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By Alex Johnson

Pope Francis said Thursday that the majority of today's marriages are invalid because most couples don't understand that marriage is meant to be permanent.

"We live in a culture of the provisional," Francis said in response to a question from an audience member about the "crisis of marriage" after his address opening a pastoral conference of the Diocese of Rome.

Audio of the pope's remarks at St. John Lateran Basilica was posted late Thursday by Vatican Radio.

Francis said modern couples don't comprehend the importance of the sacrament of marriage, which he said is "indissoluble."

"Young people say 'for life,' but they do not know what it means," he said.

Pope Francis talks during the opening of a meeting of Rome's diocese in Saint John Lateran basilica in Rome on June 16.TONY GENTILE / Reuters

And because they get married with the philosophy that a marriage can be ended if it becomes an "inconvenience," their marriages are "nulli," he said, using an Italian word that can be translated as "baseless" or "invalid."

Francis said that when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, he refused to allow couples to marry if the woman was already pregnant. Such couples were likely to be marrying because of the pregnancy and not of their own free will, he said.

In the audio, applause can be heard at the end of the pope's answer, which came after a 25-minute address on his 2015 document Amoris Laetitia, or "Love and Joy." The document warned that "separatism" and individualism were threatening to tear apart the lifelong partnerships that are the bedrock of families.

Separatism has extended to all aspects of Catholic life, the pope said Thursday — even to the church itself. He used as an example priests who refuse to baptize the children of single mothers, calling it "cruelty."

"This is individualism, an individualism that affects all of society, that seeks pleasure, that is hedonist," he said.

Earlier Thursday, Francis greeted circus performers at what was billed as a Jubilee for Circus and Traveling Show People. Among those meeting the pope was a 6-month-old tiger, which he was invited to feed with a bottle.