Pope Francis caused quite a bit of controversy when he gave approval to some cohabitating relationships while saying that many Catholic marriages were invalid. In this article, I would like to explore why he believes these cohabitations are real marriages and the implications of this for papal infallibility. Francis said concerning these cohabitating relationships, “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.” In other words, these are real marriages because they are committed to each other even though they have never entered into a covenant relationship or exchanged vows in a marriage ceremony. This is also how he could say that many Catholic marriages are invalid because the relationship has been broken by infidelity.
For Francis, it is fidelity that defines what a marriage is rather than entering into a covenant relationship. But what does the Bible say? Scripture defines marriage as a covenant relationship between one man and one woman: “But you say, ‘Why does he not?’ Because the LORD was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant” (Mal 2:14). She is your wife “by covenant,” not by fidelity alone. In saying that these are real marriages because of their fidelity while saying that marriages marked by infidelity are not real marriages, Francis is going against the historic Catholic teaching on marriage. If Francis is wrong on this, then he is giving approval to the fornication that takes place in these relationships.
So how is this not a violation of papal infallibility? According to Pastor aeternus, a statement from the pope is only infallible if it fulfills three qualifications: the pope is speaking as the pope rather than giving his personal opinion, it is a matter of faith or morals, and he is defining doctrine to be believed on by the whole church. In these words, he was speaking as the pope and marriage is a matter of morality. But he did not use the technical language of “we define,” “we pronounce,” or “we declare.” But how do Catholics know for certain whether or not a pope is defining doctrine for the church? Is there an infallible list of infallible pronouncements from the pope? And how would you go about proving that this list is itself infallible? Catholics disagree on which statements from the pope are infallible and which are not. And how do we know that we are interpreting these papal documents accurately? Catholics disagree all the time on how canon law should be interpreted.
By embracing papal infallibility to gain epistemological certainty when it comes to what we are to believe and how we are to live, Catholics have just moved the problem one step back. The initial decision to embrace claims to infallibility is not itself infallible. Now instead of debating the meaning of the Bible, we are now debating both the meaning of the Bible and every papal document throughout history. Except with the Bible, we know that everything it says is infallible while not everything the pope says is infallible. This is especially apparent when it comes to the question of “No Salvation Outside the Church.” If what one pope taught as true can be overturned by another later on, does that not undermine the claim to epistemological certainty and overthrow the entire point of papal infallibility in the first place? I urge Catholics to cut out the middle man and embrace the sufficiency of Scripture.