What is being overlooked in the debate about "fiducia supplicans"

Theologian: We need a marriage sacrament for the "field hospital"

Freiburg - The Vatican blessing document "Fiducia supplicans" has triggered a broad debate. From the point of view of theologian Daniel Bogner, it is also about a more fundamental issue: the difference between blessing and sacrament. He therefore calls for a new understanding of what marriage means.

Published  on 12.02.2024 at 10:01  – by Daniel Bogner

Why do people ask for God's blessing for the relationship they are living? It is the desire to bring their life as a couple before God, to place it under his protection and to ask for support. This was debated during the Synodal Way. At the end of laborious discussions, a resolution was passed that allows blessings for homosexual couples and remarried divorcees. No one who leads such blessings should have to reckon with disciplinary consequences, as was previously the case. Such a blessing ceremony is based on the conviction "that there is moral good in the common life of couples who live together in commitment and responsibility for one another", according to the statement of the synodal path. The Vatican's declaration on this topic ("Fiducia supplicans") is a courageous step from the perspective of the universal church, because it is the first time that such a blessing has been made possible. However, it is expressly emphasised that this may not take place in a liturgical ritual. What will the German church do with it now? Will the efforts to draw up templates for blessings be stopped?

These are all questions that are currently being discussed. But they suppress a much more fundamental perspective, namely the question of the extent to which it is at all appropriate to maintain the distinction between blessing and sacrament in the area of partnership and love as strictly as the church has done so far. It is the task of theology to initiate a discussion on this.

Beautiful and presumptuous at the same time: presenting the covenant of God in the covenant of man

In the understanding of many people who ask the Church to accompany them in their life decisions, there will hardly be a significant difference between a blessing and a sacrament. For them, it is about presenting their decision to God and asking for his support. Which theological terms the church uses for this will often be of secondary importance to those who ask. From the Church's point of view, however, there is a considerable difference in judgement between blessing and sacrament: a blessing should, as the Synodal Way puts it, be an expression of "appreciation for an existing love and the values lived in it", while the sacrament is "an image and participation of Christ's love for his Church" (according to the Council text"Gaudium et spes", No. 48) and represents God's covenant with mankind.

Bild: ©privat

People who want to come before God with a love that is "irregular" from the church's point of view are confronted with the statement that their relationship is not worthy of a sacrament, criticises Daniel Bogner. "I am convinced that we have to find a way out of this dilemma," says the Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Fribourg/Switzerland.

On the one hand, something is recognised and requested, on the other hand, a kind of equation takes place. Marriage means loving another person as God loves a person. God's covenant with man is actualised and physically "staged" in the covenant that people enter into with each other in marriage. The sacrament creates a kind of new reality, a sacred sign that represents an act of actualisation. In other words: God's love for man is the act of creation - and man, in turn, can do as God does, in which he himself becomes "procreative" in a covenant with another human being, i.e. in turn creates offspring - this, in turn, is reserved for heterosexual couples for biological reasons and therefore only the heterosexual union is considered "marriageable". In contrast to this understanding of the sacrament, which gives the marital union a meaning that transcends its worldly fulfilment, the blessing is a completely different mode of action of religion. It is requested for the experiential path of love, but does not, as the sacrament of marriage does, give the union of the lovers a new sense of meaning and being.

It is this differentiation that prompts the Church to make a strict distinction between the two ceremonies. People who want to come before God with a love that is "irregular" in the eyes of the Church are confronted with the statement that their union is in no way worthy of a sacrament, but that a blessing can be granted. And even here there is still controversy, because some fear that the subtle but elementary differences between blessing and sacrament will no longer be recognised by the general public and that the status of the sacrament could ultimately be damaged. Although this is a sharp position, its internal logic is conclusive.

Do not introduce a two-class regime of grace theology

I am convinced that we need to find a way out of this dilemma. The aim should be to recalibrate the meaning of the sacrament itself, instead of using a subtle distinction between blessing and sacrament to narrow access to the sacrament in an elitist way and introduce a two-tier system of grace theology for life situations that cannot be addressed by the sacrament, according to the motto: sacrament for the few, blessing for a larger group. This task is all the more urgent as the conventional understanding of the sacrament of marriage hardly takes into account the demanding reality of lived partnerships.

The starting point should be the question of what the sacrament should actually be: The idea is that the real lived couple relationship should be a sign of a supra-worldly reality - this intertwining of "here-and-now-given" and "seeing-something-else-in-this" is called sacramental. Something stands for something else, the earthly for the heavenly in equal measure. The question that immediately follows is: Which earthly reality is really suitable to adequately represent a heavenly good, namely God's irrevocably decided love for man? The problem is that worldly realities are always flawed, finite and imperfect! If you want to demand this representation of a worldly good directly and abruptly, it must be forced into a perfection that its nature does not allow. And this is precisely the case with the institution of sacramental marriage. It only exists perfectly, i.e. indissolubly. Perfection, in turn, is determined solely by the formal character of the marriage - the legally sealed, indissoluble form. But how this marriage is actually lived and whether the lived reality of the relationship between the spouses corresponds to Christ's bond of love with his church, or even God's covenant with his creation, is of no interest to church doctrine. At the very least, it doesn't attach any representational value to it.

Bild: ©KNA/Lola Gomez/CNS photo

Pope Francis used the term "field hospital" to describe the fact that the Church should stand up for people who are vulnerable or who have been wounded again and again. "It is in the logic of such thinking to rethink the sacrament of marriage and to free it from its shell of perfection," writes Bogner.

The tensions in the sacramental understanding of marriage are clearly visible. However, they cannot be resolved by abandoning the sacrament's claim to bindingly translate God's will of salvation into the here and now. Instead, a more appropriate and therefore more comprehensible translation of these tensions is required than has been the case to date in the case of canonical marriage. And so the question must be asked: Can we not incorporate into the understanding of the sacrament of marriage what constitutes the human being at its core, its nature as a historical being that is subject to lifelong processes of growth and development, and thus also its imperfections and imperfections? It would mean making the real life of the relationship much more of a criterion for the sacramentality of the marital union than has been the case up to now. This in turn would mean refocussing marriage preparation and accompaniment and taking them out of their subordinate position. Living in true partnership does not fall from the sky, but much of what is involved can be practised. The church should make this one of its core concerns, then it would be much more likely to achieve that Christian marriages represent God's love for people.

Such a renewed understanding of the sacraments should in some way include the fact that marriages can break up even though both partners have previously struggled to the best of their knowledge and conscience to live out what they had planned. Because they may have had to learn that hoped-for developments did not materialise and they admit to themselves that separation is more beneficial than staying together. And could a renewed understanding of marriage as a sacrament resolve the rigid fixation on biological sex and the necessary heterosexuality of the spouses? The sacrament symbolises the love that God has for mankind. It is part of the essence of love to be fruitful and thus to continue God's work of creation. Love can become fruitful in many different ways. Fertility does not have to be understood exclusively in terms of biological reproduction, even if this is certainly a special way of participating in the work of creation.

Working on a deep and broad sacrament of marriage

The Church must go "where people live, where they suffer, where they hope". This is what Pope Francis says. The Church's task is not to condemn, but to show mercy. Francis uses the term "field hospital". He understands this to mean the life situation of people who are vulnerable and repeatedly receive wounds on their journey through life. According to the Pope, the Church should be there for these people. In the logic of such thinking, it is necessary to rethink the sacrament of marriage and free it from its shell of perfection. Ultimately, sacraments are not there so that the Church can use them to confirm its role as a mediator of salvation. Rather, they should be a service to people, namely to real people with their scratches, wounds and sometimes crooked paths of development, for whom the biblical God wants to be a promise of salvation.

The option is therefore: let us work on a deeply and broadly based marriage sacrament that takes the very real ways of loving between people as its basis, and against a tiered logic that distinguishes between a "full form" sacrament and a cheapened offer of blessing for "lower" forms of love. The world church has a long way to go, and this is precisely why the discussion must be started.

by Daniel Bogner

The book

Daniel Bogner is Professor of Moral Theology and Ethics at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. In his book "Liebe scheitert nicht. What sexual ethics does the 21st century need?", he discusses questions relating to love and sexuality, relationships and separation.