For once, USA Today got it right and the rest of the MSM got it wrong.
In a speech to the Roman Rota, the Vatican tribunal which oversees annulments, Pope Benedict XVI underscored the importance of thorough priestly premarital counseling with the statement, “No one can make a claim to the right to a nuptial ceremony.” The right to a church wedding, the AP reported correctly, “requires that the bride and groom intend to celebrate and live the marriage truthfully and authentically.”
Well, that’s not all. There are some other impediments to marriage which need to be caught, the most basic of which are consanguinity and religious vows. The most drastic impediment is having formally abandoned the faith, as when people ask to be “de-baptized”; in such cases, unless and until the person reconciles themselves with the Church through the sacrament of confession, all other sacraments are withheld, including a church funeral. The Church takes marriage far more seriously than do many of the marriageable, who tend to treat vows like promises and promises like pie crusts.
Now, the flip side of this is that, if the parish priest has done a thorough investigation and doesn’t find any impediments, then he can’t withhold the sacrament without just cause. But the point is that the right to a church marriage—a church marriage, I repeat—isn’t absolute. And that’s what USA Today printed as their headline: “Pope: Marriage is not an absolute right.”
What did the rest of the world print? “Pope: Not everyone has right to marry.”
Of course, this is bound to lead to fulminations among liberals, especially the gay-marriage crowd; my favorite lead so far is, “In a awe-striking moment of ‘Can-you-believe-he-just-said-that?’ ….” It’s amazing the reactions you get when a public figure, especially the Pope, tells a truth that runs counter to what “everyone knows”.
First, what do we mean by an “absolute right”? An absolute is unconditioned and unconditional: nothing can abrogate or modify it. Very few (if any) rights we have exist without reasonable checks; for instance, the right to life, guaranteed under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, specifically notes that life can’t be taken “without due process of law”, a condition that explicitly allows capital punishment. In the same manner, freedom of speech has never been understood as allowing incitement to riot or passing on government secrets to foreign agents; the privacy of the home has never been understood to provide a “no-law zone”; the right to keep and bear arms doesn’t by necessity include a right to automatic weapons, armor-piercing bullets, hand grenades or surface-to-air missiles.
Now, find a copy of the Constitution, with all twenty-seven Amendments included, and then tell me where you find a right to marriage. That’s right, there isn’t one; odds are you won’t find one in your state constitution or charter, either. On the one hand, marriage is such a socially fundamental institution that a legislative body which tried to do away with it would be voted out of office. On the other hand, since it’s in the State’s interest to promote strong, healthy marriages and children, it has always had the implicit right to say who could get married to whom and under what conditions. In a very strict, technical sense, there is no right to marry per se; in reality, there is a right to marry, but it isn’t and never has been absolute.
So far we’ve been talking about marriage as a civil institution. In the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, marriage is also a Sacrament; that is, it’s “an efficacious sign of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us through the work of the Holy Spirit” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, cf. 774, 1131). Properly constituted, the complementary aspects of man and woman combine to reflect the unity of God as neither of them can do separately: “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen 1:27). Marriage is, in a sense, also the sacrament of procreative love, in that the marriage becomes a participation in God’s creation through the birth and raising of children; through this aspect the human family—father, mother and child—become a reflection of the Holy Trinity and of the Holy Family. Without either the unitive or procreative aspects in their proper places, a marriage isn’t complete.
While Sacraments are held to confer their grace ex opere operato (that is, by the power of the completed sacramental rite), “it must be stressed that the Catholic teaching of the efficacy of the Sacraments … must in no wise be interpreted in the sense of a mechanical or magical efficacy. The opus operantis [the subjective disposition of the recipient] is … expressly demanded.” Put differently, if there are any moral or legal impediments, the grace of the Sacrament can’t do its job. Also, the Sacrament is a liturgical act, as well as an introduction into an ecclesial order and state of life which creates both rights and duties for each party. These elements all demand that the Church not only bless and witness the union but also assist in the preparation to assure the couples’ proper disposition.
Because the Christian bride and groom confer the Sacrament upon each other (not the priest or deacon), and because the sacramental character is a grace given by the Holy Spirit (not by the Church), when a couple who has civilly divorced apply for an annulment the diocesan tribunal and the Rota have to presume the sacramentality of the marriage unless and until an irregularity is proven (CIC 1060). This presumption holds even for two non-Catholic Christians (CIC 1055 §2), or a Catholic who has married a non-Catholic with the consent of the diocesan ordinary (CIC 1124-1126).
This gives us much of the contextual background in which we must look at Pope Benedict’s statement. Every public function and ritual of the Church is ordered towards educating and developing the Christian’s experience of God’s Grace. So it is with the marriage rite: it’s not simply a social rubber stamp validating the couple’s desire to live together. Marriage has a specific meaning to the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, a meaning that (sadly) is becoming lost to many Protestant denominations. For it to be an “efficacious sign of grace”, it has to be entered into honestly and authentically, without hidden agendas or selfish reservations. Moreover, divorces are time-consuming, expensive and distressful (even traumatic) processes. No less so are annulments, which can take months or years to finalize whether they’re granted or not, during which the faithful Catholic must live as a celibate even if she’s contracted another marriage (e.g., if she divorced and remarried prior to conversion).
To make the Sacrament work as it’s supposed to, and to reduce the incidence of separation, the parish priests can’t treat the marriage preparation process as a mere formality. He has a real moral obligation to work with the bride and groom to determine if they understand and accept everything that’s expected of them, and be willing to call a halt to the process if he has reason to believe they’re not ready or appropriate for marriage. This entails taking an active interest in the process, and not simply handing it over to a lay ministry, which may or may not have been corrupted by people bringing in non-Catholic teachings, or relying on the FOCCUS Inventory to reveal impediments. This responsibility doesn’t end with the parish priest, but extends upwards to bishops as well, who need to look at their diocesan marriage-preparation support programs for any possible improvement in catechesis.
This, then, was the intent of Pope Benedict’s statement. He wasn’t “speaking for God” but rather treating purely disciplinary and catechetical matters. As the AP story reported, “Benedict acknowledged that the problems that would allow for a marriage to be annulled cannot always be identified beforehand. But he said better pre-marriage counseling, which the Catholic Church requires of the faithful, could help avoid a ‘vicious circle’ of invalid marriages.” As for the priests’ role, he also said, “The church and society at large place too much importance on the good of marriage and the family founded on it to not make a profound commitment to it pastorally.”
Where the Pope is concerned, it’s always a temptation to stop reading after the lead. Too often, even the whole story isn’t enough. But when you confine yourself to headlines and sound bites, you’re guaranteed to misunderstand everything.
 It does not, however, provide for abortion upon request, as by definition due process isn’t even touched on; abortion is therefore a major violation of the unborn child’s most fundamental human right.
 This doesn’t necessarily mean that a marriage without children is not sacramental; however, the subjective preclusion of children can impede the sacramentality.
 Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, tr. James Bastible (Rockford, Ill.: TAN Books and Publishers, 1974 ), p. 330.
 From what I can tell, the FOCCUS test wasn’t developed with Catholic marriage in mind, and may even have a non-Catholic sexual and marital ethos encoded into it.