Theologians say there is ‘doubt’ of sacramentality in marriages between ‘baptized non-believers’

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The International Theological Commission this week published a study into the question of whether two "baptized non-believers" can contract sacramental marriage or whether the absence of faith impedes the intent of the spouses.

The commission concluded that an absence of faith can "compromise the intention to celebrate a marriage that includes some of the goods of marriage," and "there is reason to doubt" that a sacrament takes place in such marriages, though it concedes that is far from a given, and depends on additional circumstances.

Noting that this problem has been a question under consideration during the last three pontificates, the group of 30 Catholic theologians proposes a solution which, they say, rejects two extremes: "absolute sacramental automatism" on the one side and an "elitist sacramental skepticism" on the other.

The practical effect of this proposal, the commission suggests, is that it is therefore consistent with the Church's sacramental practice "to deny the sacrament of marriage" to those who request it under certain conditions, and that there is an urgent need for faith education and pastoral care of marriage.

The International Theological Commission (ITC), which published the paper, exists under and to advise the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Members are appointed by the pope for five year terms, during which a particular theological question is studied and the results published.

"The Reciprocity between Faith and Sacraments in the Sacramental Economy" was published March 3 with the approval of CDF Prefect Cardinal Luis Ladaria and Pope Francis.

Recognizing that faith is an important requisite for the validity and fruitfulness of the sacraments, one of the issues the commission confronts is the subjectivity of personal faith, which is fundamentally relational, and the difficulty of using it as a basis for admission to the sacraments.

The ITC's response is to affirm faith as a virtue which "must be manifested externally, in a visible way, in a style of life corresponding to the double commandment of love of God and neighbor, and in a relationship with the praying Church."

"However," the commission states, "since the reception of a sacrament is an ecclesial public act, the external and visible is decisive: that is, the intention expressed, confession of faith, and the fidelity to the baptismal promise in life."

The ITC says it both wants to insist "on the fundamental place of faith" in the celebration of the sacraments, while also including "doctrinal precision on the case of the faith necessary for validity."

However, the theologians, while acknowledging "degrees" in conformance to doctrine and in intensity of faith, say the "decisive" factor is that the recipient of the sacrament "does not reject the Church's teaching at all" and has "the positive disposition to receive what the sacrament signifies."

The commission's document does not go further in clarifying what this means for those tasked with preparing men and women for marriage in the Church, nor for its practical applicability for Church-based marriages between baptized non-believers which have already taken place.

The paper makes it clear that the intention of the study, though based on a pastoral problem, is doctrinal.

Though "some general criteria for pastoral action can be extracted, the document is "not intended to offer specific or grounded pastoral tracks..." the commission says.

Overall, the ITC document studies the reciprocity between faith and sacraments, with a special focus on the link between faith and intention in the valid reception of the Church's sacraments of initiation -- baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist -- and marriage in the Latin Church.

Marriage is the sacrament which most strongly tests the "essential reciprocity between faith and sacraments" the ITC states.

The Catholic Church holds that the validity of marriage between two baptized persons in the Latin Church does not require the intention, desire, or awareness of celebrating a sacrament. The intention to contract a natural marriage is enough, as the study points out.

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The ITC argues that this understanding of marriage is what makes it important for theology to address the case of marriages between "baptized non-believers," which it defines as "persons in whom there is no sign of the presence of the dialogical nature of faith…"

What this looks like in real situations falls into two categories: those who received baptism in infancy but subsequently, for whatever reason, did not come to perform "a personal act of faith, involving their understanding and their will" and the baptized who "consciously deny the faith explicitly and do not consider themselves to be Catholic or Christian believers."

In their document, the commission argues that "an outright defense of the sacramentality" of unions between baptized non-believers would "undermine the essential reciprocity between faith and sacraments, as proper to the sacramental economy."

The ITC defends this position citing the great bond, in marriage, between the creatural and supernatural realities. Marriage, it says, is instituted by God and then elevated to the dignity of a sacrament.

"Given this very close link, it is understood that a modification to the natural reality of marriage... directly affects the supernatural reality, the sacrament," it says, adding that this connection is also present in the reverse, "at least in the extreme case of marriages between 'baptized non-believers.'"

The commission argues that the denial or abandonment of faith can negatively affect the intention of the spouses toward living the goods of marriage -- especially, given the present cultural context, its indissolubility.

With today's "dominant cultural axiomatic," which does not uphold the goods of marriage, it says, the intention in the case of baptized non-believers "to enter into a natural marriage cannot be assumed to be guaranteed, nor can it be excluded in the first place."

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In examining this question, the ITC lays out the thoughts of St. Pope John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis. Their teachings show that the question is focused, but not entirely resolved, the commission states.

John Paul II addressed the subject in his post-synodal exhortation Familiaris consortio. He argued "consistently that the marriage act is intrinsically qualified by the supernatural reality to which the baptized belong irrevocably, beyond the express awareness of this reality," the ITC document summarizes.

The commission quotes a portion of Familiaris consortio which states that to introduce additional criteria to admission to the ecclesial celebration of marriage "would above all involve grave risks," such as causing doubts about the validity of marriages already celebrated.

In addresses to the Roman Rota in 2001 and 2003, John Paul II warned that there are not two types of marriage, one natural and one supernatural. He also "ratified the natural purpose of marriage and that marriage consists of a natural reality, not exclusively supernatural."

In its new document, the ITC points out that St. John Paul II says in Familiaris consortio spouses who show an explicit and formal rejection of what the Church intends with the sacrament of marriage should not be admitted to the celebration of marriage by their pastor.

"That is to say, John Paul II demands some minimums, even if it is only the absence of explicit and formal rejection of what the Church does. In his own way, therefore, he also rejects what we can call an absolute sacramental automatism," the ITC says.

The theologians are concerned with how significant cultural changes have disrupted sacramental faith in a post-modern world, and how this subsequently harms the reciprocity between faith and sacraments.

"Faith is a personal relationship with the Trinitarian God, through which one responds to his grace, to his sacramental revelation," it says.

"There is a certain danger: either ritualism devoid of faith for lack of interiority or by social custom and tradition; or danger of a privatization of the faith, reduced to the inner space of one's own conscience and feelings."

In its paper, the ITC also references the commission's 1977 document "Propositions on the Doctrine of Christian Marriage."

The 1977 document "supported a series of highly nuanced theses that hint at the tension" in the question, the ITC writes, quoting its statement that "the personal faith of the contracting parties does not constitute the sacramentality of matrimony, but the absence of personal faith compromises the validity of the sacrament."

Then-Msgr. Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, was a member of the ITC from 1969-1979. As a cardinal and head of the CDF, he was also president of the commission for 24 years. The question of the validity of marriage between baptized non-believers continued to be important to him also through his pontificate.

Ratzinger, as prefect of the CDF in 1997 said it needs clarifying whether every marriage between two baptized people is "ipso facto" a sacramental marriage.

The then-cardinal noted that a "valid" marriage between two baptized is at the same time a sacrament. Since faith is part of the essence of the sacrament, clarification is needed on "the juridical question" of what evidence of "absence of faith" prevents the sacrament from coming into being, he said.

He later qualified his view as pope, when he indicated the question is very difficult in an address to priests in 2005.

The ITC says Benedict then "had more doubts about faith as a reason for invalidity" and thought "the question still requires deepening."

In his last speech to the Roman Rota in January 2013, Benedict alluded to faith and intention in marriage, saying "for the purposes of the sacrament" the right intention is required, not personal faith.

"However, it is important not to confuse the problem of the intention with that of the personal faith of those contracting marriage, it is nonetheless impossible to separate them completely."

Pope Francis has not addressed the tension so directly, the ITC points out, but did say in 2015 and 2016 speeches to the Roman Rota that "it is worth clearly reiterating that the essential component of marital consent is not the quality of one's faith, which according to unchanging doctrine can be undermined only on the plane of the natural."

Francis also said: "A lack of formation in the faith and error with respect to the unity, indissolubility and sacramental dignity of marriage invalidates marital consent only if they influence the person's will."

"It is for this reason that errors regarding the sacramentality of marriage must be evaluated very attentively," the pope said in 2016.

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