In his annual address to judges of the Holy See's main court last month, Pope Francis affirmed the indissolubility of marriage and clarified that poorly developed “personal faith” is not itself a grounds for finding that a marriage is null.
Clarifying ambiguities in earlier statements which seemed to suggest that poorly developed religious faith was grounds for annulment, the Holy Father said, “It should be clearly affirmed that the quality of faith is not an essential condition for matrimonial consent.”
The statement was made in the Pope’s annual address to the judges of the Roman Rota at the Vatican's Clementine Hall, at the commencement of the legal year.
Consent – the typical basis for a tribunal investigating the validity of a marriage – “according to the long-standing doctrine, can be undermined only at a natural level.
“Indeed, the habitus fidei (habit of faith) is infused in the moment of Baptism and continues to flow mysteriously into the soul, even when the faith is not developed or psychologically appears to be absent.”
He added that “it is not unusual for newlyweds, drawn to marriage by the instinctus naturae (natural instinct), at the moment of celebration have a limited awareness of the fullness of God's plan, and only later, in family life, discover all that God the Creator and Redeemer has established for them.”
“The lack of formation in faith and also an error regarding the unity, indissolubility and sacramental dignity of marriage may vitiate matrimonial consent only if they determine the will.
“It is precisely for this reason that errors regarding the sacramental nature of marriage must be evaluated very carefully.”
The question of the necessity of a “mature faith” or “minimum of faith” for a valid marriage between the baptised has been raised by some canon lawyers in recent years.
The dilemma was raised as early as the 1970s by the International Theological Commission.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his last address to the Roman Rota in 2013, said, “The indissoluble pact between a man and a woman does not, for the purposes of the sacrament, require ... their personal faith.”
The question was also brought up at the two recent Synods on the Family, and speculation about requiring a “minimum of faith” increased in September 2015 when Pope Francis released two motu proprio reforming the codes of canon law regarding annulments.
In one of them, Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus, the Pope wrote that “the defect of faith which can generate simulation of consent or error that determines the will” is among the circumstances that can allow a case for nullity to be handled by a new, more brief process.
However, his words today to the Roman Rota are significant for affirming that a “minimum of faith” is not required for a valid marriage between the baptised.
“The family, founded on indissoluble marriage, unitive and procreative, belongs to the ‘dream’ of God and of his Church for the salvation of humanity,” Pope Francis said.
Both the family and the Church assist in “accompanying the human person until the end of their existence”, he said, noting that they do this “certainly with the teachings that they transmit, but also with their very nature as communities of love and life.”
He noted that along with its role as the “tribunal of the family,” the Rota can also be considered “the tribunal of the truth of the sacred bond.” These two qualities, he said, are complementary.
“Indeed the Church can show the merciful and indefectible love of God for families, especially those wounded by sin and by the trials of life, and at the same time, proclaim the essential truth of marriage according to God's plan.”
Francis pointed to the 2014 and 2015 Synods on the Family. The two-year reflection has made possible a “profound and wise discernment” on family life, he said, indicating to the world that “there can be no confusion between the family beloved by God and any other type of union.”
By their “work of the truth,” the Pope told the judges, the Church “proposes to declare the truth on marriage in a concrete case, for the good of the faithful, she keeps in mind at the same time those who, by their free choice or through unhappy circumstances live in a state of objective error, continue to receive Christ's merciful love, and therefore that of the Church herself.”
He affirmed that the Church continues to propose marriage “in its essential elements – offspring, the good of spouses, unity, indissolubility, sacramentality.”
These conditions are not simply “an ideal for the few,” but constitute a reality that, with Christ’s grace, “can be lived by all baptised faithful.”
Francis pointed to the “pastoral urgency” in the Church for an adequate preparation for marriage, and called for a “new catechesis” on marriage, repeating the phrase for added emphasis.
He closed his speech by recognising that “the time in which we are living is very challenging both for the family, and for us pastors who are called to accompany them,” and wished them a good start to the new year.