There has been much commotion in the social media in the United States, but not in other parts of the world, over what exactly Pope Francis meant in an off-the-cuff comment at a diocesan conference in Rome on June 16. Responding to a question from a participant, Pope Francis said that “the great majority of sacramental marriages are null” because so often couples do not realize fully what is involved in such a long-term, sacramental commitment.
The Vatican later issued a transcript of the pope’s words but replaced the words “the majority” with the words “a part.” This changes significantly what he actually meant. Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., director of the Holy See Press Office, told America that “the Holy Father explicitly approved this change.” He said it “expresses exactly what the pope meant. It is what he intended to say.” He made clear that “any other interpretation can no longer be justified.”
The controversy was first sparked by a report from the CNA news agency that quoted the pope as saying “the majority” of sacramental marriages are null. Internet commentary quickly revolved around the words “the majority,” without taking proper account of the fuller context of what the pope has said several times on this specific issue. In the past, he has used other expressions such as “many” or “very many” or quoted what his predecessor as archbishop of Buenos Aires had said.
Indeed, from Francis’ past remarks in interviews with various media and during in-flight press conferences, it should be clear that he is referring to a significant number without trying to define exactly what that number is. His use of the word “majority” yesterday, however, led some to conclude that he really meant more than 50 percent.
That is a wrong interpretation, however, Father Lombardi told America. He added that it is “normal practice” whenever the pope speaks without a written text on occasions like this that the Vatican provides a subsequent official transcript of what he said. This transcript can often include the alteration of a word or phrase to clarify exactly what the pope meant. But, Father Lombardi said, all such clarifications are made only after consultation with Pope Francis.
Editor's note: this story was updated on June 23 to reflect a clarification from the Holy See press office. Pope Francis in his unscripted comments did not say, “the majority of sacramental marriages are null,” but “the great majority of sacramental marriages are null.” As reported above, those remarks were amended in the formal transcript.