What Makes a Catholic Marriage Valid?

Are the Great Majority of Sacramental Marriages Null?

Bride and groom in Catholic wedding.
Bride and groom in Catholic wedding. Blend Images/Sollina Images / Getty Images

On June 16, 2016, Pope Francis ignited a firestorm in the Catholic world with some unscripted comments about the validity of Catholic marriages today. In the initial version of his remarks, the Holy Father declared that "the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null." The following day, June 17, the Vatican released an official transcript in which the comment was revised (with Pope Francis's approval) to read that "a portion of our sacramental marriages are null."

Was this simply another case of the Pope making off-the-cuff remarks without consideration for how they would be reported by the media, or is there, in fact, a deeper point that the Holy Father was trying to express? What makes a Catholic marriage valid, and is it harder today to contract a valid marriage than it was in the past?

The Context of Pope Francis's Remarks

Pope Francis's comments may have been unexpected, but they did not come out of left field. On June 16, he was addressing a pastoral congress for the Diocese of Rome, when, as the Catholic News Agency reports,

A layman asked about the “crisis of marriage” and how Catholics can help educate youth in love, help them learn about sacramental marriage, and help them overcome “their resistance, delusions and fears.”

The questioner and the Holy Father shared three specific concerns, none of which is in itself controversial: first, that there is a "crisis of marriage" in the Catholic world today; second, that the Church must increase its efforts to educate those who are entering into marriage so that they are properly prepared for the Sacrament of Marriage; and third, that the Church must help those who are resistant to marriage for various reasons to overcome that resistance and embrace the Christian vision of marriage.

What Did Pope Francis Actually Say?

In the context of the question that the Holy Father was asked, we can better understand his answer. As the Catholic News Agency reports, "The Pope answered from his own experience":

“I heard a bishop say some months ago that he met a boy that had finished his university studies, and said ‘I want to become a priest, but only for 10 years.’ It’s the culture of the provisional. And this happens everywhere, also in priestly life, in religious life,” he said.

“It’s provisional, and because of this the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null. Because they say ‘yes, for the rest of my life!’ but they don’t know what they are saying. Because they have a different culture. They say it, they have good will, but they don’t know.”

He later noted that many Catholics "don't know what the sacrament [of marriage] is," nor do they understand "the beauty of the sacrament." Catholic marriage-preparation courses have to overcome cultural and social issues, as well as the "culture of the provisional," and they must do so in a very short time. The Holy Father mentioned a woman in Buenos Aires who "reproached" him for the lack of marriage preparation in the Church, saying, “we have to do the sacrament for our entire lives, and indissolubly, to us laity they give four (marriage preparation) conferences, and this is for our entire life.”

For most priests and those engaged in Catholic marriage preparation, Pope Francis's remarks were not very surprising -- with the exception, perhaps, of the initial claim (modified the next day) that "the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null." The very fact that Catholics in most countries divorce at a rate comparable to non-Catholics suggests that the questioner's concerns, and the Holy Father's answer, are addressing a very real problem.

Objective Impediments to a Valid Marriage

But is it really that hard for Catholics today to contract a valid sacramental marriage? What kinds of things can render a marriage invalid?

The Code of Canon Law addresses these questions by discussing "specific diriment impediments" -- what we might call objective impediments -- to marriage, and those problems that may affect the ability of one or both parties to consent to marriage. (An impediment is something that stands in the way of what you're trying to do. ) The Holy Father, we should note, was not talking about objective impediments, which include (among other things)

  • Not being of the proper age (16 for men, 14 for women)
  • "Antecedent and perpetual impotence to have intercourse"
  • Being "bound by the bond of a prior marriage"
  • A union between a baptized Catholic and a unbaptized person
  • Having received the Sacrament of Holy Orders or being "bound by a public perpetual vow of chastity in a religious institute"
  • Being too closely related, whether by blood or by adoption

Indeed, perhaps the only one of these objective impediments that is more common today than in the past would be unions between baptized Catholics and unbaptized spouses.

Impediments to Matrimonial Consent That May Affect a Marriage's Validity

What both Pope Francis and the questioner had in mind were, instead, those things that affect the ability of one or both of those entering a marriage from fully consenting to the marriage contract. This is important because, as Canon 1057 of the Code of Canon Law notes, "The consent of the parties, legitimately manifested between persons qualified by law, makes marriage; no human power is able to supply this consent." In sacramental terms, the man and the woman are the ministers of the Sacrament of Marriage, not the priest or deacon who performs the ceremony; therefore, in entering into the sacrament, they need to intend by an act of the will to do what the Church intends in the sacrament: "Matrimonial consent is an act of the will by which a man and a woman mutually give and accept each other through an irrevocable covenant in order to establish marriage."

Various things can stand in the way of one or both of those entering a marriage giving their full consent, including (according to Canons 1095-1098 of the Code of Canon Law)

  • lacking "the sufficient use of reason"
  • suffering from "a grave defect of discretion of judgment concerning the essential matrimonial rights and duties mutually to be handed over and accepted" (e.g., not understanding that marriage entails sexual activity)
  • not being "able to assume the essential obligations of marriage for causes of a psychic nature"
  • being "ignorant that marriage is a permanent partnership between a man and a woman ordered to the procreation of offspring by means of some sexual cooperation"
  • thinking you are marrying one person when you are really marrying another ("Error concerning the person")
  • having been "deceived by malice, perpetrated to obtain consent, concerning some quality of the other partner which by its very nature can gravely disturb the partnership of conjugal life"

Of these, the chief one that Pope Francis clearly had in mind was ignorance concerning the permanence of marriage, as his remarks about the "culture of the provisional" make clear.

"The Culture of the Provisional"

So what does the Holy Father mean by the "culture of the provisional"? In a nutshell, it's the idea that something is important only so long as we think it's important. Once we decide that something no longer fits with our plans, we can set it aside and move on. To this mindset, the idea that some actions we take have permanent, binding consequences that cannot be undone simply does not make sense.

While he hasn't always used the phrase "culture of the provisional," Pope Francis has spoken about this in many different contexts in the past, including in discussions of abortion, euthanasia, the economy, and environmental degradation. To many people in the modern world, including Catholics, no decision seems irrevocable. And that obviously has serious consequences when it comes to the question of consenting to marriage, since such consent requires us to recognize that "marriage is a permanent partnership between a man and a woman ordered to the procreation of offspring."

In a world in which divorce is common, and married couples choose to delay childbirth or even avoid it altogether, the intuitive grasp of the permanence of marriage that previous generations had can no longer be taken for granted. And that presents serious problems for the Church, because priests can no longer assume that those who come to them wishing to get married intend what the Church herself intends in the sacrament.

Does that mean that "the great majority" of Catholics who contract marriages today do not understand that marriage is a "permanent partnership"? Not necessarily, and for that reason, the revision of the Holy Father's comment to read (in the official transcript) "a portion of our sacramental marriages are null" seems to have been prudent.

A Deeper Examination of the Validity of Marriage

Pope Francis's off-the-cuff comment in June 2016 was hardly the first time that he has considered the topic. In fact, other than the "great majority" part, everything he said (and much more) was expressed in a speech that he delivered to the Roman Rota, the Catholic Church's "Supreme Court," 15 months earlier, on January 23, 2015:

Indeed, the lack of knowledge of the contents of the faith might lead to what the Code calls determinant error of the will (cf. can. 1099). This circumstance can no longer be considered exceptional as in the past, given the frequent prevalence of worldly thinking imposed on the magisterium of the Church. Such error threatens not only the stability of marriage, its exclusivity and fruitfulness, but also the ordering of marriage to the good of the other. It threatens the conjugal love that is the “vital principle” of consent, the mutual giving in order to build a lifetime of consortium. “Marriage now tends to be viewed as a form of mere emotional satisfaction that can be constructed in any way or modified at will” (Ap. Ex. Evangelii gaudium, n. 66). This pushes married persons into a kind of mental reservation regarding the very permanence of their union, its exclusivity, which is undermined whenever the loved one no longer sees his or her own expectations of emotional well-being fulfilled.

The language is much more formal in this scripted speech, but the idea is the same as the one Pope Francis expressed in his unscripted comments: The validity of marriage is threatened today by "worldly thinking" that denies the "permanence" of marriage and its "exclusivity."

Pope Benedict Made the Same Argument

And in fact, Pope Francis was not the first pope to address this very issue. Indeed, Pope Benedict had made essentially the same argument about "culture of the provisional" in the same setting -- a speech to the Roman Rota on January 26, 2013:

Contemporary culture, marked by accentuated subjectivism and ethical and religious relativism, places the person and the family before pressing challenges. Firstly, it is faced with the question about the capacity of the human being to bind him or herself, and about whether a bond that lasts a lifetime really is possible and corresponds with human nature or whether, rather, it contradicts man’s freedom and self-fulfillment. In fact, the very idea that a person fulfills him or herself living an “autonomous” existence and only entering into a relationship with the other when it can be broken off at any time forms part of a widespread mindset.

And from that reflection, Pope Benedict drew a conclusion that, if anything, is even more disturbing than the one Pope Francis came to, because he sees such "subjectivism and ethical and religious relativism" calling into question the very faith of "those engaged to be married," with the possible consequence that their future marriage may not be valid:

The indissoluble pact between a man and a woman does not, for the purposes of the sacrament, require of those engaged to be married, their personal faith; what it does require, as a necessary minimal condition, is the intention to do what the Church does. However, if it is important not to confuse the problem of the intention with that of the personal faith of those contracting marriage, it is nonetheless impossible to separate them completely. As the International Theological Commission observed in a Document of 1977: “Where there is no trace of faith (in the sense of the term ‘belief’ -- being disposed to believe), and no desire for grace or salvation is found, then a real doubt arises as to whether there is the above-mentioned and truly sacramental intention and whether in fact the contracted marriage is validly contracted or not.”

The Heart of the Matter -- and an Important Consideration

In the end, then, it appears that we can separate the possible hyperbole -- "the great majority" -- of Pope Francis's unscripted remarks from the underlying issue that he discussed in his response of June 2016 and in his speech of January 2015, and that Pope Benedict discussed in January 2013. That underlying issue -- the "culture of the provisional," and how it affects the ability of Catholic men and women truly to consent to marriage, and thus to contract a marriage validly -- is a serious problem that the Catholic Church must face.

Yet even if Pope Francis's initial off-the-cuff remark is correct, it's important to remember this: The Church as always presumed that any particular marriage that meets the external criteria for validity is actually valid, until shown otherwise. In other words, the concerns raised by both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis are not the same as, say, a question about the validity of a particular baptism. In the latter case, if there is any doubt about the validity of a baptism, the Church requires that a provisional baptism be performed to ensure the validity of the sacrament, since the Sacrament of Baptism is necessary for salvation.

In the case of marriage, the question of validity only becomes a concern should one or both spouses request an annulment. In that case, Church marriage tribunals, from the diocesan level all the way up to the Roman Rota, may in fact consider evidence that one or both partners did not enter into the marriage with a proper understanding of its permanent nature, and thus did not offer the full consent that is necessary for a marriage to be valid.

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Richert, Scott P. "What Makes a Catholic Marriage Valid?" Learn Religions, Feb. 8, 2021, learnreligions.com/what-makes-catholic-marriage-valid-4059826. Richert, Scott P. (2021, February 8). What Makes a Catholic Marriage Valid? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/what-makes-catholic-marriage-valid-4059826 Richert, Scott P. "What Makes a Catholic Marriage Valid?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/what-makes-catholic-marriage-valid-4059826 (accessed March 25, 2023).