The Sacrament That Restores Nations
Scott Hahn argues that a Pelagian lie about marriage has bankrupted our society, but a recovery of sacramental marriage can transform our nation.
One of the theological highlights of the recent “Restoring a Nation” at Franciscan University was the following address by Professor Scott Hahn which we are very pleased to publish in full here at Postliberal Order.
There could hardly be a less controversial statement in the setting of our conference than this: The family is the cornerstone of a flourishing society. What we mean by “family” matters, of course. A society takes its form from the families that make it up, like a fundamental element takes its properties from its distinctive atoms. Our solidarity-starved civilization, for instance, takes its form from families that have been too often fractured beyond recognition.
A healthy and enduring society, on the other hand, takes its form from a particular kind of family culture—one where men and women make and keep lifelong covenants which create not just thriving nuclear households, but complex networks of extended families across place and time. If the microscopic structure of our current society is mostly isolated atoms scarcely bonded to others, the structure of a Christian culture – a sacramental society – is a matrix of atoms—a family of families—whose intricate interdependency gives society strength and resilience.
Thus there is no relationship on which society depends more than the bond between husband and wife. This is the first bond, primordial covenant—the first society—without which all others disintegrate.
Christian advocacy for a family-centered society has almost without exception focused on marriage as a natural institution. There have been good reasons of principle and of strategy for doing so. Marriage is a natural institution, and recognizing it as such is a necessary part of restoring the public understanding of the bond: As Pius XI affirmed in his encyclical letter on marriage, Casti connubii, the essential duties of marriage aren’t just applicable to “religious” marriages, but to all properly-executed marital covenants.
In an era of secular states and secular politics, focusing on natural marriage has also made sense practically. Arguing that the truth about marriage is accessible and practicable by “public reasons,” to use the Rawlsian term, was essential to campaigns for state recognition of the truth about natural marriage. We’re all acclimated to the idea that only secular arguments are permissible in the public square, and so those are the arguments most Christian advocates make.
As a result, we’ve argued ourselves into assuming that strictly natural marriages—that is, marriages contracted without the benefit of the Sacrament of Matrimony—are sufficient to give society an enduring strength and structure. But this is a semi-Pelagian illusion – another lie of liberalism – which only serves to obscure the essential role of divine grace and sacramentality in human life and the social order—one that also leads to the foreclosure of family solidarity to the bankrupt institution of secularism. Indeed, it shuts down the kind of fundamental critique of postmodern western civilization that this very moment calls for. In sum, we don’t just need to return to a culture of natural marriage; we need a culture of sacramental marriage.
Perhaps the main question dividing Christian political thinkers at this time of crisis, though rarely articulated just so, is this: How deep must our critique of the present order go? Did a contagion infect an otherwise wholesome liberalism, turning it into a cruel caricature of itself? If so, when? The 1960s? The 1920s? Earlier? And if not, must we say that liberalism was doomed from the beginning? Or just American-style liberalism? Maybe it was Locke’s fault? Luther’s? Ockham’s?
It quickly becomes a very frustrating parlor game. The pile-up of competing meta-narratives, though, has been fruitful in at least one respect: Our digging through the history of Christian thinking about liberalism has churned up to the surface the fundamental insight that no political and social order—liberalism included—can be sustainable unless it is based not just in Christian morality, but in the practical virtue of the people. It’s one of those statements that feels so obvious when it’s laid out. But it is easily forgotten by a people living in times of peace and prosperity, when the institutions and norms of the political order seem to be humming along just fine on their own.
Then, one day, they aren’t humming any longer, and we wonder: What went wrong? And we realize the deficit of virtue, but too often we stop short in our analysis. The kinds of virtues that sustain societies—generosity and justice and prudence and so on—do not emerge and propagate in a vacuum. They are first and most importantly products of grace, the result of a transformational movement of the Holy Spirit in our souls. To say that societies need virtue is to say that societies need grace. Just as virtues propagate through society, so is grace communicable, so that as Christ is Himself to us we can be Christ to others; as He sanctifies us, He can sanctify others through us.
Systematic treatments of the role of grace in the political order are uncommon in contemporary Christian discourse. At least in part this seems to be because the topic of grace necessarily implicates doctrinal divisions among various communions, and so we end up treating grace as more or less arbitrary, unaccountable splashes of divine favor—something we know is important, but that we can’t actually account for in our political thinking.
In the Catholic understanding, however, this is insufficient. It is true of course that we can’t audit God’s grace as if it were laid out on a balance sheet; His gratuity is not governed by any set of rules we could possibly devise. But that doesn’t mean we know nothing about how grace comes into the world. If that were the case, the sacraments would just be hopeful rituals rather than genuine irruptions of heaven on earth.
Our political thinking can’t ignore the sacraments because they are supernatural or sectarian; the important thing is that they are true. To pretend that they don’t exist or that they don’t have consequences for our shared lives would be to deny reality. This sacramental grace provides an essential support to the life of virtue; while God very well might be pleased to render this support to those who do not receive the sacraments, we know His grace is poured out on those who do. Society, therefore, doesn’t just need virtue, and it doesn’t just need grace in some abstracted way: It needs the sacraments. The sacraments, then, are necessarily political actions. They provide the essential divine support for the virtues on which society depends. They make heavenly realities live possibilities right now.
That prolepsis—that here-and-now manifestation of a hoped-for future—takes place every time a sacrament is performed. Every baptism; every absolution; every confirmation: These are moments when the veil is pulled back and the fullness of reality—the natural and the supernatural, the earthly and the heavenly—is revealed and experienced by mankind. These are the moments when the hoped-for future is shown to be already all around us in the form of the Church.
Thus, we can say that man is not just a social animal, but an ecclesial animal: We are made for and naturally have relationships not just with other human beings, but with Christ and His Church. There’s no way around it. The question is whether we as individuals and as societies will recognize and grow that relationship, or ignore it and let it atrophy. The question is whether we will embrace the sacramental nature of society, or surrender it to secularism and liberalism.
This sacramental society isn’t so much a far-off ideal that we should seek to create as it is a reality with which we should cooperate. The mystery of Christ and His Body—not the dialectic, not materialism, not progress, not the market—is the fundamental principle of history, the fixed point around which we organize our lives and communities. But we must then ask ourselves: Does our political and social order make it possible to cooperate with this reality? Or does it actively deny the role of grace and the Church, thus creating the conditions for its own demise?
The very best we can say for liberalism is that it generally will not interfere with the autonomous individual’s pursuit of perfection through grace. This is not nothing, certainly when compared to totalitarian regimes of the past and present. But it’s also, in a real and important sense, a denial of reality.
Growth in virtue and sanctity through sacramental grace in not just a subjective lifestyle choice, like mastering fly-fishing or becoming a vegetarian. It is, objectively, the calling of every human person from his Creator. The idea that the civil authority should be “neutral” between authentic sacraments and their parodies—between the life of grace and the life of vain self-reliance—is incoherent, amoral, and ultimately self-defeating. In the name of freedom we create slaves to desire, for there is no standing still in the race to God: We are either advancing with His grace or retreating without it.
Liberalism also cannot recognize in any meaningful way that grace functions corporately as well as individually. By healing, elevating, and perfecting our human nature, grace brings both individual souls and the communities we share closer to the heavenly perfection we all long for, and which is present right now among the angels and saints.
Most importantly for our purposes, matrimonial grace makes the extraordinary responsibilities of natural marriage possible. It’s not that every marriage that does not benefit from the sacrament will collapse or be riven by unfaithfulness. Rather, it’s that grace—and only grace—can preserve us from the day-to-day corrosion of the basic vices of close relationships: lust, pride, selfishness, envy, fear. Only grace can keep a family’s momentum moving toward Him; without that grace, no matter how peaceful and prosperous a marriage might appear, there can only be regression in holiness.
And as marriage goes, so goes society. Who could deny the evidence? It’s not just the data on family formation and fracturing; it’s the data on civil society and solidarity. It’s stagnant wages and expanding inequality and collapsing labor force participation and growing ranks of managers and executives who feel no responsibility whatsoever for the well-being of those beneath them in the corporate depth chart. It’s identity politics and hate crimes and safe spaces and an increasingly infantilized academia. In sum, it’s the breakdown of solidarity, of the notion that we have duties we don’t choose, of any sense that our good, in the natural and supernatural realm, might be connected to that of those around us.
It’s certainly true – but rather trivial – to say that all of this is the result of a collapse of virtue—like saying your team lost because it scored fewer points than its opponents. What truly matters are the prerequisites, the conditions of possibility. A social order that cannot account for grace—specifically, that cannot account for the fact that the Church of Christ is the medium through which divine grace enters the world—has signed its own death warrant.
This idea of a sacramental society invariably tempers our expectations for what is possible under liberalism. If the incorporation of the truth of sacramental grace is essential to the sustainability of a social and political order, than that means giving pride of place to the Church in a way that is simply impossible under the rubrics of liberalism. But that doesn’t mean quietism or, worse, despair: It means we should be thinking about what a sacramental society in the twenty-first century, and beyond, might look like.
And so there is a hopefulness in this vision that goes beyond the horizons of liberalism: It offers a genuine and exciting expansion of our understanding of what is possible for human societies. This isn’t “immanentizing the eschaton,” as the cliché response to any non-liberal political program goes, but recognizing what we already have in the infrastructure of grace that is the Church. It is a vision of hope for what human communities can be, with the help of grace, at a moment of despair over the possibility of living together in peace.
We can’t create heaven on earth by ourselves. We already have it, though, at every Mass, at every baptism, at every sacramental wedding. The question is not just what can we reasonably expect to accomplish without divine grace, but rather: What are we going to do with it?
While the Church can never coerce someone into receiving the grace of God that comes through the sacraments, nonetheless, treating the sacraments as nothing more than peculiar sectarian beliefs, or ritual ornaments, or take-them-or-leave-them spiritual accessories – is definitely not a necessary and expedient compromise, much less a strategic accommodation to pluralism, but rather a denial of reality, both human and divine.
Grace is for everyone, and everyone needs it. The Church is for everyone, and everyone needs her. Christ is for everyone, and everyone needs Him. We owe Him our worship, and in turn we accept and cooperate with the divine assistance that we need to bring peace into our marriages and families, and to sustain justice on earth. Without the former, the latter is impossible.
The grace of the sacrament of matrimony is real, powerful, and beautiful. Indeed, it is what makes marital fidelity possible, and family solidarity sustainable – not easy, to be sure, much less automatic – but transformative and sanctifying—personally, interpersonally, and politically.