This week I foolishly got sucked into debates on social media. It doesn’t happen often. The odd “like” or pleasantry is fine, but the idea that anyone’s opinions were ever altered by blog comments seems improbable, as experience again proved. The event which had me raring to shed some heat, if not light, was the mid-air papal wedding.

I don’t think we really know half the story of the in-flight nuptial upgrade. I am desirous of crediting the Holy Father with more sense and pastoral responsibility than to believe he would encounter an unknown couple at their work on a plane journey and marry them on a whim, to their own surprise, without the most elementary checks of their freedom to marry, no preparation and a total lack of anything resembling the accompaniment he himself espouses for spouses.

However, what frightens me about the reaction on social media is the delight on the part of many who think he did exactly that. The way the story is being reported serves to drive a coach and horses through so many norms that any humble pastor trying to prepare couples for a church wedding (who does not have the luxury of being the supreme legislator) must follow. Things just became a thousand times more challenging in an age when there is an impoverished catechetical understanding of what constitutes a sacramental marriage. I find it hard to see how this event will help that situation or advance better understanding.

The Holy Father’s putative actions are being hailed by many as proof that the Church’s discipline on marriage was only ever clerical control freakery.

“For too long the Church had been a barrier to this couple marrying,” wrote one commentator. When I asked in what way the Church had been a barrier, I was met with abuse but no explanation. Others sought to furnish one. The couple would have been met with anger and hostility by priests because they had contracted a civil marriage. This, mark you, in a country where, like most in the world, Catholics are obliged to marry civilly before any they have a church ceremony. Empathetic commentators pointed out, for the benefit of us Pharisees, that the church where the couple were to have sacramentally married was destroyed in an earthquake. Distressing, doubtless, but hardly sufficient cause to bury their ambition in a country bulging with extant alternatives.

A grown-up approach would acknowledge some responsibility for the eight-year delay and not simply project this on to the unfeeling, obstructive Church or seek to characterise the couple as victims of circumstance.

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