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In 1567, the famous reformer Pope Pius V condemned various propositions from the writings of a little known theologian by the name of Michael Baius, a professor at the University of Leuven in Belgium. Concerned with combatting a rising secularism, yet ironically yielding to it, his problems are to a great extent our own.

Among the seventy-nine propositions of Baius’s work that were condemned, two principal themes stand out. One is the idea that prior to the fall, there existed no real distinction between our human nature and the grace of God. Grace was something integral to the human person, constitutive of our very nature. The second idea is related. After the fall, in the absence of grace, the integrity of our human nature is fundamentally compromised. It is not even possible to identify clearly what pertains to our human nature. This is especially the case with regard to the moral life, inevitably mired in confusion. In a world without grace, human reason can tell us very little about the natural or unnatural character of human acts.

Baius’s ideas turned out to be influential: He was the primary influence upon another theologian from Leuven who wrote two generations later, Cornelius Jansen. Jansenism is often derided for its moral rigorism, and held up as a negative example of rigid theological dogmatism unaccompanied by mercy. Whatever truth there is in this depiction, it is of secondary import. Jansenism was above all an attempt to respond to the emergence of an aggressively secularizing culture in northern Europe.

As a post-Christian European society was beginning to emerge in the seventeenth century, the Jansensists questioned how confident Christians could be in the unaided powers of human reason, and of the moral discernments of their secular peers. The world of nature without grace is a world devoid of true natural form. The Christian is called to be different not only in matters pertaining to ecclesial discipline—the sacraments and the public confession of the faith. A distinctively Christian life has to be permeated with a different natural way of being. If Jansenists had particularly strict rules about preparation for communion, attending the theatre, or courtship rituals, it was for this basic reason. They understood the life of the Church in countercultural terms, as a witness in the midst of a darkened world.

Understood this way, perhaps Jansenism is not so unintelligible to Christians today, especially when it comes to the topic of marriage. The nature of sacramental marriage has always posed a very delicate set of problems for the Catholic theological tradition. On the one hand, it is a distinctively natural reality with a clear rational delineation: the conjugal union of a man and a woman, in an exclusive, perpetual commitment, with the overt intention to have children and educate them. On the other hand, it is union in Christ, based upon the sacrament of baptism, confecting the sacrament of matrimony.

It follows from these twin principles of nature and grace that a number of traditional principles in Catholic theology are not up for renegotiation: the nature of heterosexual marriage, the permanency and indissolubility of the marriage bond, the definition of adultery. Yet the Church also seeks to discern when a marriage hasn’t taken place so that it can grant an annulment. This can come from a deficit of nature: like a prior intention not to have children, or a lack of requisite maturity (however rightly defined). It can also come from a deficit in the order of grace, most notably due to the presence of a genuine refusal of the faith in one or both of the baptized parties. Normally, this is defined in largely objective terms. When a person has refused to allow his or her spouse to practice the Catholic faith effectively, it might be seen as placing an obstacle to the sacrament of matrimony itself.

Traditionally, the bar for determining when a couple has a genuine intention for sacramental marriage is set quite low. They have to will the natural goods of marriage (permanence, exclusivity, fruitfulness), and they have to freely intend to marry as two baptized persons in the Catholic Church. They don’t have to be in a state of grace (living in the charity of Christ) and they certainly don’t have to have a very refined grasp of Catholic theology. If they intend the natural goods of marriage, and accept the condition of marriage in the Church, they place no obstacle to the sacramental bond. Arguing for something more demanding (seemingly more Jansenist!) would suggest that the presence of sin and the absence of grace would destroy human nature on a very fundamental level. Without living in the perfection of charity, human beings would be incapable of natural marriage. Historically, the Church has consistently eschewed this perspective, a point reiterated forcefully by John Paul II throughout his pontificate.

Which brings us to a contemporary idea of some novelty, which originated in part at the suggestion of Joseph Ratzinger, initially in a 1972 theology article, and then in several subsequent interviews. Ratzinger was a student of Gottlieb Söhngen, a theologian and scholar of Bonaventure who taught in Munich in the years after World War II. Söhngen was a key interlocutor of Karl Barth and a principle influence upon Balthasar in the course of his debates with Barth. Söhngen argued against Barth that there exists a distinct integrity to human nature and to philosophical and ethical reasoning (distinct from the realm of grace), even in fallen man. However, he also conceded that this order of nature might remain concretely or practically inaccessible without the active presence of grace. In the absence of grace, human beings know not naturally what they do. One can see the pertinence of this teaching in a secular age. Catholics can claim that their traditional metaphysics and natural law teachings are rational and have a sound integrity (against Barth) but also maintain that these features of human reason remain largely inaccessible to the ordinary person without the prior initiative of grace, the discovery of Christ, and the support of the Church with its ambient culture.

What Ratzinger did was simply take this one logical step further in his discussions of marriage in the modern age. Perhaps in a post-Christian culture where many of the baptized are not adequately catechized or intentionally Catholic, couples getting married cannot adequately intend the goods of marriage and the sacramental life in the true and authentic sense. Consequently, perhaps the nature of the marriage itself is undermined, as an act accomplished in the sacramental sphere of the Church. If that were the case (and Ratzinger only ever spoke hypothetically), then an annulment might be granted to a couple who married licitly in the Catholic Church. This not for the traditional reasons, but by virtue of the fact that they lacked explicit faith at the time of their marriage. One can readily see the myriad pastoral situations in which this might apply. Take the person previously married in the Catholic Church who is now divorced and remarried civilly, who awakens seemingly for the first time from a merely nominal faith to a living interest in Christianity. The “convert” is trapped between a choice for the second union versus the practice of the sacramental life. Granting an annulment due to an absence of intentional faith at the time of the first union would alleviate the burden placed upon the person, and resolve a serious pastoral difficulty. It would also constitute a rather radical innovation in the concrete life of Catholic teaching and practice.

To be fair to the great theologian Joseph Ratzinger, he only ever publically advanced the traditional Catholic theology of marriage both at the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, and as Pope Benedict XVI. And he did so consistently often against the forces of very great opposition. However, the idea he initially discussed in a very hypothetical way has given rise to a plethora of far more practical theories, currently under discussion. Let’s consider, briefly then, two difficulties that the above-mentioned idea brings with it.

The first goes back to the intuition of Michael Baius. Without grace, no natural integrity remains. If we apply this to marriage, then we might say, without some hard-to-determine degree of explicit Catholic faith, the natural integrity of the marriage bond is undermined. In a culture where the natural good of marriage is so difficult to grasp, it may well be necessary to have an explicit, knowledgeable faith, and life of grace in Christ, to be able to conceive of and desire avidly the natural goods of marriage. The problem with this claim is that it inadvertently rejoins the intuitions of the secular culture it wishes to rebuff. For a certain very vociferous part of our contemporary culture would claim precisely that in the aftermath of Christianity, we can see that the “natural law” was a mere construct and projection imposed artificially upon the culture from without. Radical Augustinianism might claim the exact opposite: Only by grace can we recapture a true sense of the nature of marriage. However, this reaction contains a premise in common with the position it opposes: that without grace, the nature of human marriage remains largely unintelligible. The institution as traditionally understood remains existentially inaccessible to fallen man. In this case, however, the Church is obliged to concede the public field to secular culture precisely for theological reasons, or to claim (like the Jansenists of old) that there is no legitimate right to any form of public culture of natural marriage that is not explicitly doctrinal and Catholic. And no one claimed this whether in the patristic era or even in the high middle ages. So herein lies a very profound irony: a radically “anti-modern” theology that claims that “only intentional Christians can truly get married integrally” is some respect essentially post-modern, and even sociologically conformist.

The second point is more pastoral and ecclesial. The criterion of discernment by which a person might determine that he or she lacked sufficient faith in a first union (even when marrying freely within the Church) tends inherently toward subjectivism. If we press this point toward the objective norms of doctrine, then we might simply ask: Is any marriage between a Catholic and a Protestant ever sacramental? Because we know that the Protestant fails to intend explicitly to believe all that the Catholic Church holds. But the Church has for centuries recognized the validity of such unions. This seems like a permanent fixture of Catholic doctrine. So the only other option is to claim that the quality of the faith is to be judged based on its intensity and this not due to a mere act of free will (because the person seemingly married freely in a Church), but due to a degree of intensity. And this is essentially a subjective criterion, not subject to any real intelligibility. Just to take an obvious example: Can we say that a penitent who freely confesses all his or her sins dutifully and receives valid absolution fails to receive the grace of contrition because of a due lack of psychological or spiritual intensity? The Council of Trent explicitly rebuked that idea. Is what was false then for confession true now for marriage? On what grounds precisely?

One may rightly be concerned that what might really get lost in all this is the true care of persons, through the care of the honesty of each person in his or her pilgrimage toward the God of mercy. Human fragility is real and deserves great pastoral compassion and solicitude. But human healing also only takes place through an encounter with the truth about one’s self before God. To wish for less for the laity of the Catholic Church is to wish them something less than they deserve, and that they need, if they are to find peace with Christ.

Of course the Jansenists were right in some sense. In a fallen human culture without Christ, the mind of man is often darkened. However, the solutions to the problems of modern human culture are not one-sided. Not everything is grace, and not everything is nature. Not everything is about truth, but love without truth is vacant. What is needed for genuine evangelization in every generation is not only solutions of divine grace or right teaching regarding human nature, but also solutions of pastoral compassion, apostolic zeal, and tender-hearted charity. Pope Francis has spoken powerfully about the “field hospital” of modern society, so deeply in need of new pastoral initiatives. This is especially the case with regard to the family.

There is no question that those who suffer the pain of divorce typically consider it the most serious failure of their life. The human anguish and pastoral difficulties of those who suffer the pain of divorce should be addressed in expeditious and humane ways. It is another matter to re-elaborate the very nature of marriage in its natural dimension, or reconceive radically the character of the marital union in its relationship to grace. For here we come up against the primal principles that come not from us, but from God and from Christ. They are beautiful principles, teaching us the truth and giving us hope. Christ himself has descended into the very fabric of human marriage. This too is a truth that saves us, and it is one we should joyfully be committed to, a truth both in nature and in grace.

Thomas Joseph White, O.P., is director of the Thomistic Institute at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. 

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