very large ‘marriage gap’ in Ireland, as elsewhere. What I mean by this is that there is a very large marriage gap between the top and bottom social classes in Ireland.

According to CSO data, if a person belongs to the upper professional class and is aged 18-49, he or she is 66% likely to be married. But if that same person is an unskilled worker, the odds of being married plunges to just 32%. (This is all detailed in a new report called ‘Mind the Gap’, published last week by The Iona Institute and which is available on www.ionainstitute.ie.)

Why are people from disadvantaged areas far less likely to marry? One reason is that they do not enjoy economical security. People working in the professions, by contrast, do enjoy economic security, generally speaking, and this makes it easier for them to marry.

This should be a matter of huge concern to us. There is a gender pay gap of 15% that receives regular attention, but the marriage gap between the top and the bottom socio-economic groups is much larger than this at 34% and affects hundreds of thousands of people. If people from deprived backgrounds can no longer realistically aspire to marry then that is a very big deal.

The reason Pope Francis talks about marriage so much is because he knows how important it is. Done properly, marriage is the antidote to the “throw-away” culture that has become so prevalent. 

Is the wider Church really taking up his challenge of developing a richer, deeper marriage culture even among its own members, never mind in society as a whole? I see little evidence that it is. 

It must up its game.