Dr. Edward Peters, JD, JCD, Ref. Sig. Ap., has written an article on the recent comments by Pope Francis on the validity of Catholic marriages: What Francis Forgets About Marriage. The main thesis of his article is that most Catholic marriages are the valid Sacrament. There is not a single thing wrong with Dr. Peters, an expert in canon and civil law, opining that most Catholic marriages are valid. Neither is it wrong or unseemly for him to publicly disagree with Pope Francis on this point.
However, there are a few problems with the article from a moral perspective. In that article, Dr. Peters treats the Supreme Pontiff of the one true Church with denigration and disrespect. Even if the Pope is mistaken on some point of theology or canon law, treating the Pope as one would treat a student in need of correction, or worse, as one would treat a political opponent, is sinful and scandalous.
Dr. Peters obtusely mentions the Holy Father’s own correction to his extemporaneous remarks — by saying “or had before he changed the record of his remarks” — but he does not explain the specific change in wording. The Pope changed his assertion from “the great majority” of marriages are null to “a portion” are null. It was uncharitable and unjust for Dr. Peters to argue, throughout the whole article, against the uncorrected version of the remarks. A portion of attempted Sacraments of marriage are invalid, as proven by the not uncommon granting of annulments. But, despite briefly and vaguely mentioning the correction, Dr. Peters, throughout the article, ignores this correction to the holy Pontiffs words, and ignores the fact that this correction makes his remark now indisputably true — a portion are null. This type of intellectual dishonesty is sinful, and all the more so when it is directed at the True Vicar of Christ
Aside from disagreeing with the uncorrected version of the Pope’s remark, Peters treats the Supreme Head of the whole Church the way that politicians today treat their political opponents. He lashes out at him with various rhetorical devices at every turn:
* Peters accuses the Pope of taking a position that is “against” the “ancient and affirming tradition” of marriage as a contract. But the Father and Teacher of all Christians did not speak on that point. For he was not expounding on marriage at length. So it is unjust to assume that silence on a point within the vast subject area of marriage, within a few brief remarks, implies a rejection of tradition.
* In the same sentence, Peters describes the Pope’s remark as having “shocked both common sense and Catholic sensibility.” Peters implies that the Pope’s remark is contrary to common sense and contrary to Catholic sensibility. This negative rhetoric is unwarranted. The Pope’s position on widespread nullity, especially in its corrected form, deserves respect, and should not be treated as if it were manifestly contrary to common sense or Catholic sensibility.
* Peters portrays the Pope’s remark as an assertion of “rampant matrimonial nullity”. This phrasing is unjust, since the Pope corrected his remark from “the great majority” to “a portion”.
* Even though the Pope corrected the wording of his remark, Peters claims that the uncorrected remark was “not a verbal slip”, and uncharitably assumes that the Pope is “likely” expressing an avoidance of the idea that the marriage union is a contract.
* He accuses the Pope of damaging “the urgent cause of clarity concerning marriage”. It is no small thing to accuse the Ruler of Christ’s whole fold of doing damage to a Sacrament.
* More rhetorical slights against the Pope: “dark depiction”, “harsh evaluation”, “pastorally reckless”, “logically wrong-headed”.
The use of the term “wrong-headed” is demeaning. And the use of “pastorally reckless” is a serious accusation which, as far as I can see, could never be justified by brief extemporaneous remarks, regardless of their content.
In my opinion, Dr. Peters’ recent comments on Pope Francis are themselves dark, harsh, reckless, and wrong-headed as well as harmful to the poor and weak flock of Jesus Christ. His comments on the Pope are scandalous to the faithful and demeaning to the Vicar of Christ.
Dr. Peters claims: “Francis’s use of the canonical term ‘null’ to describe millions of supposed pseudo-marriages implied a technical legal expertise that he does not possess”. So the mere use of a single word (“null”) by the Supreme and Universal Pastor implies that he has the technical legal expertise of a canon lawyer? That is ridiculous. Many commentators on this subject have used the same word, and have opined on the same subject, as to how many marriages might be invalid. Are they all thereby claiming to possess technical legal expertise?
However, in the legal system of the Church, as Peters knows well, the head of that legal system is not a Church-version of the Supreme Court, but the Supreme Judge of the faithful: Pope Francis. The holy Pontiff has the authority to change Canon law motu proprio, and to rule in any cases before any court in the Church.
And even if a Pope, any Pope at all, were mistaken in a theological opinion expressed extemporaneously — neither as an act of the Magisterium, nor as a considered private theological position — no one would be justified in treating the Pope with denigration, disrespect, rash accusations, and negative rhetoric.
Peters is not a theologian, but the document of Cardinal Ratzinger, written as prefect of the CDF, still applies to his disagreement with Pope Francis: DONUM VERITATIS.
“27. Even if the doctrine of the faith is not in question, the theologian will not present his own opinions or divergent hypotheses as though they were non-arguable conclusions. Respect for the truth as well as for the People of God requires this discretion (cf. Rom 14:1-15; 1 Cor 8; 10: 23-33 ) . For the same reasons, the theologian will refrain from giving untimely public expression to them.”
Ed Peters presents his own understanding on the topic of the nullity of marriage as if it were inarguable fact. And he shows no regard for the scandalous effect that his disrespectful treatment of the Pope may have on the faithful.
Peters is correct in saying: “Nevertheless universal assertions are not provable by appeal to particular examples and so one cannot verify Francis’s claim of a global marriage nullity crisis based on what one might have observed among a tiny portion of the world’s married or engaged couples in one part of one country. Not in a Church consisting of a billion-plus people living around the world, one can’t.”
But the same thinking applies to Peters’ position. He opines that the great majority of marriages are valid, but he cannot verify his own claim. Yet Peters speaks as if his own universal assertions were inarguable fact.
Dr. Peters argues at length that marriage is essentially a contract, and, if evaluated as such, most Catholic marriages would be valid. This argument is flawed because it reduces the Sacrament of Marriage to a contract.
First of all, a natural marriage, between two unbaptized persons, is a contract. And yet it is more than a mere contract. Natural marriage is ordered toward “generatio et educatio prolis” — the generation and education of offspring. And, properly understood, even natural marriage is a union before God. For the existence of a Creator God can be known by reason alone from the good things of Creation.
Second, the Sacrament of Marriage, while including all the goods of natural marriage, has raised natural marriage to the supernatural order. At the wedding at Cana, Jesus changed the water of natural marriage into the new wine of the Sacrament of Marriage. But for a marriage to be the valid Sacrament, more is required than in the case of a natural marriage between the unbaptized. The mere fact that the spouses are baptized does not make their union necessarily a valid Sacrament. That is why Canon Law has so many different provisions needed for a valid marriage, such as the absence of various impediments, and, for Catholics, the proper form of the Sacrament.
So Peters’ argument fails. Marriage is a contract, but it is not merely a contract; especially as a Sacrament, marriage is so much more. Thus, it is not correct to assume that a marriage is sacramentally valid merely because the conditions for a contract were met.
Dr. Peters also criticizes a different comment by Pope Francis, that cohabitations have some of the aspects of a real marriage:
“I’ve seen a lot of fidelity in these cohabitations, and I am sure that this is a real marriage, they have the grace of a real marriage because of their fidelity,” he said. [LifeSiteNews]
Again, this is an extemporaneous remark, and it should not be treated as if it were an act of the Magisterium, nor a considered theological opinion. Perhaps the Pope meant that cohabitating couples, who are perhaps not guilty of actual mortal sin due to invincible ignorance, have the state of grace and have many of the aspects of a real marriage. And that is how I understand this particular remark by the Holy Father. They have graces similar to a real marriage, but they do not have the Sacrament itself.
Another possibility is that some cohabitating couples, who are baptized non-Catholics (and so are not under the usual requirement of form), have the Sacrament of marriage because they fulfill the requirements of consent and consummation. So perhaps some of these couples meet the requirements for a valid Sacrament. That is not my opinion, but it is one possible interpretation of what the Pope said.
Alternately, if some cohabitating couples are not baptized, they might have a real but merely natural marriage.
The other possibility is that Pope Francis was simply wrong in his extemporaneous remarks on either or both points, on the nullity of marriages and on cohabitating couples. But such an error in a non-magisterial opinion does not justify all the negative rhetoric being poured out by so many persons against the Vicar of Christ.
What Ed Peters forgets about Pope Francis is that the Pope is:
Supreme Head of the whole Church
Father and Teacher of all Christians
Supreme and Universal Pastor
True Vicar of Christ
Ruler of Christ’s whole fold
Supreme Judge of the faithful
Successor to Saint Peter
Rock on which the Church is founded
Pilot and Helmsman of the Ark of Salvation
And Ed Peters is none of those things. Ed Peters is not a theologian, not a priest, not a Bishop, not a Cardinal, and not the holy Roman Pontiff. He forgets his place in the Church when he treats the Vicar of Christ as if he were merely a philosophical opponent, deserving of repeated rhetorical slights, rather than respect. What Ed Peters forgets about Pope Francis is that the Pope has the role and the authority to teach and correct Ed Peters, while Dr. Peters has no such role or authority over the Pope.
We are headed towards a schism in the Church, and every time Catholic leaders treat the Pope as if he were a political opponent, or an incompetent teacher, or a student in need of correction, they guide the flock of Jesus Christ away from the Vicar of Christ and the one true Church.
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