In this interview, Cardinal Kasper states that Pope Francis once said that perhaps as many as 50% of all Catholic marriages are invalid. How should we understand this assertion?
First, we don’t know the context of the assertion by the Pope. But certainly, it was not a teaching. The percent of valid marriages is at most a judgment of the prudential order. And, in charity, we must consider that, if Pope Francis said something along those lines, it was an expression of the effect of sinfulness and the fallen state on attempted marriages, not a literal assessment of the percentage. I suggest that the Pope probably said “half” as an expression of the many problems in Catholic marriages, not 50% as opposed to 40% or 60%. It is like the expression “You are half right.” The meaning is not 50%, but rather substantially right and yet substantially wrong. So the Pope was expressing the opinion that a substantial percent of Catholic marriages are invalid, and a substantial number are valid.
Second, given this charitable interpretation, the expression is likely true. Of the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, most are non-practicing. Even among those who do practice the faith by going to Mass (regularly or irregularly), a clear majority have fallen into at least material heresy, by rejecting the definitive teaching of the Church on contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage, sexual sins, other moral questions, and on matters of faith such as transubstantiation and salvation.
Now a heretic can validly contract marriage. But if the particular heresy pertains specifically to marriage, there would be at least a question of validity. For any Sacrament to be valid, one must intend to do what the Church does. If the couple lacks this intention, if they do not intend to obtain the Christian Sacrament of marriage, but only a secular marriage with religious trappings, their marriage might not be valid. So it is not difficult to imagine that two non-practicing or minimally practicing Catholics who marry might not have a valid marriage.
Third, Catholics who marry outside the Catholic Church, without a priest or a ceremony in a church, are not few in number. I am counting as Catholics all who call themselves Catholics, i.e. the entire 1.2 billion members of the Church, including non-practicing Catholics. I think it is obvious that the Pope was also speaking about that group, and not solely about devout Catholics who attend Mass and Confession regularly, and who believe what the Church teaches. Within that latter group, invalid marriages are rare. Within the larger group, it is undeniable that invalid marriages are horrifically widespread.
Fourth, I must temper the above prudential judgment with a doctrinal certainty: the Sacraments are not fragile. God has designed the Sacraments and the Church for fallen sinners in a fallen world. So a fallen sinner can obtain a valid Sacrament, despite many different faults, failings, sins and problems. Perfection is not required for a Sacrament to be valid. The couple attempting to contract marriage need not be literal Saints to make the Sacrament valid. Many Catholics do not have a valid marriage, especially if it is a subsequent marriage without an annulment for a past valid marriage, or a marriage contracted without any sincere attempt to obtain a Christian marriage. But I also believe that, if God were to show us both which marriage are valid and the sins and failings of the couples with the valid marriages, we would be amazed at the mercy of God in granting so many valid marriages to us poor sinners.
Finally, I am dismayed at how many practicing Catholics treat Pope Francis with denigration, distrust, and lack of charity. The Pope is liberal and you are conservative. So what. Did he ask you to become liberal? No. So then why to you treat the Pope himself as if he were an outsider or a poor student of theology? Do you imagine that only conservative Catholics are truly faithful? That is the attitude that I have seen for very many years among conservative Catholics. They speak and act as if all liberals are heretics. And now we have a liberal Pope.
There is nothing wrong with any of the controversial statements that the Pope has been making. And the vast majority of these assertions are opinion, not an act of the Magisterium. But I see from my poll on Pope Francis that all too many persons consider him to be an invalid Pope, apparently because he does not have the same opinions as they do.
The Pope is the vicar of Christ and the teacher of the Church on earth. If his mere personal opinion disagrees with your fervent and long-held understanding of Catholicism, the greatest likelihood is that you have erred. And when he teaches as an act of the Magisterium, all the more so. But many Catholics today, liberal and conservative, have fallen into the pride of imagining that their own understanding of Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Magisterium is absolute. If a Pope or Ecumenical Council contradicts their own understanding, they can’t conceive of even the sheer possibility that they themselves have erred. It must be the Pope and the Council and all the subsequent Popes and Bishops who have gone astray. What other possibility could there be? They are so quick to say that the Pope is not speaking infallibly in one case or another, so quick to say that Vatican II did not teach infallibly, but they speak and act as if their own thoughts were entirely infallible on every point. Such is the arrogance found among many supposedly devout Catholics today.