Reciprocity between faith and marriage

Rafael Díaz Dorronsoro-May 8, 2020-Reading time: 6 minutes
Despite the difficulties, this American couple was able to marry.

After the general presentation of the Document by Professor Pellitero, we will now turn to the fourth point, which deals with the reciprocity between faith and the sacrament of marriage. This particular attention is due to the great incidence that the understanding of such reciprocity is currently having in the pastoral and canonical sphere.

Theology has the task of guiding the activity of pastors and ecclesiastical tribunals by clarifying precisely the relationship between faith and the sacrament of marriage. Theological reflection has not yet reached a uniform understanding of the question, and the Commission takes on the task of contributing to the debate by addressing the problem of the celebration of the baptized non-believers, whom it defines as "those persons in whom there is no hint of the presence of the dialogical nature of faith, proper to the personal response of the believer to the sacramental interlocution of the Trinitarian God." (n. 144).

The Commission draws attention to two doctrinal principles that shape current canonical praxis. In its opinion, if they were to be applied without any discrimination whatsoever to this case of the baptized non-believers, it would fall into a "sacramental automatism" (cf. n. 132). Of these two principles, the first is that the intention to celebrate a sacrament is not required for the sacrament of marriage to be validly celebrated, but only the intention to contract a natural marriage (cf. n. 132). The second principle - enshrined in canon 1055 § 2 of the Code of Canon Law - is that every valid marriage contract between baptized persons is for that very reason a sacrament, that is, that it is not possible for two baptized persons to contract a true marriage that is not a sacrament (cf. n. 143).

It is precisely this second principle - commonly referred to as the "inseparability of contract and sacrament" - that is the subject of current theological debate. In order to contextualize the Commission's proposal, we briefly present the two most common theological positions. First, the defenders of the principle of inseparability, who justify it by pointing to baptism as the reason for sacramentality: a marriage is a sacrament because the spouses are baptized. Secondly, those who reject the principle of inseparability by maintaining that two baptized non-believers can contract a true marriage, but it would not be sacramental. They justify this by indicating that faith is a constitutive element of the sacramentality of marriage.

The Document, after presenting the most relevant interventions of the current magisterium and other official bodies, concludes with a theological proposal that is presented as congruent with the reciprocity between faith and sacraments without denying the current theology of marriage (cf. n. 134). The proposal is articulated as follows.

The Commission asserts as a firm point that the faith of the spouses is necessary for the valid celebration of the sacrament of marriage. With regard to baptism, it explicitly indicates that to give it the sole reason for the sacramentality of marriage would be to fall into the error of an absolute sacramental automatism (cf. nn. 41-e and 78-e). Does it accept then that two baptized non-believers can celebrate a true marriage without it being a sacrament because of a lack of faith? The answer is negative. The Document affirms that "given the current state of Catholic doctrine, it seems appropriate to adhere to the most common opinion today regarding the inseparability of contract and sacrament". (n. 166-e).

The Document seeks to harmonize the thesis of the necessity of faith for the valid celebration of the sacrament of marriage and the inseparability between contract and sacrament based on the relationship between faith and the intention to marry according to the natural reality of marriage. The Commission begins by pointing out that a Christian's idea of marriage is strongly influenced by faith and by the culture in which he or she lives; and that contemporary society, strongly secularized, presents a model of marriage in stark contrast to the Church's teaching on the reality of natural marriage. The conclusion is that today it cannot be guaranteed that the baptized non-believers, because of their lack of faith, have the intention of celebrating a natural marriage, although this cannot be excluded from the outset (cf. n. 179). The practical consequence is that - in harmony with current praxis - the baptized non-believers should not be admitted to the celebration of the sacrament of marriage if, because of their lack of faith, there are serious doubts about an intention that includes the goods of natural marriage as understood by the Church (cf. n. 181).

For the Commission, these facts show that absolute sacramental automatism cannot be admitted, since the faith of the spouses shapes the intention of wanting to do what the Church does. On the other hand, baptized non-believers do not have the option of marrying and their marriage not being sacramental, since they are not admitted to the celebration of the sacrament of marriage only if they do not want to marry according to the natural reality of marriage. The baptized non-believers either marry and marriage is a sacrament, or they do not marry.

This being said, and accepting that valid consent presupposes faith, in my opinion the reasoning of the Commission to show that faith is constitutive of the sacrament of marriage is not convincing. 

First, because it has only been shown that faith, like culture, influences the formation of the Christian's ideal of marriage. The step from this premise to concluding that faith is necessary for marriage does not seem to have been demonstrated. 

Secondly, for the reason he gives for the necessity of faith for the celebration of the sacraments in the second chapter. In this chapter, it is recognized that with the validity of the celebration of the "it transmits what technical terminology has been called res et sacramentum"The author warns, however, that the effect of grace (e.g., character in baptism) is different from that of grace. But he warns that "an ecclesial practice that only attends to validity damages the sacramental organism of the Church, since it reduces it to one of its essential aspects".by not taking into account that "the sacraments aim at and obtain their full meaning in the transmission of the resof the grace proper to the sacrament". (cf. n. 66). The Commission then goes a step further: since the sacraments are ordered to salvation - to the gift of sanctifying grace - which is attained by faith, "the sacramental logic includes, as an essential constituent, the free response, the acceptance of the gift of God, in a word: faith". (n. 67).

This last step seems to lack something. If the celebration of a sacrament can be valid but not fruitful, and never fruitful but not valid, the following conclusions are drawn: a) that the conditions necessary for validity are also necessary for fruitfulness; b) that the conditions necessary for fruitfulness are not always necessary for validity. 

Therefore, to highlight the necessity of faith for fruitfulness, as the Commission does, does not in itself justify that it is necessary for validity. And precisely, as St. John Paul II reminds us, "the primary and immediate effect of marriage (res et sacramentum) is not supernatural grace itself, but the Christian conjugal bond, a typically Christian communion in two, because it represents the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ and his mystery of the Covenant". (Ex. App. Familiaris consortio, n. 13).

Moreover, to maintain that faith is constitutive of the sacrament of marriage opens the door to the following paradox. Let us remember that marriage, formally, is the union, and this has been elevated to a sacrament. The sacrament of marriage is not reduced to the moment of celebration, but is a permanent sacrament. If we base the sacramentality of marriage on the faith of the spouses, we would then be dealing with an intermittent and not a permanent sacrament: if two Christian spouses abandon their faith, converting to another religion, and end up rejecting the teachings of the Church on the natural reality of marriage, at that moment their marriage would lack the basis that sustains sacramentality, and would not be distinguished from the marriage celebrated by pagans.

A possible way to approach this topic is to start from marriage as a permanent reality and to understand its salvific value throughout the history of salvation. Along this path, the following ideas are reached that illuminate the relationship between faith and the sacrament of marriage:

a) that in the unique history of salvation, just as Adam is a type or figure of Christ, the union between Adam and Eve is a type or figure of the union between Christ and the Church; and just as every man has a personal relationship with Christ - whether consciously or not - because God calls him into existence and salvation in Christ, every marriage has a relationship with the union between Christ and the Church, because it has its origin in God to realize in humanity his design of creative and redemptive love; 

b) that marriage -like the types of direct institution in the Old Testament- has been instituted by God as a "sacrament" of the Old Law, which gives grace not by its own virtue, but by the implicit faith in the mystery of the incarnation of Christ figured by marriage;

c) and that this salvific value remains in marriage among pagans after the incarnation of the Son of God, and among the baptized it attains the dignity of a sacrament of the New Law, because the very marriage of creation is elevated to a sacrament.

The authorRafael Díaz Dorronsoro

Professor of Sacramentary Theology, Pontifical University of the Holy Cross (Rome)

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