For conscientious priests, the Pope just made marriage prep much more difficult

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jan 19, 2018

If you’re a Catholic priest who tries to be conscientious about preparing couples for marriage, Pope Francis just made your life much more difficult.

You’re doing your best. You tell couples that they should think seriously before taking vows. If they are cohabiting, you ask them to live apart before the marriage. You don’t pretend that preparation for marriage is accomplished by a one-size-fits-all program or a time-consuming, bureaucratic pre-Cana process; you take the time to get to know the man and woman, to speak to them about the true meaning of Christian marriage. You encourage them to make a good confession before the ceremony. Before the wedding day, you speak to each one individually, ensuring that each is ready to make a full and free commitment. You help them to plan the ceremony, guiding them so that it will be done with dignity and reverence. Then you do all the necessary paperwork to guarantee proper canonical form.

Then Pope Francis meets couple on a plane ride, and on the spur of the moment, persuades them to take their vows in mid-flight. Does he ask them to reflect seriously on their commitment? Nope. They evidently weren’t even thinking about a sacramental marriage at takeoff time, and they were married before they landed. Does he question them about their years of cohabitation? Evidently not. Does he hear their confessions? Not likely. Plan a dignified ceremony? Not at all.

As the overworked canon lawyer Ed Peters has remarked, it’s questionable at best that the Pope fulfilled the canonical requirements for marriage. So we face the unedifying reality that the Bishop of Rome may have presided at a marriage that was invalid because of his slapdash approach! And this, remember, is the same Pope who lamented that many (if not most) Catholic marriages today are invalid.

Once again the Pope chose to ignore the requirements of canon law. Bear in mind that the Pope has the unquestioned authority to change canon law, on his own initiative. Still he didn’t change it; all those canons that Ed Peters mentions remain in force. Instead he paid no attention to them.

So for you, the conscientious priest, life is now more difficult. Sometime in the next few weeks, when you try to persuade a young man and woman to take marriage more seriously, you’re going to hear them say, in effect: “What’s the problem? The Pope wouldn’t give us these problems. Why are you making it into such a big deal?”

So you have my sympathy, Father, and my prayers. You’re doing your best. God bless you for that.

Then again if you’re not a conscientious priest—if you’re a priest who enjoys doing the bare minimum, letting people do what they want, not losing sleep about the state of their souls—the Pope just made your life even easier. So I don’t suppose you’ll complain.

And as a matter of fact, reflecting on how few complaints I’ve heard in the past 24 hours, I think I know why the Pope just might be right about how many Catholic marriages are invalid. It seems to me that you’re failing in the essential pastoral responsibilities you vowed to fulfill. But who am I to judge?

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: joedeacon6590 - Jan. 24, 2018 5:22 PM ET USA

    Pray also for the deacons. In our Diocese the deacons do most of the marriage prep.being married clergy they have some advantages of experience, but are also well trained in the canonical preparation. Many times the modern deacon is overlooked in the workings of the Church's sacramental life.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Jan. 21, 2018 10:42 PM ET USA

    This is truly disheartening. I didn’t think marriage on a plane is even allowed but given the circumstances this is the least of the concern. There is clearly a problem with the Pope’s impetuous comments and actions. Now, I wonder how impetuous he really is with his Efforts. What do we do - even below the Parrish Priest doesn’t want to speak out fearing what people wil think. Given the Pope’s statements and actions, it’s a little late to be concerned about disedification...

  • Posted by: DrJazz - Jan. 20, 2018 4:22 PM ET USA

    My use of the word "complain" was loose, and I'm guessing it might have been in the above article too. I would not want any priest to "complain" (literally) about the Pope, but I do think that in the right contexts a priest might point out when the Pope has contravened Canon Law or created a scandalous situation. If my father frequently makes a spectacle of himself, I'm going to try to correct him. If he won't listen, or if I can't talk to him directly, I might decide to speak about it publicly.

  • Posted by: feedback - Jan. 20, 2018 12:17 AM ET USA

    @Dennis Olden, even if the airplane was heading for an emergency landing of some sort, a general absolution would be more appropriate than instant marriage vows. Also, it is hard to say whether both parties really wanted to get married at that time, or - at the suggestion of Pope Francis - they just found it too awkward to refuse. Either way, this is not a good example given by the Pope to clergymen who have tendencies to cutting corners in their administration of the Sacraments of the Church.

  • Posted by: stpetric - Jan. 19, 2018 9:53 PM ET USA

    I am a parish priest, and I take my commitments and responsibilities seriously. I also consider that it would be disedifying to the faithful for me to complain publicly about the pope.

  • Posted by: DrJazz - Jan. 19, 2018 9:37 PM ET USA

    The first thing I thought of was to complain, but people today don't like "negativity," so I try not to do it for every issue that seems wrong to me. (The only sin is calling something a sin, it seems.) The Pope seems more and more like everyone else in the affluent west today: he does whatever he wants, regardless of any rules, traditions, or etiquette to the contrary. And, he seems to like to show off while riding airplanes. Frankly, I can't wait to see him go.

  • Posted by: shrink - Jan. 19, 2018 9:27 PM ET USA

    Here's a recipe for serious change: Place pontiff at 30k feet. Pour in a few glasses of wine. Add a dash of some fawning reporters. A pinch of wannabe priest-nuns and VOILÀ #ordainwomen.

  • Posted by: MatJohn - Jan. 19, 2018 9:03 PM ET USA

    No doubt an irregular ceremony for a highly extreme case calling for pastoral intervention.

  • Posted by: Dennis Olden - Jan. 19, 2018 6:58 PM ET USA

    Since their wedding was prevented by the destruction of their church (I read), might the Pope have assumed (or asked them about it) that they had gone through marriage preparation for that wedding? Maybe the Pope told them to go to Confession as soon as they were on terra firma? (Of course, there are probably other church buildings where they live. One could ask why they had not gone to one of them in the several years since their cancelled church wedding to put the matter to rest.)

  • Posted by: rsnewbill7950 - Jan. 19, 2018 6:06 PM ET USA

    I'm beginning to believe the Church is being tested, as it was during the Renaissance. The gates of Hell cannot withstand the power of Christ. The Church can withstand a heretical Bishop of Rome.

  • Posted by: feedback - Jan. 19, 2018 5:14 PM ET USA

    Why change the pesky Canon Law when you could disregard it? That's a recipe for serious abuse of ecclesiastical powers and a sinful chaos in the Church. I'm afraid that some bishops and pastors from now on may become less (or much less) respectful of the Law of the Church.