The International Theological Commission’s (ITC) document, titled “The Reciprocity Between Faith and Sacraments in the Sacramental Economy,” states that in extreme cases, a complete absence of faith in a couple may prevent a sacramental marriage from taking place.

“The existence today of ‘baptized nonbelievers’ raises a new theological problem and a grave pastoral dilemma, especially when the lack of, or rather the rejection of, the Faith seems clear,” states the document. 

“Where there is no trace of faith (in the sense of “belief”-being disposed to believe), and no desire for grace or salvation is found, then a real doubt arises as to whether there is the above-mentioned general and truly sacramental intention and whether the contracted marriage is validly contracted or not,” the document adds. 

The document was released in early March. It “stresses the importance of Catholic doctrine and morals and that these doctrines and morals ought to be believed if one is going to be an authentic Catholic,” said Fr. Thomas Weinandy, who is a member of the ITC.

The Capuchin priest recently talked to Edward Pentin, Rome correspondent of the National Catholic Register. He explained that the minister of the sacrament “must have the intention of doing what the Church does within those sacraments.”

In the case of marriage, the spouses are the ministers, while the priest is the Church’s witness.

“Here is where the problem within the sacrament of marriage becomes tricky,” Weinandy said. “Most Catholic couples probably intend to effect a truly sacramental marriage — even if they do not have a great deal of faith, nor practice their faith to any great extent.” In those cases, a sacramental marriage is effected.

Some situations are different, though. A parish priest might get the impression that “a couple is so ignorant of their faith and have never practiced their faith, that [he] wonders if they are incapable of doing what the Church does within a sacramental marriage.”

The ITC document argues that because of the spouses’ “complete ignorance of the faith and complete non-practice of their faith, they may be incapable of effecting a sacramental marriage.” The commission suggests that for pastors, it is consistent with the Church’s sacramental practice “to deny the sacrament of marriage” to such couples when they meet certain conditions.

Weinandy emphasized that this idea, proposed for the first time by the ITC, is not new. 

In his interview, Pentin suggested that perhaps “merely the decision to enter sacramental marriage shows a degree of faith, however small or unconscious.”

While true under “normal circumstances,” Weinandy explained, in today’s society there are many exceptional cases. “What about the case where the couple really wanted to get married on the beach before a justice of the peace, and the only reason they want a wedding in a Catholic church before a Catholic priest is because Mom has now insisted upon it,” he asked.

“The sacramentality of the event does not enter their minds, and they could care less. They do not even know what it means for marriage to be a sacrament. They will say ‘Yes’ to all of the priest’s preparatory questions, not because they believe what is being asked, but because they just want to get on with it—Mom wants them to get married in church so that is what they are doing and will say and do anything to assure this.”

A final judgment of whether or not a marriage took place would still have to be made by a marriage tribunal, not by the spouses themselves.

However, Weinandy explained that “these are real problems that a pastor often faces; and the document is attempting to address these issues in a way that is faithful to Church teaching and to the pastoral reality that is at hand. There are no simple, easy answers to these pastoral problems.”

According to the Vatican website, “The task of the [ITC] is that of helping the Holy See and primarily the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in examining doctrinal questions of major importance.”

Weinandy said that the ITC “always tries to choose topics that are theologically and pastorally relevant.” Thus the issue of faith and the sacraments was covered by the members of the ITC.

“The reason this topic was chosen is due to the real problem that exists within the Church today. People participate in the sacraments but often have little or no faith.”

Weinandy mentioned “Christmas-and-Easter Catholics who come to Mass only on those solemnities and receive Communion and never go to confession. Again, they are nominal Catholics but do not really practice their faith.”

A better understanding of the relationship between faith and the sacraments is also of spiritual consequence for the faithful. “The more that one’s faith is alive, the more the grace of the sacraments will enliven those ones who participate in them,” the Capuchin theologian remarked.

“The pastoral issues that this document dealt with can only be rectified when nominal Catholics come to a deeper understanding of the faith and, in turn, make a more mature act of faith. Until the faith of the Church comes alive in the hearts and the minds of the people, these pastoral issues will remain.”

As is customary, the ITC document was presented to the Pope, whose “favorable opinion” it received on December 19, 2019.

Categories: Vatican Watch