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Tuesday, 25 January 2011

What did the Pope really say about marriage?

Did the Pope really say that couples do not have the right to marry? Well no: as with much of his writing, it was a carefully crafted argument; this time on some aspects of the right to marry which the Catholic Church has always upheld. Reading through the address, I thought it might be helpful just to make a few points about what the Pope actually said and the reasoning that he was using.

First of all, Pope Benedict points out that canon law is not opposed to the pastoral dimension of the Church. This is fundamental since "canonical" has often been portrayed as bad while "pastoral" is good. In fact the law protects us all and without it our society would be in chaos and nobody would be safe. In the case of marriage, juridical activity is essential to pastoral preparation because the legal contract is at the heart of the celebration of marriage.

The Holy Father's principal concern is with marriage preparation. He complains that in preparation for marriage, canonical questions occupy a modest, if not insignificant place. He is arguing that the canonical questions are vital since there is "only one marriage" not two marriages, one pastoral and the other canonical. The "authentic conjugal dynamic of life and love" is rooted in the juridical bond between husband and wife thanks to the vows they take which have legal force. In other words, marriage is about living out the binding promises that are made at the wedding.

Hence, Pope Benedict says, this is where we find the "right to marriage": it is not a subjective thing that pastors must formally recognise independently of what the spouses actually intend. The right to marry refers to the right to celebrate a real marriage, not a union that is juridically invalid because of some defect.

It is this area on which the Pope focusses when he speaks of preparation for marriage. He is not talking about a "Mr and Mrs Show" in which the couple are asked "What are the five things you most like about him/her?" but the task of ascertaining that the couple have the right convictions regarding the obligations required for the celebration of a valid marriage. The validity is not irrelevant to their having a happy marriage but is necessary for it.

The Holy Father says that the immediate objective of marriage preparation is to promote the celebration of an authentic marriage. He explains that this means the constituting of a bond which has the characteristics of unity (one man, one wife) and indissolubility, and which is ordained to the good of the spouses and the procreation and upbringing of children.

Thus, he explains, the Church does not refuse the celebration of marriage to those who have the right intention to wed according to what marriage really is, even if they are not perfectly prepared spiritually. He underlines the importance of the "pre-marriage examination" - in England we call this the "pre-nuptial enquiry" - where each of the partners (interviewed separately) is asked to affirm seriously that they understand the basic characteristics of marriage, and that they enter it freely.

Pope Benedict is particularly concerned to end the "vicious circle" in which there is no serious attempt to ascertain that the couple understand and accept the necessary requirements for Christian marriage, and then a nullity is granted when the marriage breaks down. He also cautions against taking simple failures on the part of the spouses as a cause for nullity.

The Holy Father ends by emphasising once again the relationship between law and pastoral care:
In concluding these reflections of mine, I turn to consider the relationship between law and pastoral care. It is often the object of misunderstandings, to the detriment of law, but also to the detriment of pastoral work. On the contrary, it is necessary to promote in all sectors, and in a special way in that of marriage and the family, profound harmony between the pastoral and the juridical, which will certainly show itself to be fruitful for those who approach marriage.
It is not always an easy argument to follow, especially since we live in a culture where everything is "my right" regardless of obligations and the objective character of what we claim a right to. Hence my attempt to summarise some of the more important points.

In the Church, the Pope's address may well be misused to subject couples to endless marriage preparation sessions exploring "relationship" and "compatibility". What the Holy Father is actually insisting on is closer attention to the canonical requirements for valid and authentic marriage.

Pope Benedict's full address to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota
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