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The damage done (again) by the Pope's statements on marriage

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 17, 2016

During an address to a diocesan congress in Rome yesterday, Pope Francis was quoted as saying:

  • that some priests are “animals,”
  • that pastors should not be “putting our noses into the moral life of other people,” and
  • that the “great majority” of Catholic marriages today are invalid.

All of these shocking statements were attributed to the Holy Father by reliable journalists: experienced reporters who take pains to get things right, and usually do. Below I’ll address the important question of whether or not the quotes were accurate. But first let’s assess the damage done by the statements as they were reported.

  • In the 1st quote the Pope appears intemperate and uncharitable. He may disagree with priests who refuse to baptize the children of unwed mothers, but name-calling is ugly, and certainly beneath the dignity of the Petrine office.

  • In the 2nd quote the Holy Father seems thoroughly illogical, and/or dismissive of the entire Catholic moral tradition. Confessors and spiritual directors always “put their noses” into the moral lives of their people; good pastors and preachers do, too, albeit somewhat less directly. If the Church does not wish to be involved in our moral lives, why have any moral teaching at all?

  • With the 3rd quote, the Pope throws into question the validity of millions of marriages, and insults the Christian married couples who are working to fulfill their vocations. More than that—as Edward Peters explains—he suggests that there has been some fundamental change in human nature, since by nature any rational person is capable of entering into a valid (if not necessarily sacramental) marriage.

Did the Pope really mean to suggest that in our age the breakdown in understanding of marriage has been so profound that we—or most of us, at least—are incapable of forming the same sort of marital bond that our ancestors have formed for countless centuries? That would be a stunning claim!

Ed Peters observes:

The collapse of human nature presupposed for such a social catastrophe and the massive futility of the Church’s sanctifying mission among her own faithful evidenced by such a debacle would be—well, it would be the matrimonial version of nuclear winter. I am at a loss to understand how anyone who knows anything about either could seriously assert that human nature is suddenly so corrupted and Christ’s sacraments are now so impotent as to have prevented “the great majority” of Christians from even marrying!

The Pope’s statement—if it was relayed accurately and meant seriously—would mean that our society is so thoroughly perverse that it has actually debased human nature. If that were the case, the Catholic Church could not reconcile herself to modern society; the faith would be in open conflict with the modern age. Yet in Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis delivered a very different sort of message, suggesting that pastors should learn to work patiently, gradually, and sympathetically with people who do not share the Catholic understanding of marriage.

So the Pope’s remarks, if they were reported accurately, were seriously damaging. But were the reports accurate?

  • With regard to the 1st quotation, the answer, fortunately, is No. The Pope’s remark, made in an ad-lib response to a question, was terribly disjointed and difficult to follow. But apparently he intended to say that some priests treat children (or possibly their unwed mothers) as “animals.” He did not aim that insult at the priests themselves.

  • Regarding the 2nd quotation, the evidence is not so reassuring. The quote does not appear in the official Vatican transcript of the session, but then Vatican officials have acknowledged that the transcript was edited. Here’s the relevant statement as it appeared in the official transcript:

This demands that we develop a family pastoral ministry capable of welcoming, accompanying, discerning and integrating.

Now here’s the same passage, as it was originally reported by Ines San Martin of Crux:

The Gospel chooses another way: welcoming, accompanying, integrating, discerning, without putting our noses in the moral life of other people.

The questionable phrase, “without putting our noses…,” was wisely cut from the final version. Yet the Pope did use those words—or, allowing for misunderstandings and problems in translation—something reasonably close to them.

  • And what about that stunning 3rd quotation? In the official transcript the Pope is recorded as saying that “a part (sic) of our sacramental marriages are null.” But a check of the audio tape of the event confirms that in fact the Pontiff said “the great majority.

So evidently the Pope’s words were changed, after the fact, to eliminate the most troublesome statements. Who made the changes? According to the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, the transcript was edited by the Pope himself; “thus the published text was expressly approved by the Pope."

So when the dust settled, and the official transcript appeared, the Pope’s statements were no longer shocking. Should we conclude, then, that everything is fine, and no harm was done? Absolutely not!

First, because those shocking statements were widely disseminated through the news media, to be heard or read by millions of people who will never see the official transcript.

Second, the Pope’s remarks were consistent in their tone—a tone that encouraged listeners to question the authority of Church teachings. At one point Pope Francis light-heartedly said: “Don’t go telling on me to Cardinal Müller.” His joking reference was to the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the guardian of Catholic theological orthodoxy. (Perhaps needless to say, that joke did not survive in the edited transcript.)

Third and most important, because this pattern keeps recurring: the astonishing statements, the headlines, the confusion, followed by the explanations and clarifications that never clear away the fallout. When will Pope Francis realize—when will other prelates make clear to him—how much damage he does with these impromptu remarks?

Some loyal reporters struggled doggedly to minimize the impact of the latest eruption. A Catholic News Service story said at the outset that the Pope’s argument about the number of invalid marriages was “a point he has raised before, and one also raised by now-retired Pope Benedict XVI.” Yes, but never before had either suggested that most marriages were invalid. America magazine suggested that when he spoke of a “great majority” of marriages, the Pope didn’t really mean most marriages—an interpretation that puts a novel definition on the word “majority.” John Allen of Crux observed, reasonably enough, that the Pope has every right to amend his own remarks. True. But the problem was not the way they were edited. The problem lay with the Pope’s original remarks.

There are two problems, really: that the Pope speaks so often without first considering what he is about to say, and that when he makes these impulsive remarks, his first unguarded thoughts so rarely show the imprint of sound Catholic teaching.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Gregory108 - Jun. 18, 2016 10:21 PM ET USA

    Once a priest said to me, "Some of these kids, I wonder if they even have the capacity to commit serious sin! They don't seem to understand the seriousness or wrongness of the things they do!" Maybe that's what the Pope was saying, that (maybe not most, but) so many young people don't seem to know the meaning of the vows and that they ARE FOREVER,or the need for openness to children. Considering how many divorced couples have NO problem getting annulments-almost everyone-maybe the Pope was right

  • Posted by: wtchurch5213 - Jun. 18, 2016 12:34 PM ET USA

    Do you suppose the pope was speaking of all marriages and not just Catholic marriages? Because if we look at all marriages he might have a "valid" point. So many people are married in what ever way is convenient that their marriages, in the eyes of the Church are truly invalid. Just a thought.

  • Posted by: ALC - Jun. 18, 2016 11:04 AM ET USA

    I have been trying to not say anything negative about Pope Francis, but he makes it very difficult. His papacy has, at the very least, caused confusion and, at the worse, led people away from the true teachings of the Church. Maybe resignation is the best way for him to leave us some semblance of a Church that can be salvaged.

  • Posted by: space15796 - Jun. 18, 2016 10:46 AM ET USA

    I am a married with Catholic with 2 (grown) children. In my admittedly small circle, I have private knowledge that other married Catholics with 2 children do indeed limit their family size naturally. We known and have known how to control our fertility for the good of the family, our own health, our need to work outside the home, etc. I cannot speak for all married Catholics with 2 children, but I wonder now if people are looking at my family and assuming my marriage is invalid . . .

  • Posted by: WNS3234 - Jun. 18, 2016 10:35 AM ET USA

    Most times "the field hospital" physician has to focus on THIS patient and THIS Injury or complex of injuries in the present moment to prevent the demise of and save the patient. When in the field itself, using what is at hand rather than what is ideal becomes a principle. Getting the client to the hospital - alive - and superior/best case care then to recovery of health is "a next step," but it is preceded by trauma care. Divine Mercy sends us pastors to seek, find, rescue and heal aka MISSIO

  • Posted by: hartwood01 - Jun. 18, 2016 10:08 AM ET USA

    Count on you to jump on the anti-Francis wagon,Phil. Do take a deep breath,and the recommended "chill pill".

  • Posted by: k_cusick1963 - Jun. 18, 2016 7:04 AM ET USA

    When it comes to teaching and passing on the Catholic faith, words from the lips of a pope must be beyond reproach, even more so now in this age than ever before. Social media and the rapidity with which words can be twisted or misunderstood, should give any pope pause as to their importance. He should be so deeply aware of the consequences (souls are at stake), that he chooses silence in public when he knows proper reflection and prayer would be missing in his response.

  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Jun. 18, 2016 12:54 AM ET USA

    The most arresting observation in this forthright analysis comes at the end: the thoughts that pop into Pope Francis' mind when he launches into these off-the-cuff farragos are simply not very Catholic. One almost doesn't want to inquire why that is.

  • Posted by: mgmoran8035 - Jun. 17, 2016 11:15 PM ET USA

    I believe it is precisely because the Priests do not poke their noses into the moral lives of Catholics that we do indeed have so many invalid marriages. Are all the married Catholics in the world with 2 children, practising Natural Family Planning or are they using contraception which,from my understanding make a marriage invalid. I am involved in Catholics Returning Home and the RCIA and I find the Catholics who become team members and are not aware of this. Pray, Hope and don`t worry. St Pio.

  • Posted by: bnewman - Jun. 17, 2016 11:02 PM ET USA

    It is almost as if Pope Francis speaks with two voices: one voice and tone to an audience of reporters who are delighted to hear it and relay it quickly to the secular broadcast news; and another voice to an audience of those Catholics who are sufficiently dedicated to wait for of a revised and corrected version. Both groups get what they want out of it.

  • Posted by: Minnesota Mary - Jun. 17, 2016 7:52 PM ET USA

    This Pope shoots from the lip and almost always hits himself in the foot.

  • Posted by: stpetric - Jun. 17, 2016 7:14 PM ET USA

    "His first unguarded thoughts so rarely show the imprint of sound Catholic teaching." What a discouraging thought. Yet time and again, that appears to be the case.

  • Posted by: Pete - Jun. 17, 2016 7:04 PM ET USA

    I'm neither a philosopher, nor a theologian, nor a journalist, but an elderly lay Catholic trying to remain faithful to the Church Jesus established and entrusted to Peter and his successors. Unfortunately, Pope Francis is making that extremely difficult with his highly controversial remarks and apparent continual challenges of established Doctrine. He ridicules those responsible for protecting the Faith, and fails those bent on taking us into Secularism. St. Michael PLEASE protect us!

  • Posted by: loumiamo - Jun. 17, 2016 6:58 PM ET USA

    I suspect that many others have thought of this: is it possible that Francis is ill in some way and that his erratic pronouncements are symptomatic of that illness?

  • Posted by: jeanneg117438 - Jun. 17, 2016 5:59 PM ET USA

    What gets me is the obvious contradiction between saying that most of us are incapable of contracting a valid marriage AND at the same time saying that all of us are capable of deciding correctly whether we can receive the sacrament of the Eucharist.

  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - Jun. 17, 2016 5:54 PM ET USA

    I take comfort in the observation that the edited-remarks-Pope is more Catholic than the extemporaneously-speaking-Pope.

  • Posted by: shrink - Jun. 17, 2016 5:54 PM ET USA

    Consider for a moment that the person who absent coercion makes a vow in a public forum with witnesses, without understanding or caring about the implications of his vow is (a) deranged, or (b) a narcissist or psychopath. Also consider that these traits do not change in life. They are character disorders that (baring a miracle) make a person permanently insincere. Does Francis intend to blow up the foundations of marriage law to readmit the chronically insincere to the Church? Alas, it seems so.