Matrimony of Desire and Lifestyle Ecumenism

“For they shall sow wind, and reap a whirlwind, there is no standing stalk in it, the bud shall yield no meal; and if it should yield, strangers shall eat it.” Osee (Hosea) 8:7

Once upon a time, a Feeneyite* writer — Charles Coulombe, I think — made some remark about Baptism of Desire. The remark went something like, “Have you ever heard of Matrimony of Desire? Doesn’t make sense, does it? Neither does Baptism of Desire.” In other words, neither implicit nor explicit desire for a sacrament realizes that sacrament.

Except that is what Pope Francis seems to think. The canon law requirements for sacramental matrimony don’t matter — that’s just legalism. The vast majority of marriages that would pass the canon law definition are actually null, while cohabitations are valid marriages. Why can’t we extend this type of rationalization to any type of relationship at all, heterosexual or not? It’s about grace, not hard and fast definitions, right?

I’ve seen this attitude called “lifestyle ecumenism.” It follows pretty logically from religious ecumenism, the type promoted by all Popes since St. John XXIII. If we should presume God’s grace is at work in all people of any religious adherence — “at work” doesn’t narrowly mean “guiding them on a track to Catholicism,” but justifying them before God right now — then why evangelize? Who cares? That’s what the Fathers of Vatican II effectively taught us, if not in so many words (they couldn’t be that succinct), then by so many gestures. Popes John XXIII through Benedict XVI were all Fathers or periti of the Council, and now we arrive at the first Pope who is a child of the Council — Francis. Francis simply applies to family life the same facile indifference and specious criteria that the older generation of ecumenists applied to religious affiliation.

Presume grace on the part of all and bite your tongue — nay, don’t foster any feeling in your heart that would prompt your tongue to move in the first place, except in praise and affirmation and accompaniment. Shocked that Francis won’t rebuke adulterers he meets? What of all the heathens and heretics and schismatics whom Pope St. John XXIII and Blessed Paul VI and St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus (sic) Benedict XVI received and didn’t try to convert, at least in the published parts of their conversations? Pope Francis makes Catholic family life (a functional nuclear family) seem like an unattainable ideal? What about treating the Catholic Faith as some incomprehensible mystery whose truth Protestants and atheists are simply incapable of perceiving through no fault of their own?

So I say, this has been coming ever since the condemnation of Fr. Feeney.

*I don’t use the word “Feeneyite” as a pejorative way of denoting a heretic’s idiosyncratic position, like “Lutheran.” It’s neutral, like “Thomistic.” If St. Thomas’ understanding of predestination is the Thomistic understanding, then Fr. Feeney’s understanding of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus is the Feeneyite position. Now, many would say that it’s not Fr. Feeney’s position, but the Church’s, which Fr. Feeney simply championed. Fine, but that won’t do when the dispute is precisely over which characterization of the Church’s position is correct. Saying “strict” or “literal” doesn’t work because all sides claim to represent the correct (and hence strict, literal) interpretation of the dogma. The easiest shorthand I’ve ever seen for Fr. Feeney’s position and that of his defenders is “Feeneyite.”

14 thoughts on “Matrimony of Desire and Lifestyle Ecumenism

  1. Actually, matrimony of desire does make sense. Receiving a sacrament by desire means receiving the grace of it, but not the intermediary reality, which in baptism is the character and in matrimony is the matrimonial bond. So if two Catholics were not really free to marry, but thought in good faith that they were (for example, one of them had a spouse who was a soldier, and who had been reported incorrectly as ‘killed in action’), and they went through a Catholic rite of marriage, then they would not really be married, but they could have the grace of the sacrament.


    • It makes sense in a specious way, and if you don’t think about it for longer than ten seconds. Because effectively it means that God validates “by desire” what can’t be validated in fact.

      Question 1: Since the wife is really married to the missing husband, is she receiving graces of marriage from the real sacramental union and graces of marriage of desire from the pseudo-husband?

      Question 2: Once the wife realizes that the second, putative marriage isn’t real, do the graces cease for her? What if she realizes the situation before her second, putative husband, if he’s on a trip? Do the husband and wife in the real marriage receive the graces of the sacrament of marriage, while the second, putative husband goes on receiving the graces of matrimony of desire without anyone else being in the marriage “of desire”?

      In this scenario, we just have to say that God gives the putative husband and wife graces to live in their state of life, but these just aren’t graces of the sacrament of matrimony which they simply aren’t in a sacramental marriage. The other way leads to ridiculous thought experiments like the one above. An invalid marriage does not and cannot give sacramental graces.


      • St Thomas seems to teach this doctrine about all the sacraments in general, in the Quaestiones quodlibetales:

        “Dicendum, quod sacramenta dupliciter operantur: uno modo secundum quod exhibentur in actu; alio modo secundum quod habentur in voto. Et hoc ideo quia sacramenta operantur ut instrumenta divinae misericordiae iustificantis: Dei autem est respicere hominis cor, secundum illud I Reg. cap. XVI, 7: homines vident ea quae parent, Deus autem intuetur cor. Et ideo, quamvis res naturales non agant nisi praesentialiter adhibitae, sacramenta tamen agunt etiam secundum quod sunt in voto; sed plenius sacramentalem effectum inducunt quando actu exhibentur, sicut in Baptismo” (IV, 7, a. 1 corpus).

        Of course if they discovered that they were not really married, they would have to separate. They could no longer be in good faith. But if one discovers the truth before the other, there is no reason why the latter could not still receive grace in virtue of his desire to be faithful to his ‘spouse’. However, St Thomas is talking primarily of sanctifying grace


  2. Did St. Thomas Aquinas consider my objections? Why can’t I have matrimony of desire right now? Man A longs to marry woman B. Woman B doesn’t want to marry him, but he still has matrimony “in voto.” So, why can’t his “votum” attain the grace he seeks? St. Thomas isn’t here to answer the objection. Like I said, this notion of attaining the grace of matrimony without the actual sacrament of matrimony is specious for the objections I presented. It creates ludicrous scenarios where a woman is in a bigamous situation (actual matrimony with one spouse, “in voto” matrimony with another), conferring grace on both. Nonsense.


    • Matrimony differs from the other sacraments in that in order for person X to receive it, person Y has to posit an act that he or she is morally free not to posit. Therefore a person cannot resolve to marry person Y as he can resolve to get baptised or go to Holy Communion. Not every wish, not even a very strong wish, to receive a sacrament counts as a ‘votum’, but only a resolve which no other person is morally free to hinder. So person X cannot receive the sacramental grace of matrimony if person Y is unwilling. However, if a couple get betrothed in a supernatural spirit, intending to help each other to heaven and to spread the kingdom of God upon earth, I don’t see why they should not by that fact receive an increase of sanctifying grace, which is already a first beginning of the grace of the sacrament, just as according to Catholic doctrine people may receive an increase of sanctifying grace by their desire for baptism, penance and the Holy Eucharist, and as the common doctor of the Church appears to teach applies to all the sacraments.

      There would be no bigamy in the case you mention, since the marriage bond exists only with the real, first husband. Since she is in good faith, she can receive grace by attempting to contract the other marriage, just as according to Catholic doctrine a person could receive the grace of a spiritual communion if he received a host which, unknown to himself, the priest had failed to consecrate.


  3. I don’t buy it.

    “Not every wish, not even a very strong wish, to receive a sacrament counts as a ‘votum’, but only a resolve which no other person is morally free to hinder.”

    I have never heard of this. It sounds ad hoc.

    “I don’t see why they should not by that fact receive an increase of sanctifying grace, which is already a first beginning of the grace of the sacrament, . . .”

    I think they would receive an increase of grace, but you also receive an increase of grace when you resolve to do lots of good things. Not all graces are sacramental. To say, “They aren’t receiving the grace of the sacrament,” is not to say, “They aren’t receiving graces.”

    Also, St. Thomas’ presentation, like most presentations of the “votum,” does an injustice to the providential order of the world. It makes the “res” (the actual reception of water Baptism, Holy Communion, absolution, etc.) sound like something that is subject to chance and accident, and the “votum” supplies a sort of spiritual bypass of reality. The “res” ends up sounding like an impediment to grace instead of a great benefit and vehicle of grace. There has to be something deficient in possessing the mere “votum,” or the sacramental system should never have been yoked to these error-prone “res” in the first place.

    One of the big issues I see with talk of desire for Baptism (and now, apparently, for Confirmation, Orders, and Matrimony), is that these sacraments initiate a persistent state. You are or are not baptized, confirmed, ordained, married. Now, I can form a votum, and later I can reject the votum. And after I reject the votum, I am still not baptized. I can be betrothed with every intention of marriage, and then call off the betrothal, and I am not and never was married. Same goes for the other sacraments. If I’m receiving the grace proper to the sacrament, then one can receive the graces proper to baptism and then at some later point revert to the status of unbaptized (unconfirmed, unordained, unmarried).

    Baptism of desire developed as an ad hoc account for how people who apparently died without water Baptism would still go to Heaven. It’s focus was primarily on one effect of Baptism — justification. One can be justified and later become unjustified. I accept that God can justify a sinner prior to his reception of Baptism. I accept that God can justify a sinner prior to his sacramental absolution. God can increase grace in the soul prior to the reception of the Eucharist. Those scenarios focus on justification and increase in sanctifying grace, neither of which are persistent states.

    What’s troubling are the other, persistent effects of the sacraments and the graces specific to certain states. I accept that people who are preparing for matrimony, Confirmation, ordination, etc., receive preparatory graces. I can see that God would give graces to people who were in an invalid marriage through no fault of their own. But the bottom line is still that the unmarried person is not sacramentally married, the unconfirmed person is unconfirmed, the unordained is unordained, and — yes — catechumens and unabsolved penitents are still *just* catechumens and penitents. They may desire a sacrament, and God may provide them anticipatory graces for those sacraments, but they just haven’t received them. Which is a much bigger issue in today’s world, from a pastoral perspective, than it was in St. Thomas’ world, because Baptism of Desire, and now apparently Matrimony of Desire, are used as substitutions for the sacrament purportedly desired. People don’t evangelize because they assume that all people have an implicit “votum.” Now, the Holy Father makes it sound like the cohabitating receive graces that the canonically married don’t.

    I think that’s why, justly, the Church has never dwelt on the question of people who are barred from matrimony receiving the graces of that sacrament. I wish that Churchmen were much more circumspect on the question of people who don’t explicitly want Baptism receiving any of the graces of that sacrament. There are speculations that may be true in some very rarefied sense that one should not allow to drive decisions in the real world. “Maybe the Nazi camp guard sincerely believed that what he was doing was moral, and the camp liberator had vengeance in his heart.” Maybe, and maybe we should focus on facts and not on anomalous situations that are by their nature not accessible to much examination, like clandestine sacramental graces bestowed on the cohabitating.


  4. “Matrimony differs from the other sacraments in that in order for person X to receive it, person Y has to posit an act that he or she is morally free not to posit.”

    But doesn’t person Y also need to be canonically eligible to marry? If person Y is already married, but she mistakenly thinks her husband is dead, that subjective misunderstanding still does not make her an eligible minister of the sacrament.


      • Okay, I’m writing a bit more calmly now, so I thank you for your patience.

        If we’re going to maintain an analogy to the other sacraments, it isn’t clear why “matrimony of desire” would require a minister in the person of the other spouse. “Baptism of desire” doesn’t require a minister. In fact, the theory exists to account for scenarios where there is no available minister. So, once we get into this ghost world where the grace of a sacrament is readily available absent the sacramentum, it’s unclear why a minister is required. In the scenario above, it isn’t clear why you can’t have “matrimony of desire” simply by desiring matrimony, even if no one wants to marry you (or ordination, when no bishop even knows you think you have a vocation, etc.). Maybe, for some (I would dare say all) sacraments, God doesn’t bestow the grace until He bestows the sacramentum because the grace exists for the sake of a state in life that only the sacramentum initiates.

        We can certainly consider the grace of a sacrament separately from the matter and form. The problem is whether, with what frequency, and under what conditions the grace is ever actually separate from the matter and form in the real world. For matrimony in particular, I find great difficulties in ever conceding “the graces of marriage are available in invalid marriages.” In that scenario, it is unclear what “validity” constitutes other than a ceremonial defect, which reduces the “sacramentum” itself to something like the works of the Mosaic Law.

        This is, I think, one of the dangers with quotations from dead saints, such as the quotation you provided from St. Thomas Aquinas where he doesn’t call out any differences between the different sacraments. He isn’t here to answer new objections that are posed to him, so we don’t know what he would answer. There’s no sense in standing on the shoulders of giants if we don’t want and expect to see farther than they saw.


  5. I agree with what you say about the modern misuse of the teaching on baptism of desire.

    I am following the traditional three-fold schema, whereby each of the sacraments involves a ‘sacramentum tantum’ (e.g pouring of water and the Trinitarian formula, for baptism), a ‘res et sacramentum’ (e.g. the baptismal or sacerdotal character, the marital bond), and a ‘res tantum’ (sanctifying grace). To receive a sacrament ‘by desire’ means receiving part of the ‘res tantum’ (though less fully than if one had really received the sacrament), and not receiving the res et sacramentum at all.

    Perhaps the only question at issue here is whether the sanctifying grace received in this way has anything sacramental about it. This depends on what one thinks sacramental grace is. St Thomas thinks that it is a species in the genus ‘sanctifying grace’. But he seems to think that it is the only species of that genus which is available to mankind since the passion of Christ i.e. he thinks that while sanctifying grace is enough to allow one to lead a holy life, sacramental grace is necessary to allow one to lead a Christian life. But in this age of the world, there is no such thing as a holy life, unless it is a Christian life, explicit faith in Christ being necessary for justification.

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    • “I am following the traditional three-fold schema”

      And I think in the case I present we see a limit of this schema’s usefulness, where it simply doesn’t provide much traction and tempts us to divorce one element of a sacrament (grace) from another (the marriage bond for which those graces are given) and from yet another (the valid, canonical exchange of vows). The conceptual distinction needn’t imply separability in the real world.

      The Church has never, to my knowledge, spoken of the graces of matrimony, Confirmation, or Holy Orders being in any way accessible through a mere “votum.” I think the concept of the “votum” arose as a way around difficulties presented by the *necessary* sacraments: Baptism (necessary for all), Penance (necessary for those who fall into mortal sin), and the Eucharist (necessary to sustain the life of the Christian). Absent a necessity for the specific sacrament, the “votum” as a means of accessing the grace becomes less desirable (at least in theory) because the graces in question don’t address a present necessity.

      I mean, the “votum” is at best a stopgap. I don’t think anyone thinks a catechumen needs a perfect act of charity prior to their sacramental Baptism (were that possible) in order to attain justification. . . unless they happen to die. It’s a filler to accidents that one fears will arise (despite Our Lord saying, “Unless you be reborn of *water* and the Holy Ghost . . .). I should pray to make a perfect act of contrition immediately after any mortal sins I happen to commit . . . but provided I obtain absolution, this perfect act is unnecessary for my absolution. I merely need contrition.


  6. I think that unless you thought that the other person wanted to marry you, or that the bishop wanted to ordain you, it wouldn’t make sense to talk of having either sacrament in voto, in the sense in which people are said to have baptism in voto. I suppose it is possible that the apparent spouse or the bishop could go through the ceremony feigning to confect the sacrament, in which case you would not be married or ordained, but you would still be given grace by God to perform the duties which you (mistakenly) thought now belonged to your state in of life. Whether we call that grace sacramental or not depends on what we think sacramental grace is.

    I don’t think this view reduces marital invalidity to a mere ceremonial defect. The validity lies in the bond between the two persons, which is something ontological (a pair of corresponding relations).


    • I just don’t think it makes sense to talk about it at all, because it’s silly and unnecessary. But it’s basically what the Holy Father seems to have in mind, and it all bleeds out from the notion of baptism of desire as a standard means of salvation.


  7. Reblogged this on HAURIETIS AQUAS and commented:
    He defended the dogma “Outside the Church there is no salvation” The powers that be persecuted him relentlessly. I remember him speaking on Boston Common. He is surely in heaven now looking down on a Church in shambles. Perhaps it didn’t have to be if this dogma had not been blown to bits by ecumenism. Ah! What could have been !! Pray for us Father Feeney …

    Liked by 1 person

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