Many Christians no longer view marriage as a lifelong commitment, says Mary Hasson, director of the Catholic Women's Forum at the Ethics & Public Policy Center in Washington D.C., who agrees with Pope Francis' assertion that couples often fail to understand the sacred vows they are making to each other.
"It's individual consumerism applied to sexuality — what I want, when I want it, and only for as long as I want it," said Hasson, who has over a decade of experience in marriage preparation work for the Catholic Church, to The Christian Post. "It's meaningful only from a 'what's in it for me' perspective. Relationships often take on the same quality — they are vehicles for personal fulfillment (however defined) and, like an old car, they can be traded or dumped when the repair costs get too high or a new model appears on the scene."
The majority of couples she meets who are preparing for marriage frequently tell her that they want to commit for life, she said, "but they often have their own personal asterisks — the unspoken 'exceptions' that they believe will justify divorce and remarriage later on."
"That mindset is toxic to marriage, where couples need a unified vision, a capacity for sacrifice, a willingness to compromise, and a commitment to the good of the marriage, spouse, and children."
Last Thursday, Pope Francis told participants at the Diocese of Rome's annual pastoral conference that most Catholic marriages are effectively void because couples don't understand that the marital union is a lifelong commitment.
"A large majority of sacramental marriages are null," the pope said, according to the Catholic News Service. "They say 'yes, for my whole life,' but they do not know what they are saying because they have a different culture."
The notion that marriage is a temporary obligation is a manifestation of a larger societal problem where everything is provisional, the pontiff added.
"The crisis of marriage is because people do not know what the sacrament is, the beauty of the sacrament; they do not know that it is indissoluble, that it is for one's entire life," he said.
Echoing statements made by his predecessor, Benedict XVI, about marriage, Francis said the misplaced value for temporary things "occurs everywhere, even in priestly and religious life." The pontiff then shared a story about a university graduate who approached his bishop about becoming a priest, but said he only wanted to serve in the priestood for 10 years.
Hasson told CP that the pope "wasn't making a universal pronouncement of most marriages," and noted that the Vatican transcript released to the public clarified his comments.
The revised transcript reads: "A part of our sacramental marriages are null. They say 'yes for my whole life' but they do not know what they (the spouses) are saying because they have a different culture."
Jennifer Roback Morse, founder of the Ruth Institute, a global nonprofit dedicated to creating a lasting and Christ-like mass social movement to end the injustice of family breakdown, told CP that although she understands the pope's concerns, she believes his comments were unwise.
"I think it was imprudent for him to express himself in the manner he did," Morse said. "His comments do not bring encouragement to those who are struggling in their marriages, or appreciation for those who have overcome challenges, or education for those who need to be better informed."
Francis said last week, according to the Catolic News Service, that when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, he banned "shotgun marriages" from Catholic parishes "because the strong social pressure to marry placed on a couple expecting a baby could mean they were not fully free to pledge themselves to each other for life through the sacrament."
The Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law on marriage states: "For matrimonial consent to exist, the contracting parties must be at least not ignorant that marriage is a permanent partnership between a man and a woman ordered to the procreation of offspring by means of some sexual cooperation."