TO: Catholic theologians and educators
FROM: Mary E. Hunt
RE: Curriculum update
In light of various global changes, I note the need to update teaching about Catholic sacramental theology in two simple but important ways. I urge us to implement these changes ahead of official reworkings that may be some decades away. Catholic theology is done by a variety of laborers in the vineyards: some who are part of the institutional church and others in the larger Catholic community. These observations come from the latter with the hope that the former might also implement them.
First, official Catholic teachings on “The Sacrament of Matrimony” require a change in title (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part II, Section 2, Chapter 3, Article 7). Given that marriage is now increasingly available to all, I respectfully suggest that the term “heterosexual” be added for clarity. Thus, the Catholic “Sacrament of Heterosexual Matrimony” will properly represent a narrow, limited, parochial understanding, and not be confused with the wider expression of marriage as we now know it in many cultures, including in the United States.
This new way of talking about marriage in Catholic circles will acknowledge that marriage is a contract between committed persons who may or may not choose to celebrate their love in a religious setting. More importantly, it is a covenant that some Catholics are permitted to celebrate sacramentally and others are not. It is only fair that our teaching and preaching reflect this reality, whether we like it or not. For Catholic teachers to persist in using the word “matrimony” or “marriage,” when what is intended is heterosexual marriage is incorrect and easily fixed.
Second, the same principles apply to the question of the “Sacrament of Holy Orders” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part II, Section 2, Chapter 3, Article 6). As long as we are revising, let’s fix this error as well. Since ordination in the Roman Catholic Church is for men only, excluding all women, the new designation is properly “Sacrament of Men’s Holy Orders” or “Sacrament of Holy Orders for Men.” This nomenclature will clarify that the sacrament is available to half of the membership of the community, not to the whole community as are the Sacraments of Baptism, Penance and Reconciliation, and the rest.
Other Christian denominations, notably the Lutherans and Anglicans whose sacramental approaches are closely aligned with Catholic theology, can legitimately teach about Holy Orders in the generic sense because they include women in ordained leadership. But for Catholics, it is accurate and important to modify the name to be clear about for whom it is intended. That way, when children are taught about the sacraments, they will be given a realistic picture. For girls, there are six sacraments, whereas for boys there are seven; for heterosexual people, there is one more than for LGBTIQ people. While some may wonder why it is necessary to belabor the obvious, my view is that it simply is not obvious enough to many who continue to teach Catholic theology incorrectly.
Surely these are neuralgic issues. Discussion needs to happen but it is not my point here. Rather, I suggest that our role as theologians and educators is to be clear and consistent in our teaching. This change in vocabulary is a move in that direction: Catholic marriage is for heterosexuals and Catholic ordination is for men only. Using the terms generically as if they apply to people to whom they do not apply is simply erroneous. Of course there are ways to fix them so that they do apply to everyone. But failing that, it is only honest to clarify the terms so that people understand what is at stake. Only then can full, honest debate commence.