“Do we convert souls by diluting and capitulating?”
“I hope Jesus doesn’t lower his standards in hopes of making us more committed.”
“Here we go, changing our values to meet the needs of those who want it their way and not the way of the Catholic Church.”
This summer, the bishop of my beloved Diocese of Helena, George Leo Thomas, made the decision to allow Catholics in our diocese to express their nuptial promises in the beautiful outdoors of Montana. The above are actual Facebook comments on the National Catholic Register story about his decision (credit to Mr. Smith of the Register for writing an excellent and well-researched article, by the way).
There are no doubt many well-intentioned and faithful people who, upon hearing this news, reacted in the same way as the Catholic purveyors of Facebook content quoted above. But I would like to offer a different perspective on not only this particular issue but a reflection on the pastoral practice of the sacraments as a whole.
Saint Augustine said wisely, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Something the article in the Register makes very clear (and which many commentators must have completely missed) is that the bishop clearly has the ecclesial and hierarchical authority to make this decision.
We are not talking about the essential matter and form of the sacrament, nor even about the things that the universal law of the Church requires of their practice. Forget the essentials of the sacrament, this decision is clearly within even the bounds of the Church’s law. As such, following our dictum, our proper attitude should be liberty and charity toward those who differ with us in opinion.
In other words, people of good will can disagree about whether something is a good idea in the prudential realm, but they have to keep in mind that with prudential matters, charity demands that you tolerate and respect decisions you disagree with. Anything else is a sin against charity. Period.
The complaint that the Church is “lowering its standards” or “accommodating” people who are weak in their faith misses one really basic truth about the Gospel, namely that the Incarnation itself and, by extension, all the sacraments, are accommodations to human weakness. God is by nature inaccessible to us. Human beings are not by nature – and especially not with a sinful and fallen nature – capable of reaching God.
Thus St. Paul urges the Philippians to complete his joy by “being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” and doing nothing “from selfishness or conceit,” but in humility counting others “better than yourselves.”
“Have this mind among yourselves,” he exhorts, and then says why: “which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men” (cf Philippians 2:1-11).
If God taking the form of a slave is not “lowering your standards,” then I don’t know what is. In order to extend the effects of his Incarnation to the generations after his Ascension, the Lord established the seven sacraments so that we can continue to receive his saving graces and perfect our nature in order to be with Him. The very fact that the sacraments use physical signs to impart grace is an accommodation to the weakness of our nature.
St. Thomas Aquinas explains how
“it is part of man’s nature to acquire knowledge of the intelligible from the sensible. But a sign is that by means of which one attains to the knowledge of something else. Consequently, since the sacred things which are signified by the sacraments, are the spiritual and intelligible goods by means of which man is sanctified, it follows that the sacramental signs consist in sensible things: just as in the Divine Scriptures spiritual things are set before us under the guise of things sensible. And hence it is that sensible things are required for the sacraments;” (S. Th. Tertia Pars, Q. 60, A. 4, C.)
Those well catechized about the theological significance of the sacrament of matrimony taking place within a church ought not to use this knowledge as a stick to beat either those who are less knowledgeable about the Faith or those who are trying to care for them pastorally.
Is it better to be married in the sacred space of a church, where the very surroundings emphasize the meaning of marriage and its place in the community? Yes. Does the Church have the right to accommodate those who, for whatever reason, have not yet come to understand or sufficiently value that? Yes.
Why? Because the Lord has already done the same for all of us by being born among us and giving the sacraments to our ailing nature. Let us be imitators of him then.
[Editor’s Note: Take the Poll – If given the option would you have an outdoor wedding?]