Last June 17, Pope Francis caused a firestorm of controversy when he publicly said that the “great majority” of Catholic marriages are “null” – in other words, not actual marriages – and that some cohabitating couples are in 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, in a pastoral congress on the family for the Diocese of Rome. The pope’s remarks were broadcast on Vatican TV, and can easily be found in Youtube.
Pope Francis spoke of couples preferring to cohabitate, and told priests not to tell them to marry, but to accompany them instead. “They prefer to cohabitate, and this is a challenge, a task. Not to ask ‘why don’t you marry?’ No, to accompany, to wait, and to help them to mature, help fidelity to mature.”
In the same interview, the Pope called priests who would refuse baptism to children of single mothers “animals.”
The Vatican has provided video of the full remarks by the Pope as well as a full transcript of his remarks. In the transcript, however, the words of the Pope as heard clearly in the video (at 1:14:20) are changed from saying the “great majority” of Catholic marriages are null, to “a part” of them are null.
At one stage, the pontiff was asked a question about how to prepare young people for marriage today when they have a “fear of the definitive,” meaning an aversion to lifetime commitments of any sort. Among other things, Francis unmistakably says that due to a contemporary “culture of the provisional,” a “great majority of our sacramental marriages are null, because [couples] say, ‘yes, for my whole life,’ but they don’t know what they’re saying. Because they have a different culture. They say it, they have good will, but they don’t know.”
Regarding cohabitation, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
2391 Some today claim a “right to a trial marriage” where there is an intention of getting married later. However firm the purpose of those who engage in premature sexual relations may be, “the fact is that such liaisons can scarcely ensure mutual sincerity and fidelity in a relationship between a man and a woman, nor, especially, can they protect it from inconstancy of desires or whim.” Carnal union is morally legitimate only when a definitive community of life between a man and woman has been established. Human love does not tolerate “trial marriages.” It demands a total and definitive gift of persons to one another.
Pope St. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio spelled out the harm of cohabitation. The various factors leading to situations of cohabitation, he says,
…presents the Church with arduous pastoral problems, by reason of the serious consequences deriving from them, both religious and moral (the loss of the religious sense of marriage seen in the light of the Covenant of God with His people; deprivation of the grace of the sacrament; grave scandal), and also social consequences (the destruction of the concept of the family; the weakening of the sense of fidelity, also towards society; possible psychological damage to the children; the strengthening of selfishness).