Vatican City (CNA)—The International Theological Commission (ITC) published a study on March 3 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 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.”
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.
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….”
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.”
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.
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.”