The pope tells priests, “marriage is not an absolute right.”


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.

via Yahoo News.

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.

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  • Emily

    I think it would help a lot of more people were accepting of unmarried couples living together. That’s a big hurdle for my boyfriend and I, as his parents are very much against the idea of us living together before getting married. The thing is, before we get married, we need to work a lot of stuff out, like our vastly different housecleaning habits, and we won’t be able to really come to an agreement unless we have a dress rehearsal.

    • R

      This is just my opinion, so please treat is as such and forgive me if I sound preachy, but probably the largest conceptual hurdle for people to get their minds past is the realisation that, unless you are religious, marriage is a symbol of the thing, and not the thing itself. For as long as marriage is seen as the goal to reach rather than a greater understanding of and better relationship with your partner, neither of you are going to make the right choice (except possibly by accident). Marriage is a nice thing to do together to reaffirm what you already know. You’re never going to agree all the time, but the only way marriage has ever forged togetherness out of bickering and division is back in the days when the woman didn’t have a choice, you dig?

      When you get right down to it, it’s not up to your parents, and they’re out of line even making that demand of you. Yes, they can make your life harder by disapproving of what you do, but loved ones who hold your relationship hostage to those kinds of conditions are going to make your life hard no matter what you do. When’s the right time to assert your adult status and your freedom to choose how you conduct your relationships? Before the wedding? When you’re in labour with the grandkid they nagged you to provide?

      It’s tough. You have my sympathy!

  • nazza

    Marriage needs to be redefined. If we want to marry for love alone, we need to make sure that other circumstances don’t factor in to the discussion. For example, the only reason I’m not making marriage plans myself is because of money. If laws and regulations were worded differently, and I could be assured of keeping health insurance, plus some modicum of income, then we both wouldn’t have to wait.

    Marriage is just not uniformly applied across the board. Here in DC, as I think I’ve noted before, the average age for first marriage is 32 for males and 30 for females. Where I grew up, in Alabama, it’s far closer to early to mid 20’s.

    But there are also highly individual circumstances that factor into the decision of marriage, versus non-marriage, and those cannot be overlooked as well.

  • Heather

    I agree Emily. It’s better to learn about who you will live with.

    There is also this ambiguous ideal that we have to have certain people in our lives forever. People move in and out. They touch our lives for moments or sometimes they are made to go the distance with us. Some produce children, some do not. I think the largest part of this is the socio-economic factors that those relationships exist within. The more independently people can move about, the less likely the traditional framework will stay with us.

    Nowadays, you have many women like me — who was never planning to get married — loving the married family life. It’s important that we can maintain those choices based on our personal interactions, not necessarily under confining religious dictates. I believe we all eventually can find our way with the guides we have in our lives.

    The pope does not lead with a very good example on marriage/family/women, etc. I generally don’t have faith in people who do not have to live by their own rules.

  • Nancy Green

    Thanks for this. My state, RI is in the process of putting same-sex marriage to a vote in the State Senate. We are the most Catholic state in the US.
    I think the Pope is right to tell priests to do their best with pre-marital counseling,, and it’s right for religious groups to decide who they’ll bless. That’s the great thing about separation of church and state.
    The flip side is legal divorce. The Church has no divorce, so they just annul the marriage. The State acknowledges that a marriage existed. I think that’s more humane and respectful, I have something about it here…

    • Joann Prinzivalli

      I was a cradle Catholic, and I, too, am no longer in the Church. I can understand the Church’s position on annulment as the result of its inability to acknowledge an error in the interpretation of “What God has put together, let no man set aside*.”

      While it would be nice for the Church to acknowledge having been in error, its mechanisms for change do not include changing teachings that, like this, are cast in stone. Annulments are a workaround, and while the concept is that the marriage was made void ab initio, the miracle is that any children of the marriage remain legitimate.

      I tend to think of the Catholic Annulment as the equivalent of an LDS unsealing, an as ancillary to a civil divorce. Having had an annulment so that my ex could get remarried in the Church (my current spouse is Jewish, so I was in no rush), I am familiar with the tribunal process. In the most recent version of Canon Law, an annulment could probably be granted for just about any marriage. All it requires is a finding that at the time the wedding took place, one of the parties was not completely and totally ready.

      This is much like the situation in New York prior to No-Fault divorce – parties looking to end a marriage often had to resort to fictions to fit one of the grounds – usually “cruel and inhuman treatment.” At least the fictions for a Catholic annulment don’t require allegations of cause by the other party – a simple “I really was not ready” with a little background for it is sufficient, without having to make the other party look bad.

      * The “let no man set aside” should be taken into context – in Judea at that time, as it is in Arab/Islamic countries today, only the husband can divorce a wife, and it’s his decision to trot into the town square and pronounce “I divorce you” three times. I think Rabbi Jesus was saying that divorce should not be so easy and unfair.

  • Ivory

    I think when the pope talks about marriage, it is really difficult for most Americans to hear him because he comes from a different context. His concern is not the individuals in the union but the union itself – and not everyone is capable of the kind of self sacrifice and responsibility that a death-do-us-part union requires. Not everyone is lucky enough to avoid the mischance and bad decision making that would make that sort of union a burden. And frankly, the permanent union answers poorly the question of what to do when one partner, because of addiction, mental imbalance or disease totally checks out of the relationship or becomes dangerous to their partner. The pope doesn’t care about the kinds of marriage that determine if you get health insurance from your parents or whether or not you can act on each other’s behalf in making medical decisions. He only cares about the union of two people through intimacy – sexual, emotional and otherwise. He cares about whether or not that union produces children and whether or not it is used as a tool by each partner to perfect them in the sight of God. In the Catholic tradition, a good marriage is a symbol of the relationship between the church and Christ. Marriage is encouraged because it is a way to experience the grace of God through one of the seven sacraments. Until you wrap your head around that understanding of marriage, the pope’s comments are at best a non sequitur.

    I think our societies need a way to assign responsibility for households and children – and I think civil unions will evolve into that. Religious marriage is a horse of a different color and should be treated as such. The state should stop marrying people and just issue civil contracts.