The International Theological Commission published a paper on Tuesday tackling what the ITC theologians involved in the colloquies consider to be a thorny issue that could bear on the validity of marriages, especially those among so-called “baptized non-believers”.
Titled, The Reciprocity between Faith and Sacraments in the Sacramental Economy, the lengthy and highly technical document details the conclusions of its five-year study period dedicated to faith and the Sacraments. The paper begins with a general overview of the issue, and proceeds by five subdivided chapters to discuss the sacraments of Christian initiation — Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion — and then the Sacrament of Matrimony.
“The document,” explained theologian and ITC member Fr Gabino Uribarri Bilbao SJ to Vatican News in an interview accompanying the release of the document, “wants to focus in its five chapters on the fact that reciprocity between faith and sacraments today finds itself in crisis in pastoral practice.”
The ITC theologians are at some pains to bring theological thinking to bear on what they perceive to be serious pastoral concerns, which arise primarily from the secularised social environment. Their concern is to recover a sense of the importance of faith in Christian life, including sacramental life: to say, in other words, that God’s initiative requires a real human response not only in the general work of living, but also specifically where the Sacraments are concerned.
This is especially true when it comes to marriage.
Fr Uribarri said, “The question we pose ourselves is whether the consistent absence of faith, proper to those who can be called ‘baptized non-believers’, undermines their understanding of marriage[?]” He went on to note how, in many societies, the three goods associated with marriage — natural marriage — which are indissolubility, fidelity, and openness to life (procreation) are not generally recognized as constitutive of marital union as such, and are even ignored or discounted.
“We argue,” Fr Uribarri explains, “that in the case of ‘baptized non-believers’, the intention to contract a true natural marriage is not guaranteed.” In the absence of natural marriage, “[T]here is no reality that can be elevated to sacramental marriage: there is no sacramental marriage.”
In short: the disintegration of marriage as a natural social institution is in some places so far advanced and general, that people — baptized or not — are — or at least might be — incapable of contracting marriage. The claim of the ITC is, in layman’s terms, that people might not be able to marry even if they try.
According to reasonably settled theological and canonical understanding, two baptized Christians have the Sacrament of Matrimony when they have a valid marriage contract. When they do not have a valid contract, they do not have the Sacrament. That’s it – and that’s all of it.
Marriage as such is not different in quality when two Christians enter it together.
Marriage is a natural social institution. Christ did not institute marriage, as He did the other Sacraments. He only raised Christian marriage in dignity. Marriage qua marriage is in the natural order: the order of creation, which God establishes from the beginning.
The idea that a misunderstanding of what permanence or indissolubility means might vitiate marital consent is one Pope Francis has floated publicly. “[T]he culture of the provisional,” Francis told the faithful taking part in Rome’s 2016 ecclesial convention, “is why a large majority of our sacramental marriages are null: because they say, ‘Yes, all my life,’ but they do not know what it is they are saying, because they have another culture.”
From a canonical point-of-view, however, at least one of the contracting parties would need to be completely ignorant of the very notion of permanence, or else specifically exclude permanence by a positive act of the will. Not only would a person attempting marriage need to lack utterly an existential understanding of permanence; but, he or she would but have no practical idea what the word ‘permanent’ even means; otherwise, such a one would need to mean — really and positively — not to enter into a permanently binding obligation.
Said simply: imperfect understanding of what you’re getting into won’t get you out of marriage, nor will a post hoc protestation of the “I didn’t sign up for this!” variety. As long as one does not actively exclude one of the goods of marriage, one gets married when one gets married.
The ITC theologians argue that “a lack of disposition to believe” is the functional equivalent of a lack of faith. How that squares with the idea of faith as a supernatural gift received in Baptism is at first blush not entirely clear.
Fr Uribarri adduced a 1977 document of the ITC, Propositions on the Doctrine of Christian Marriage, in which the Commission “has already said that the lack of faith, understood as a disposition to believe, compromises the validity of the sacrament, especially if there is no desire for grace and salvation.”
He went on to cite Pope St John Paul II, who wrote in Familiaris consortio: “[W]hen in spite of all efforts, engaged couples show that they reject explicitly and formally what the Church intends to do when the marriage of baptized persons is celebrated, the pastor of souls cannot admit them to the celebration of marriage.”
That, however, is a very particular circumstance: manifest rejection of what the Church intends.
Uribarri did not mention what follows that sentence from FC 68: “In spite of [the pastor’s] reluctance to do so, he has the duty to take note of the situation and to make it clear to those concerned that, in these circumstances, it is not the Church that is placing an obstacle in the way of the celebration that they are asking for, but themselves.” Here are the lines that precede the portion Fr Uribarri quotes:
[I]t must not be forgotten that these engaged couples, by virtue of their Baptism, are already really sharers in Christ’s marriage Covenant with the Church, and that, by their right intention, they have accepted God’s plan regarding marriage and therefore at least implicitly consent to what the Church intends to do when she celebrates marriage. Thus, the fact that motives of a social nature also enter into the request is not enough to justify refusal on the part of pastors. Moreover, as the Second Vatican Council teaches, the sacraments by words and ritual elements nourish and strengthen faith: that faith towards which the married couple are already journeying by reason of the uprightness of their intention, which Christ’s grace certainly does not fail to favor and support.
As for wishing to lay down further criteria for admission to the ecclesial celebration of marriage, criteria that would concern the level of faith of those to be married, this would above all involve grave risks. In the first place, the risk of making unfounded and discriminatory judgments; secondly, the risk of causing doubts about the validity of marriages already celebrated, with grave harm to Christian communities, and new and unjustified anxieties to the consciences of married couples; one would also fall into the danger of calling into question the sacramental nature of many marriages of brethren separated from full communion with the Catholic Church, thus contradicting ecclesial tradition.
“We refer, so to speak,” explained Fr Uribarri, “to extreme cases: total lack of faith, refusal of what the sacrament means.”
In addition to the ITC theologians’ express pastoral focus, it is important to note that the document is itself a theological position paper. It is not a teaching document, nor is it intended to be an instrument of magisterium. It is a report to theologians and — possibly — a tool for pastors engaged on the front lines.
As theological position papers, the sometimes rather wonkish ITC documents often go largely unnoticed by news media.
One notable exception in recent years was the ITC report on limbo: the place of perfect natural felicity to which the unbaptised might go, who have neither the grace of baptism nor the guilt of actual personal sin. Limbo is a common theological opinion never formally taught, which hasty reporters nevertheless presented as a “doctrine” when Pope Benedict XVI received the ITC report on its quinquennial discussion of the topic in 2007.
The ITC document reported “serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptized infants who die will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision,” but did not change teaching because there was none to change, and in any case they lacked the competence to change anything.
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