A Question of Culture: Pope Francis on Null Marriages

The controversy over Pope’s Francis statement about null marriages made me think of Katy Perry’s exploding undergarments.papal-handshake-505x396

On Sunday, I gave the opening talk at Benedictine College’s academic camp for high schoolers (one of two BCYC summer conferences). My opening talk presents two videos made around the same year in California: “Firework,” by Katy Perry and “Light up the Sky,” by a Christian band named The Afters.

Both videos use firework imagery, and a series of vignettes about people in difficult situations (illness, family issues, self-esteem issues, employment problems.) Some of the situations are almost identical.

The main point I want to get across to these high school students is that, though both of these songs and videos are the fruit of the same time, place and industry, they are not the fruit of the same culture.  They answer the “big questions” in a diametrically opposed way.

Katy Perry’s solution is to tap into the inner power of the individual, and, by some mysterious power, all problems are solved by self-assertion (where one’s bustier apparently bursts into flames.)  The other video, where the sufferers must obey a mysterious message that proceeds from outside themselves, shows that your problems do not go away by personal volition alone (you’re still terminally ill, you’re still fired) but your perspective changes completely, and you are consoled by the presence of God who is close to you in your suffering.

My point to the young people is that they are called, in a Katy Perry world, to carry on the culture of the builders of the great cathedrals. And my challenge to them is this: How will your living of the faith make a mark on this world?

This notion of the coexistence of different cultures in the same time and place is crucial, I believe, in understanding the most recent firestorm surrounding the Pope’s recent remarks about marriage and nullity. Having read his speech and the Q and A at the opening of the Ecclesial Convention of the Diocese of Rome, I think the official re-tweaking of his remarks did nothing more than rightfully contextualize a statement.

The statement that caused much hullaballoo is “the majority of our marriages are null,” revised to “a portion of our marriages are null.”  I believe the problem hinges on the meaning of the word “our.”  It would be easy to say that he is speaking to the Diocese of Rome, so he meant a majority of those marriages. But he said, right before this remark, “this happens everywhere, even in priestly and religious life.”

If one were to read “our” as “within the Catholic Church” it would seem that this statement is a bombshell.  But how are we to read it when it clearly doesn’t mean only Rome but “everywhere”?

I think the key is the context of the question, and the pope’s remarks about a particular culture these days. Here is my own translation of the question:

“[Your]Holiness, good evening. Wherever we go today, we hear about the crisis of marriage. And so I wanted to ask you, upon what can we rely to educate young people for love, especially for sacramental marriage, overcoming their resistance, skepticism, disillusionment, fear of anything definitive? Thank you.”

Here is my translation of the initial lines of the Pope’s answer, with his original remarks and the rewritten ones in brackets.

“I’ll start from where you left off. We are living as well a culture of what’s temporary. A bishop, I heard, a few months back, was presented with a young man who had finished college, a good kid, who said to him, ‘I want to become a priest, but only for 10 years.’ It is the culture of what’s temporary. And this happens everywhere, even in priestly and religious life. The temporary.  And this is why a majority [a portion] of our marriages are null, because they [the spouses] say, ‘Yes, for our whole lives,’ but they don’t know what they are saying, because they have another culture. The say it, and have good will, but they don’t have the awareness.”

To quote only from this that “The majority of our marriages are null,” misses a lot. To avoid this, the official re-write softens things to “a portion of our marriages.” That doesn’t seem to say much, as many have pointed out. But what the re-write does do, and rightfully so, is narrow the scope of the word “our” according to the context of the question and answer.  “our” refers to those young Catholics who “have another culture.” So the far more important issue here is that the Holy Father is saying that even we as Catholics can be living a culture that renders us incapable of understanding love as a life-long commitment, whether in marriage or in priestly or religious life.

Does the Holy Father believe that the majority of Catholic marriages are null? I doubt it.  Does he believe that the majority of marriages by young people who are steeped in a “culture of the temporary” are null? Yes.  Simply put, if one cannot understand commitment, one cannot understand marriage the way the Church understands it. And one cannot fully understand commitment if steeped in a culture that merely pays lip-service to it.

I spoke yesterday with a businessman who, among other occupations, runs a mentorship program for Catholic young people in business. He requires them to do webinars, resumes, even retreats. His biggest complaint? Nowadays young people think the word “mandatory” means “for everyone but me.”  It is clearly a cultural thing that goes beyond marriage.  (Don’t even get me started on college students and deadlines.) It is not just youthful laziness. It is actually saying “definitely” and subconsciously meaning “if I feel like it.”

I sincerely hope the controversy about the Holy Father’s words doesn’t steal the attention from the problem underlined in the question and further pondered in his answer.  If two videos made in California around the same year can proceed from different cultures, it is also true that two families in the same pew can proceed from different cultures, and even parents and children living in the same house can be living different cultures, in which the same words may not mean the same thing.

The main issue for the New Evangelization, as I see it, is that we are called to be “in the world but not of it,” but we are assailed with the constant and oh-so-subtle temptation to be “in the Church, but not of it.”  For we too, as the Holy Father says, live in a culture of what’s temporary. We very easily fall into thinking according to the spirit of the age. And, unless our young people are brought up with sufficient antidotes to the sweet poison of the temporary, their awareness of commitment can be damaged to a great degree.

This is a serious problem, and one that requires a lot of time to correct. And much more time needs to be spent on marriage preparation, which was the Holy Father’s major point, which I will let you read for yourselves.

Edward Mulholland

Dr. Edward Mulholland is the Sheridan Chair of Classics at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, where he co-directs the program: Great Books: The True, the Good and the Beautiful. Born in the Bronx, New York, he earned his master’s degree in classics from the University of London, England, and received both a licentiate and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. From 1996-1998 he served as the head of the Humanities Department and the dean of the Journalism School at the Centro Universitario Francisco de Vitoria in Madrid, Spain. From 1998-2005, he was Professor of Philosophy at Our Lady of Thornwood Education and Training Center in Thornwood, New York and Professor of Classical Languages at the Center of Humanities in Cheshire, Connecticut. From 2005-2011 he headed the Departments of Catholic Formation and Classical Languages at Pinecrest Academy in Atlanta, Georgia.