Why ‘it’s just pastoral, stupid’ might be really … stupid: Tracey Rowland on the seminal work of Cardinal Ouellet

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Cardinal Mark Ouellet (second from left) and other cardinals and bishops wave as Pope Francis leaves in his car after celebrating Mass at the Pontifical North American College in Rome on 2 May. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring.
Cardinal Mark Ouellet (second from left) and other cardinals and bishops wave as Pope Francis leaves in his car after celebrating Mass at the Pontifical North American College in Rome on 2 May. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring.

Along with that of St John Paul II and Cardinal Angelo Scola, the work of Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet is the most mature expression of the post-conciliar Catholic theology of marriage, writes Prof Tracey Rowland.

One of the sobering thoughts about our present times is that two of the top papabile candidates at the last conclave were scholars who had devoted their intellectual work to the development of the Church’s understanding of the sacrament of marriage: Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the former Primate of Canada who is now the Prefect for the Congregation of Bishops.

These two men were definitely not members of the “St Gallen mafia”, the name Cardinal Danneels recently used to describe his club of senior clerics who plotted to undermine the theological work of the JPII-BXVI papacies. They were and remain men close to the heart of St John Paul II’s theological vision of the Catholic family as an icon of the love of the Holy Trinity and as the foundation of a re-evangelised western civilisation, based on a union of Christian charity and Christian reason.

A synthesis of Cardinal Scola’s theological vision can be found in his book The Nuptial Mystery, published by Eerdmans in 2005. It was followed by Ouellet’s Divine Likeness: Toward a Trinitarian Anthropology of the Family, also published by Eerdmans, in 2006. Now, in 2015, Eerdmans has published a further work by Cardinal Ouellet entitled Mystery and Sacrament of Love: A Theology of Marriage and the Family for the New Evangelisation.

The three works complement each other. Along with St John Paul II’s Catechesis on Human Love, these three books offer the richest and most mature expression of the post-conciliar Catholic theology of marriage. The trilogy makes a great gift to newly minted priests as ordination presents.

The Nuptial Mystery focuses on the notion of nuptiality and its significance for the discipline of theology in general, not merely for the theology of marriage. Divine Likeness is focused on the relationship between the Holy Trinity and the human family and is, technically speaking, a work of theological anthropology. The latest book, Mystery and Sacrament of Love, amplifies and deepens themes in the earlier works with particular attention given to issues in sacramental theology, including the relationship between marriage and the Eucharist and the relationship between the priesthood and the sacraments of Eucharist and marriage.

At the risk of sounding polemical, one could say that it is the theological vision outlined in these three works, built as it was on St John Paul II’s Catechesis on Human Love, that Cardinals Kasper and Danneels and their colleagues in the St Gallen mafia want to suppress as all too lofty and difficult.

Cardinal Ouellet however hopes that the ideas presented in The Mystery and Sacrament of Love will offer a blue-print for a “pastoral conversion” rooted in a “theological conversion”. He believes that if members of the faithful actually understood the links between marriage and sanctification and the links between sanctification and eternal life, that such a theological education would lead to a “pastoral conversion” or dramatic change in the whole field of human relationships, but especially a dramatic change in spousal and familial relationships.

The work is divided into three parts: the first section is focused on marriage as the supreme manifestation of the love of the Holy Trinity; the second section addresses the relationship between sacramental marriage and the Church-as-Sacrament, and the third section deepens the analysis of the mystery of the Trinity and nuptiality.

Throughout the work Cardinal Ouellet emphasises the Christocentric shift of Vatican II, that is, the desire of the Conciliar fathers to place moral and sacramental theology on firm Christological foundations. He describes the pontificate of St John Paul II as “a constant, profoundly intelligent stimulus that raised the Church’s proposal regarding marriage and the family to a new level: that of a prophetic message for the salvation of the confused and nihilistic cultures of our time”.

Cardinal Ouellet hopes that “contemporary theology and the pastoral activity of the local churches will organically adopt the Christological re-centering of marriage and the family that John Paul II accomplished in the wake of the Council”. The task of theology today, he suggests, is to rethink the “goods” (St Augustine) and “ends” (St Thomas) of marriage from the Christocentric perspective of “gifts” (Mattheeuws) and “fruitfulness” (Balthasar), in order to integrate all the dimensions of marriage and conjugal life within love.

At its most rudimentary level, St John Paul II’s theology of marriage placed the relationship between a husband and wife into the context of their relationship with the Holy Trinity. This, in part, is what Cardinal Ouellet means by a “Christological re-centering”.

Speaking of the scriptural foundations of this re-centering, Cardinal Ouellet notes that “John Paul II structured his catechesis on marriage around the relationship between the sacrament of creation (Gen 1-3) and the sacrament of the redemption which St Paul places at the center of his great meditation on the mystery of man’s election in Christ (Ephesians 1 and 5)’ and he (John Paul II) identified the first three chapters of Genesis as ‘a kind of Magna Carta of God’s original plan for marriage”.

As a consequence, marriage cannot be properly understood outside the framework of creation and redemption:

“[Couples] do not merely support each other; they also sanctify each other by giving themselves to each other … [T]heir salvation is accomplished together, and each spouse is to a certain extent responsible for the other”.

Cardinal Ouellet also endorses the idea of an intrinsic relationship between the order of creation and the order of Christ’s grace, while recognising a distinction between them. As with the formula of Chalcedonian Christology there is a distinction without a separation:

The Christocentric approach to the doctrine of marriage highlights the priority of grace over nature, that is, the inscription of the created order within the Order of Christ’s grace from the beginning of the salvific plan. Christian marriage, in all its anthropological richness, is predestined to perform its sacramental function within the personalistic and transcendent covenant of Christ the Bridegroom, who gives himself nuptially to his Church. The couple consecrated to Christ is thus assumed through him, with him and in him into the sphere of the Trinitarian relations.

Cardinal Ouellet acknowledges that many young couples who approach a priest to be married have not the slightest clue about nuptiality, sacramental theology or Trinitarian anthropology. Many have been baptised but never properly catechised. They have little or no understanding of what they are doing. Rather than dumbing down the teaching, and living in hope that the couple might bump into it at some later time in life, perhaps when the union has broken down and the parties want to divorce and remarry, Cardinal Ouellet recommends that couples be “confronted with the exciting and demanding mystery of Christian marriage’ and have ‘an opportunity to choose, to commit themselves, or seek an alternative”. This, he suggests, might require something like the development of a pre-marriage catechumenate.

Unlike a number of Cardinals in the St Gallen circle, Cardinal Ouellet does not think it possible to allow Communion to the divorced and remarried without doing violence to the sacramental ontology. He does not read this issue as being something that is solely a matter of Church discipline and thus merely a question for canon law. He believes that it strikes at the heart of our understanding of nuptiality and sacramentality. It is not a simple matter of extending mercy to the morally imperfect but of challenging the very foundations of the nuptial mystery. This was the conclusion of St John Paul II and of Ratzinger/Benedict, and Ouellet concurs with their judgment.

Anyone who has ever had the privilege of meeting Cardinal Ouellet knows that he is a man of great personal warmth and pastoral sensitivity. He is one of those senior Churchmen who is remarkably Christlike when interacting with his “sheep”. He is not the type who sees himself as a CEO of a multinational corporation. His relationship to the Church is palpably spousal not bureaucratic-corporate. He also writes about divine things in a way that is deeply moving. The following paragraph is typical of his style and may serve as a summary snapshot of the treasures to be mined in his latest work:

“Christ’s priesthood, which makes him sacramentally present in the Eucharist, is precisely this dramatic exchange between heaven and earth that integrates human history within the circle of the Trinitarian relations. The High Priest who obeys and suffers, dies and is raised, ceaselessly intercedes at the right hand of the Father, to whom he presents his own sacrifice, so that the Holy Spirit may be communicated to redeemed humanity for the consummation of the eschatological wedding feast. Through the exercise of his eschatological and sacramental priesthood, God’s eternal life is continually descending to Earth, and the broken and tragic history of humanity is continually being fully taken up and received into the ‘womb’ of our trinitarian ‘native land’”.