The universal call to holiness is considered by many to be the most important development of the Second Vatican Council. The main location of this call is the fifth chapter of the Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium:
Thus it is evident to everyone, that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity; by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society. In order that the faithful may reach this perfection, they must use their strength accordingly as they have received it, as a gift from Christ. They must follow in His footsteps and conform themselves to His image seeking the will of the Father in all things (§40).
Therefore, all the faithful of Christ are invited to strive for the holiness and perfection of their own proper state. Indeed they have an obligation to so strive. Let all then have care that they guide aright their own deepest sentiments of soul (§42).
Those familiar with the spiritual life know that holiness is not easy. It requires a death to oneself, which Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange describes in his The Three Ages of the Interior Life. It entails going through the purification of the senses and the soul, in order to reach the perfection of charity in union with God.
However, I have also heard some claim that the universal call to holiness means that holiness is now accessible to all without the arduous path of growth in the spiritual life. I would describe this as a dumbing down of the interior life. We see it most often in the confessional: “you shouldn’t feel bad for this sin,” “this is not really sinful,” “you don’t really need to do what the Church commands,” etc. I have heard all too often of confessors condoning masturbation, contraception, rejecting guilt, and denying the need for regular prayer and penance. This is a grave disservice to the soul, to say the least. Everyone is called to be a saint, which means that everyone must deny oneself, take up the cross, and radically follow Christ.
The same selfless transformation is necessary for a successful marriage. To be a good spouse, one must die to oneself to serve the other and the family. To be the spouse that God wants you to be, you need to be a saint! This is imaged perfectly by the crowns of martyrdom used in the Eastern wedding rite. We also see it very clearly expressed in the fifth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.
Paul begins by setting the bar pretty high: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is fitting among saints” (1-3). We must imitate God, the sacrifice of Christ, and not even speak of impurity, let alone live a life marked by it. This is what is at stake: “Be sure of this, that no immoral or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (6). More positively we see the true ideal of marriage: “As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,that he might sanctify her” (24-25).
In Paul’s letter we see the call to holiness applied to marriage. It entails death to self in a sacrificial offering to another, which is nothing short of heroic.
However, in a recent interview, Walter Cardinal Kasper, provides a startling alternative vision. Christians are not called to heroism! Spouses are not called to heroism!
To live together as brother and sister? Of course I have high respect for those who are doing this. But it’s a heroic act, and heroism is not for the average Christian. That could also create new tensions. Adultery is not only wrong sexual behavior. It’s to leave a familiaris consortio, a communion, and to establish a new one.
But I would say that people must do what is possible in their situation. We cannot as human beings always do the ideal, the best. We must do the best possible in a given situation. A position between rigorism and laxism—laxism is not possible, of course, because it would be against the call to holiness of Jesus. But also rigorism is not the tradition of the church.
There are many issues here, including the redefining of adultery along narrow lines and the inclusion of following the Church’s teaching on refraining from extra-marital intercourse as rigorism. What may be most troubling is the rejection of what is clearly the answer to the problem of divorce and remarriage: abstinence from intercourse, because the couple is not validly married. The spouses are indeed called to heroism, because they are called to be saints! They can receive communion, when they accept the cross, deny themselves, and follow Christ.
And for a more authoritative response, Carl Olson has provided a wonderful counterpoint to Kasper’s remarks from St. John Paul II:
Indeed, faced with the many difficulties which fidelity to the moral order can demand, even in the most ordinary circumstances, the Christian is called, with the grace of God invoked in prayer, to a sometimes heroic commitment (Veritatis Splendor, §93).
Kasper has also been criticized by Edward Peters for his additional comment “I’ve spoken to the pope himself about this, and he said he believes that 50 percent of marriages are not valid.” There may be at least some truth to this statement, no matter what the actual percentage is. The question before us, concerning divorce and remarriage, therefore, is not simply the question of communion, but a vocational crisis!
Once again the issue comes down to whether we accept the challenge to die to ourselves or remain unchallenged. Br. Justin Hannegan has written a wonderful article for Crisis, which focuses on the lack of religious vocations because of the sentiment that “God awakens our vocations primarily through our desires.”
Here is how he relates to this point to marriage:
Everyone, however, has an innate desire to get married. Religious life is a renunciation, but marriage is a positive good. So, if we ask people to decide between religious life and marriage on the basis of their desires, they are going to choose marriage every time. And that’s what’s happening. Vocations directors tell their advisees to prayerfully search their desires in order to find their vocation. The advisees search, and what do they find? An aversion to religious life and a desire for marriage. So they choose marriage. Meanwhile, religious orders shrink and die.
I do not disagree with Br. Hannegan in the least, and, yet, what do we make of the lack of robust vocations to the married life? What do we make of the high annulment rate and the Pope’s comments on the number of invalid marriages? Could not the same principle of following one’s own desires be causing this similar crisis? Do we have a misunderstanding of marriage, rooted in the ever growing problem of cultural narcissism?
It is true that there is a natural desire for marriage, but we also have a natural desire for God. This natural desire for marriage does not translate into a happy marriage any more than that natural desire in itself leads us to sanctity. Like the straight and narrow way to Paradise, true marriage requires a denial of self, a sacrifice, which must be understood in imitation of Christ’s self-offering on the Cross. It cannot simply be seen as following one’s desires. To put it differently, a successful and holy marriage requires heroism.
All marriage requires suffering and sacrifice, not just couples who are divorced and remarried. All marriage must be a death to oneself. This does not mean that marriage is simply a gloomy path of suffering (although it may be for some), but rather that marriage must be a joyful cross, by which the spouses sacrifice themselves for one another and lovingly assist each another on the path to Heaven. It is a hard path, one that requires much patience, generosity and endurance.
Unfortunately, I think we see marriage far too often in terms of personal self-fulfillment. Isn’t this even part of the logic of gay marriage? People need to be a marital relationship or a sexual relationship to be fulfilled. If we simply accept an adulterous relationship as normative (in divorce and remarriage), aren’t we caving in to a position that would quickly recognize these other unions as valid? Other couples in a non-marital committed relationship will also seek the standing that Kasper wants to provide, instead of accepting the Church’s teaching on abstinence. The problem is a misunderstanding of self-fulfillment. It does not come from following our passions, but by ordering them in virtue.
Kasper recognizes this in the published form of his controversial lecture to the Consistory of Cardinals, The Gospel of the Family: “The love between man and woman does not simply revolve around itself; it transcends and objectifies itself in children, who proceed from their love” (ch. 1). And further: “Their love is not a form of sentimentality revolving around itself.” Here he seems to recognize what is at stake—marriage as a sacrifice to move beyond oneself. Kasper also rightly recognizes that “We are in this crisis. The gospel of marriage and the family is no longer intelligible to many. For many it does not appear to be a livable option in their situation (ch. 3). Returning to Kasper’s interview, he proposes a solution: “Therefore you have to emphasize and to strengthen prematrimonial catechesis.” We fundamentally need to reeducate Catholics and society on the nature of marriage!
If we are going to follow Kasper on these points he gets right, we need to recognize that we cannot simply give in to our secular culture’s acceptance of non-marital relationships. If we accept the average or ordinary situation of people today we will be giving into secularism and at best mediocrity. Rather, we need to challenge people all the more to take a stand, to live differently, to follow Christ boldly in the modern world. This will entail accepting suffering and sacrifices. Following Christ radically and even heroically is the only way to respond to the universal call to holiness!
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “Le divorce de L’Impératrice Joséphine 15 Décembre 1809” painted by Henri-Frederic Schopin in 1843.