By Christopher Wells
The International Theological Commission (ITC) has issued a new document studying the relationship between faith and the sacraments.
The sacramental nature of the faith
Entitled “The Reciprocity between Faith and Sacraments in the Sacramental Economy”, the new document aims at contributing to a deeper understanding of the sacramental nature of the faith, and to a revitalization of sacramental ministry. Specifically, it speaks to the problem of so-called “baptized non-believers” – those who have received the sacrament of Baptism, but who do not possess the faith in a meaningful sense.
The ITC seeks to address this issue by providing a doctrinal reflection on the significance of the faith for the sacraments, as well as proposing practical pastoral indications for those in ministry.
The new document is divided into five chapters. The first chapter elaborates the problem, and explains the decision to focus on the sacraments of initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist), and the sacrament of Matrimony.
Faith and sacraments in God's plan of salvation
The second chapter “constitutes the true heart of the document”, according to Jesuit Father Gabino Uríbarri Bilbao, who chaired the sub-commission responsible for producing the document. It provides a doctrinal foundation for the “constitutive reciprocity between the faith and the sacraments” – that is, a doctrinal explanation for why faith is necessarily sacramental, and why the sacraments are necessarily bound up with genuine faith. The chapter explains the sacramental character of the divine plan for salvation, the “economy of salvation”; and then looks specifically at how faith and sacraments are related to one another.
In particular, the document emphasizes that the sacramental economy, because it is incarnational, is dialogical: that is, in His plan for salvation, God takes the initiative, but human beings must also respond to that initiative. Here the ITC intends to avoid both an “ethereal” conception of faith that is detached from the sacraments, and a conception of the sacraments disconnected from faith.
The third and fourth chapters concern how faith is related to particular sacraments. In the third chapter, the ITC looks at the sacraments of Christian initiation, emphasizing the necessity of faith for a fruitful reception of the sacraments.
Marriages between “baptized non-believers”
The chapter on marriage is the longest section of the document. On the one hand, it follows a similar plan as the consideration of the other sacraments, looking at the foundations of the relationship with faith based on Scripture and Tradition.
But in light of the particular nature of marriage, it also emphasizes the question of the relationship between faith and ends of marriage; and attempts to deal with the problem of marriage between “baptized non-believers”. Recognizing the importance of a correct understanding of the nature of marriage, and of the anthropological vision on which it is based, it proposes the thesis that the total absence of personal faith makes the validity of sacramental marriage doubtful if this understanding is lacking. That is, such a lack of understanding could compromise the minimal intention of contracting a natural marriage, in which case a sacrament likewise could not take place.
With this thesis the ITC intends to avoid the errors of a “sacramental automatism” that ignores personal faith; and an elitism that makes excessive demands with regard to the degree of faith necessary for the valid reception of the sacrament.
A final chapter summarizes the sacramental nature of the faith, and considers the significance of the sacramental order as a whole.
“The Reciprocity between Faith and Sacraments in the Sacramental Economy” was authorized for publication by the President of the International Theological Commission, the Prefect for the Congregation for the Faith, Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, SJ, after having received the favourable opinion of Pope Francis.