Having grown up in some of the most liberal dioceses in California, there were many times when I had to endure some questionable thinking from some pretty high places. During my confirmation classes, I was subjected to a sermon by the then pastor (who later left the priesthood) about how Catholic couples should get married in a civil ceremony first, and then only after about 20 years of marriage — after the babies, the bills, and sleepless nights caused by the children — go before the church to solemnize their marriage in a ceremony. In his thinking, marriage didn’t really give anyone anything that they didn’t already have — it didn’t give grace. So, like other rites of passage, it is only an affirmation before the people of God of the couple’s love for one another.
From an orthodox Catholic standpoint, that is clearly not correct. But that is just crazy California, right? When I moved to New Orleans, I expected to encounter a more orthodox explanation of marriage. My then fiancée and I attended a mandatory day of marriage preparation where, after the standard “getting to know you” talks, the deacon leading the event gave a presentation on the ins and outs of the Church’s view of marriage. He was a counselor by profession and seemed very well informed — but when he brought up certain scenarios, I had to wonder whether he had a firm grasp on the Church’s view of the sacraments.
One situation that he mentioned was the classic shotgun wedding. He told of a father coming to the priest to ask him to marry his daughter next month, since she had become pregnant by her boyfriend. According to the deacon, not only should the priest have said that he would not marry the couple in the next month, but (echoing an official policy?) that the couple could not be married until the baby was at least a year old. One of the rationales he gave was that the couple should “settle down” into their life as parents without having to worry about the stress of arranging a church wedding. He said all of this as if it made perfect sense, and with a tone of authority that made me believe that he just wasn’t saying this because he had thought it up himself.
On the way home from the class, I tried to sort through this rationale. So, according to the deacon, the couple is supposed to go through the stress of pregnancy, birth, and the sleepless nights of raising a newborn infant without the graces of the married state? And somehow, waiting one year and presumably living in sin (or are they to live apart?) will prepare them sufficiently for the sacrament of marriage? Is the presumption, then, that if it doesn’t work out, that the child should just be left a bastard? Is this the way to get the new parents off on the right foot?
Presumably the deacon was afraid that if the couple were “pressured” into marrying, the sacrament would not be valid. But if the couple themselves later came to the priest and asked to get married, would they need to be subjected to the same waiting period, just so that no one would suspect that they were forced into a union? And if this is the case, wouldn’t the marriages of many of our ancestors have been invalid, the shotgun wedding being far more common in our Catholic history than most would care to admit?
A similar pastoral approach in relation to baptism was recently rejected by the Argentine episcopate. The reasoning here goes that if a family is not practicing or is distant from the Church, the correct pastoral approach is to not baptize the children. For what guarantee would the Church have that the child will be brought up a good, well-catechized Catholic if the family is not practicing, or if the parents are living in sin? Indeed, I have an acquaintance here in New Orleans who left the Church because, according to her, the priest refused to baptize her child when she became pregnant as a teenager. The Argentine bishops have rejected such ideas and now welcome all to baptism, either as children or adults. It is even to the point that “baptism days” are offered, where people in irregular situations or dire poverty can come to be baptized.
One can admit that there are certain sacraments, such as Holy Communion, where one should be properly disposed and in the state of grace to receive them. But we must also be on guard against the attitude, expressed in the various anecdotes above, in which the sacraments become rewards for good behavior, upstanding living, or economic prosperity.
As the old Baltimore Catechism states, a sacrament is a visible sign of invisible grace instituted by Christ for our salvation. And indeed, salus animarum supremus lex: The greatest law is the salvation of souls. We can either err on the modernist side, in the voice of a Pelagius redivivus, and say that the sacraments are just rites of passage that don’t really mean anything, or we can err on the more conservative side and say that we should not cast the pearls of Christ’s life before swine by giving them to people we suspect aren’t “sufficiently committed.” But both are errors, and grave ones at that. As Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires recently stated regarding the policy of “open baptism”:
Missionary fervor does not require extraordinary events. It is in ordinary life that mission work is done. And baptism, in this, is paradigmatic. The sacraments are for the life of men and women as they are. They may not make big speeches, but their “sensus fidei” grasps the reality of the sacraments with more clarity than many specialists do.
Indeed, it doesn’t take a degree in theology, so much training, and so many years of good behavior to be baptized or married. For the life of Christ does not start with us but with Him. Catholic life is not a life that begins with “good behavior” but with grace. Often it takes only a small step — like having your marriage blessed in the Church or taking your child to be baptized — to begin on the road of joyful sorrow that is repentance.
Sancta sanctis — holy things for the holy: So goes the ancient liturgical formula. But we must remember that only Christ can make us holy, and He invites all to the sacraments, by which all are called to partake in the life of God.