The ITC: An enriched grasp of sacraments and their nullity

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 12, 2020

I have now had time to read and digest the latest document from the International Theological Commission, The Reciprocity Between Faith and Sacraments in the Sacramental Economy, and I have found it to be an extraordinarily enriching text. A deeper reflection on the sacramentality central to authentic Christianity is of vital importance today. This is an academic treatment, of course, so I would not go so far as to suggest it as spiritual reading for most people. But it served that role at some level in my own case.

The document is concerned with exactly what its title highlights. There is clearly a crisis today in how the sacraments are perceived and received. The modern mindset does not lend itself to a sacramental vision of reality, and the number of Catholics who receive the sacraments with little or no formation is large. When we combine the two, we can see how frequent it must be that the sacraments are received not only without a clear understanding of what they signify and how they work, but even with little personal understanding of or commitment to the Faith itself.

Yet there is a close connection in the sacraments between the power and grace of Christ, which they confer, and the faith with which we receive them. That faith, possessed in the soul, is essential to the fruitful reception of any sacrament. Note that I have used the word fruitful. The sacraments, when administered validly, effect what they signify. But their grace does us little or no good until we appropriate it in our lives through our own living and growing faith.

The main issue in this ITC study is that in our present culture, which is characterized by extreme secularity and a materialistic way of looking at things, the Church can no longer presume even a minimal active faith. Obviously, this creates significant problems for her mission in general and her sacramental character in particular. The ITC’s study explores this crisis of “reciprocity” between faith and sacraments, taking up the nature of the sacramental economy of salvation and how the lack of reciprocity in faith manifests itself, first in the sacraments of Christian initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist) and finally in marriage.

Faith and Reality

In each case, the text offers a thorough discussion of the nature of the sacrament and of its reception, providing a number of theological insights and pastoral suggestions along the way. One important generalized insight is that, by the very nature of sacramentality, it is both a deeper apprehension of reality and the help to respond properly in Christ that are at one and the same time communicated in each sacrament. For this reason, it is impossible to speak of a faith which is purely subjective (called in theology fides qua) without an intrinsic connection to the truth of God (fides quae) handed down in revelation and preserved in the Church:

There is therefore “a profound unity between the act by which we believe and the contents to which we give our assent…. In the Christian conception it is not possible to think of a faith without sacramental expression (in the face of subjectivist privatization), nor a sacramental practice in the absence of ecclesial faith (against ritualism). Where faith excludes identification with confession [i.e., of a creed] and the life of the Church, this faith is no longer an integration in Christ. [51]

It may be helpful to quote something about baptism in particular here, since infant baptism does not require the immediate active faith of the one baptized. The ITC offers this explanation:

The baptism of infants has been attested since ancient times. It is justified in the desire of parents that their children participate in sacramental grace, be incorporated into Christ and the Church, become members of the community of God’s children as they are of the family, for baptism is an effective means of salvation, forgiving sins, beginning with original sin, and transmitting grace. [91]

But how can this be fruitful without an active faith?

The child does not knowingly sign his or her membership in his or her natural family… [but] if socialization follows its ordinary course, it will do so as a young adult, with gratitude. With the baptism of infants, it is emphasized that the faith in which we are baptized is the ecclesial faith, that our growth in faith takes place thanks to the insertion in the community “we”…. On this occasion, the parents act as representatives of the Church, which welcomes these children into its bosom. For this reason, the baptism of children is justified from the responsibility of educating in the faith that the parents and godparents contract, parallel to the responsibility of educating them in the rest of the spheres of life. [91]

The remaining problem, as the text emphasizes elsewhere, is not with the theory but with the practice, in which too many adults seek baptism for their children as an expected milestone or a celebratory moment, without a sufficient faith of their own to live out the responsibility they have assumed.

Marriage: There’s the rub

It is in considering marriage—the most detailed and extensive section of the text—that the Commission addresses one of the most pressing sacramental controversies of our day, the issue of the validity of the sacrament in a time when so many seek to have their marriages declared null. It is no secret that our culture militates constantly against a true understanding of marriage, both in its fundamental natural reality and as elevated and engraced by Christ. The question faced by the Church now is what factor, if lacking in the ostensibly married couple’s commitment and understanding, will nullify the sacrament—that is, will cause it not to take place.

This problem arises primarily in questions about the sacramentality of marriage between “baptized non-believers”, which is manifestly all too common. Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis have all called for further study, and all wrestled with this issue against the backdrop of the spiraling numbers of Catholic couples seeking annulments in order to escape marriages that no longer satisfy. But it has been difficult to identify what the specific grounds of nullity might be.

John Paul II taught that marriage in the Church is intrinsically qualified by the supernatural reality to which the baptized necessarily belong without reference to their awareness of it. Thus there seems to be no grounds in a deficiency of faith for proclaiming a sacramental marriage null, and in any case such a deficiency would be very difficult to prove. He also pointed toward a conclusion about grounds of nullity in an address to the Roman Rota in 2003 when he said that the Church does not refuse to celebrate marriage for a well-disposed person simply because he or she is “imperfectly prepared from the supernatural point of view, provided the person has the right intention to marry according to the natural reality of marriage”. “In fact,” he stated, “alongside natural marriage one cannot describe another model of Christian marriage with specific supernatural requisites.” He also pointed out that insisting on faith from the prospective bride and groom as a minimum requirement is contrary to tradition.

Meanwhile, as head of the CDF, Cardinal Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI) had sought to clarify whether every marriage between two baptized persons is ipso facto a sacramental marriage, and whether “absence of faith” would mean the marriage would not come into being. As Pope, he concluded that personal faith is not required as a necessary minimal condition. The only requirement is “the intention to do what the Church does.” But the problem still concerned him greatly, and he emphasized the continuing need for study.

Pope Francis has referred to this difficulty several times, and the call for study was also made at the two Synods on the Family. As time went on, however, Francis made clear to the Roman Rota that “the essential component of marital consent is not the quality of one’s faith” but rather the validity of the sacrament can be undermined in this sense only “on the plain of the natural”. It follows that “A lack of formation in 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.”

All of this is detailed in section 4.2 of the text (nos. 143-182, with full references). What it means is that the problem with respect to nullity is not the quality of the persons’ faith but their non-supernatural understanding and commitment (the will) to the true natural meaning of human marriage, which is precisely the reality which the sacrament is given to engrace and elevate. This becomes acute in a culture which defies gender, and which conceives of all kinds of “marriage” with all sorts of life-styles and durations—a culture which has lost its awareness of the intrinsic nature of human marriage as it is given to us in nature itself.

Therefore, grounds for nullity exist on this score only if one or both of the couple do not understand what marriage is and so do not really commit themselves to it on the natural level—which, of course, may well be very common in our time. Insofar as the human intellect is so darkened and the human will is so adversely affected by the culture that the person(s) do not will to enter into true marriage as it must be understood naturally, this would be grounds for nullity. Moreover, this is something that can be established (with some degree of accuracy at least) through human investigation, unlike the “quality” of one’s faith, which is ultimately hidden, spiritually and interiorly, in one’s relationship with God.

Conclusion

With this important insight, I will close my discussion of this interesting and important document. It is not an ecclesiastical teaching document, of course; it is in no sense a magisterial act. It is a contribution to a complex question by the members of the papal International Theological Commission. In this text, the conclusion is that “the faith of the spouses is decisive for the fruitfulness of the sacrament” (emphasis added). But “[V]alidity and, with it, sacramentality depends on whether a true marriage bond has taken place: a natural marriage” (166).

Obviously, however, lack of faith can affect the intention of the couple, though how this is so is not specifically measurable in any given case. We know beyond doubt that faith is a great bulwark against common cultural errors which attack what may otherwise be understood in its light, so it is reasonable to assume that those whose faith is weak will be more easily brought to depend on standard cultural attitudes for their understanding of reality. The person who lacks faith or has only a very weak faith is frequently thrown back on cultural attitudes in the formation of his understanding of and commitment to marriage (as with many other realities).

Therefore, while no conclusion about a person’s faith can create grounds for nullity, it does make sense (as both John Paul II urged and the ITC proposes again here) for the Church “to deny the sacrament of marriage to those who request it under these conditions” (181). Such conditions—such inability or refusal to commit to a proper understanding of marriage—can and ought to be thoroughly determined in advance of the ceremony.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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