Two years ago, the Pope made a comment about the state of marriages today, and his words awakened a world-wide debate about the sacrament of marriage, canon law, and modern culture.

Speaking at a question-and-answer session, Francis said: “The great majority of our sacramental marriages are null because the couple says ‘Yes, for the rest of my life’ but they don’t know what they are saying!”

What the Pope means is, marriages can be considered invalid because the parties do not understand that a sacramental marriage is a bond that binds them to another for life.

“We are living in a culture of the provisional” said the Pope, who mentioned the story of a bishop who said that a university graduate came to him saying he wanted to be a priest, but only for 10 years.

Today this mentality is engrained in the minds of a multitude of Catholic youth: “Why should we marry if we will divorce? – they think. Knowing this, the Pope explained: “The idea of commitments being temporary occurs everywhere, even in priestly and religious life. The provisional reigns everywhere. And for this reason, a large majority of sacramental marriages are null.”

Basically, the culture is different, so they do not know what they are committing to when they say “I do” at the marriage vows.

Canonical law describes this attitude: “The internal consent of the mind is presumed to conform to the words or the signs used in the celebration of a marriage. If, however, either or both of the parties, by a positive act of the will, excludes marriage itself or any essential element of marriage or any essential property, such party contracts invalidly” (c.1101 §1 and §2). In other words, he or she simulates the consent, consciously or unconsciously.

A Latin phrase clearly defines such cases - “Foris volo; intus nolo” – meaning, “Outside, I say I want; inside, I say I do not want”.

According to canon law, to get married validly you need to intend to marry as the Church understands marriage – that is, as a lifelong, exclusive partnership, open to children, and with free consent. 

L’Osservatore Romano published the Pope’s statement but, with his approval, re-phrased the transcript to read “a portion” instead of the “great majority” of our sacramental marriages are null.”

“Attitudes towards marriage are influenced strongly by modern culture and social expectations” said the Pope, who told the story of a young man who told him that he and his fiancée had not yet had their wedding because they were looking for a church with décor that would go well with her dress. The Pope asked: “How can we change this? I don’t know.”

On the other hand, we must take a moment to distinguish between when the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra, and when he speaks as a simple man, a priest or a bishop.

The pope’s infallibility is his inability to err in teaching revealed truth, and what is related to faith and morals. However, as a man or as a guide, he can speak about topics such as the splendid beauty of the earth as he did in his encyclical Laudato Si. “The [latter] belongs to the man, to be received with respect; the [former] is the teaching of his office, which is received as an act of the magisterium of the Church”, wrote Father Raymond J. de Souza (Catholic Herald, June 24, 2016, p.23).

Benedict XVI clarifies this distinction between teaching and thinking in the foreword to the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth – “It goes without saying that this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium and therefore that everyone is free, then, to contradict me.” It is also true that when he renounced the papacy, he, ipso facto, also lost his infallibility.

The object of infallibility is limited, according to Vatican II, to those truths which form a part of the deposit of faith (Lumen Gentium, n.25).

In a generic sense, the object of infallibility may be said to include doctrines of “faith and morals,” the words traditionally coupled and first used in a major Church document by the Council of Trent.

At the First Vatican Council (1867-1870) the Church declared that the Pope was infallible when he defined that a doctrine concerning faith or morals was part of the deposit of divine revelation handed down from apostolic tradition and was therefore to be believed by the whole Church.

The topic of infallibility reappeared in Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium which emphasized that the exercise of infallibility must be “in accord with revelation” and “extends as far as the deposit of revelation extends.”

Pope Francis’s observations are right when he said that we live in a “culture of the provisional” and for this reason many marriages are invalid. The sacrament of marriage is for life, and the idea of commitments being temporary occurs everywhere even in priestly and religious life.