Over the weekend during his annual speech Pope Benedict the XVI said that marriage is not an absolute right. Strangely, while this headline makes it sound like he is talking about same-sex partnerships, he wasn’t (or maybe he indirectly was, I don’t know). But, the Pope qualified this statement by shaking a finger at high rates of annulment, mainly looking at the United States, suggesting couples need more marriage counseling.
Benedict made the comments in his annual speech to the Roman Rota, the Vatican tribunal that decides marriage annulments. An annulment is the process by which the church effectively declares that a marriage never took place.
Benedict acknowledged that the problems that would allow for a marriage to be annulled cannot always be identified beforehand. But he said better pre-marriage counseling, which the Catholic Church requires of the faithful, could help avoid a “vicious circle” of invalid marriages.
He even went on to say that society is too obsessed with getting married and having families as opposed to thinking about what makes a sustainable partnership. Well, surprisingly, the pope is right about this. People in general need more counseling for their relationships, young people definitely need counseling around what creates sustainable partnerships that are healthy and happy, and way too many people get married in relationships that are uncertain and clearly doomed. But it is generally the social pressure to marry that causes such a high rate of divorce or annulment. And it is institutions like the Catholic church that have made marriage so important and central to being a “good Catholic” that are part of the marriage pressure machine. Culturally, the world has changed, decentralizing marriage as the primary way to organize society and family life. New models are popping up and turns out after women have access to things like jobs and education they are not as willing to throw it away in the service of the dream of heternormativity. But, that is not even happening as much as people think.
Young people still feel enormous pressure to get married, from their families, their communities, religious institutions, popular culture and television. The norm is still to get married and as long as that is the assumed and expected end of the road for all romantic dealings, same-sex and otherwise, well you are going to have a lot of marriages that don’t work out. We have hit a point, an almost ideological fight, where the very structure of marriage does not meet the needs of how people live their lives. In order to push for inclusion of same-sex marriage, more mainstream progressives have pushed the idea that marriage won’t change or be destabilized by changing who has access to it. While this is a strategic move, for me, the larger reality is that marriage has to change in a world where gender roles have shifted and traditional ways of maintaining households don’t match up to how people are actually living their lives. If the way we think about the importance and role of marriage, we are not going to see a change in divorce or annulment rates.