A Montana Catholic’s Perspective On Outdoor Weddings
A version of this article first appeared on Aleteia.
“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, should that be their desire. The above are actual Facebook comments on the story in the National Catholic Register that publicized it (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 above. 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.
Where can we locate our proper attitude when the church hierarchy makes a decision about pastoral practice in which cannot see wisdom? I think a quote that is (perhaps mis-)attributed to St. Augustine can help: “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 about the practice of the sacrament. To be sure, Jesus established the sacraments with essential matter and form and further gave the Church the authority to have governance over other aspects of their practice. 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 about what ought to be done. 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 that you disagree with. Anything else is a sin against Charity. Period.
That being said, I’d like to take it a bit further and make a criticism of an idea that I think is present in the comments of some of the Facebook armchair-canonists and theologians. There has always been in the Church, just under the surface, the attitude that Faith in Jesus and following Him is for people who have reached some level of spiritual perfection already. The Church easily becomes a place for those who are “good Christians” to go and celebrate how good and faithful they are. Some will point to the stringency of Jesus’ words when He offers the terms and conditions of discipleship.
There is a decrying of “cheap grace” and the idea that the Church is ignoring the more demanding aspects of the Gospel and being a disciple in order to draw people in or at least prevent them from leaving. Is there something true about all of that in the concrete reality of the Church, maybe especially in modern times? Yes, of course there is. Is there something very important about the Gospel itself that this “conservative” (or whatever useless label we want to use) viewpoint is particularly apt to miss? I think so.
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 itself, namely that the Incarnation itself and, by extension, all the sacraments themselves, are accommodation 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 being with God or meeting His standards of Goodness. The incomprehensible, ineffable, eternal, perfect, immaterial, and unchanging God condescended (in the good sense) to become a human infant who grew up to be brutally executed by sinful men. He did this so that humans could become good enough to be with him forever.
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, 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. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2: 1-11)
If that’s 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 says:
“I answer that, Divine wisdom provides for each thing according to its mode; hence it is written (Wisdom 8:1) that “she . . . ordereth all things sweetly”: wherefore also we are told (Matthew 25:15) that she “gave to everyone according to his proper ability.” Now 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; as Dionysius also proves in his book on the heavenly hierarchy (Coel. Hier. i).” (S. Th. Tertia Pars, Q. 60, A. 4, C.)
So it is out of the kindness and love that God has for the human race that he has deigned to condescend to the weakness of our bodily existence and create the means of grace as physical signs that literally touch our bodies. The primary way the Lord has chosen to stay with us is through something as visceral as eating.
If God doesn’t accommodate the weakness of our faith, then no one is saved.
Those of use who are well catechized about the theological significance of the sacrament of matrimony taking place within a church ought not to use our 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. St. Paul tells us “Be careful, however, that your freedom does not become a stumbling block for the weak.” (1 Cor 8:9)
Is it better to be married in a church? Yes. Does the Church have the right to accommodate those who are weaker than some and maybe more imperfect at least in terms of knowledge for the sake of their salvation? 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.
Photo Credit: Jenna & Shye by Jason Corey