Reflections on a little-known text cited in Amoris Laetitia
  Fr Seth Phipps, FSSP


Alexander of Hales’ Theory of Matrimony: Reflections on a little-known text cited in Amoris Laetitia
Fr Seth Phipps, FSSP (Doctor in Classics, Oxf)
Dowry, (N°39, Autumn 2018), pp. 16-17

A great deal of ink has been spilled on Pope Francis’s Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. I do not intend here to weigh into the various controversies surrounding this document; but I would like to draw attention to one aspect that has not received much critical attention so far: a curious reference to the teaching on Matrimony of the thirteenth-century Franciscan, Alexander of Hales.

The reference comes in paragraph 159 of chapter 4. There, the Holy Father discusses virginity and celibacy. Quoting from the general audiences of Pope St John Paul II, he seeks to explain how the states of matrimony and celibacy or virginity are complementary. This is not altogether unproblematic – Catholic teaching unambiguously asserts that consecrated virginity is an objectively higher state than matrimony – but most surprising is how the author cites Alexander of Hales apparently in support of this theory: ‘Alexander of Hales, for example, stated that in one sense marriage may be considered superior to the other sacraments, inasmuch as it symbolizes the great reality of “Christ’s union with the Church, or the union of his divine and human natures”’.

Even without examining the text of Alexander of Hales, we are apt to be puzzled by this reference. It is not immediately clear how the fact marriage is in one sense superior to the other sacraments is relevant to the point in hand, the relation of virginity to matrimony. Consecrated virginity is not, after all, a sacrament.

But the difficulties only increase when we read the full context of the quotation: yes, matrimony is greater than the other sacraments considered from the point of view of its signification – to signify the reality of Christ’s union with the Church or the hypostatic union is greater than what other sacraments signify - but even so, Alexander believes that matrimony should still be placed as the least of the sacraments.

Moreover, elsewhere in the same work (his commentary on Book IV of the Sentences of Peter Lombard), Alexander clearly upholds the traditional teaching that virginity is objectively a higher state than matrimony: he adopts the familiar interpretation from St Augustine and St Jerome of the parable of the sower (Mt. 13:18-23), in which the hundredfold, sixtyfold, and thirtyfold fruit represent respectively virginity, widowhood, and marriage. Each state requires the same virtue (for Alexander, this is continence) but produces different merit. The Doctor Irrefragabilis seems a strange author to co-opt for the view Francis is espousing in this paragraph of Amoris Laetitia.

In fact, Alexander’s teaching in the referenced passage offers a fascinating glimpse into the contemporary disputes about matrimony’s place among the sacraments.

Before the Sentences of Peter Lombard (without a doubt, the most influential work in medieval theology), there was not unanimous agreement that matrimony was a sacrament at all: Abelard, for example, had denied this. For Lombard, however, matrimony was a sacrament (at once a ‘sacred sign’ and a ‘sign of sacred reality’), but unlike the other sacraments did not confer grace, merely a remedy for sin (concupiscence). The reason is that sacraments should produce the grace that they signify, but matrimony signifies the grace of the union between Christ and the Church, or the union of the divine and human natures in Christ: in no way could the sacrament actually produce this grace.

Alexander of Hales appears to accept this schema: matrimony comes last among the sacraments because it does not produce sanctifying grace (Glossa in IV Sent. 26.2a). However, this is not the whole of what he has to say on the matter. Elsewhere, he points out that the sacraments of the New Law, including matrimony, are all sacraments ‘most strictly so-called’: it is not enough for them to be merely a sign of grace (which applies even to the ‘sacraments’ of the Old Testament), but they must actually confer it (Glossa in IV Sent. 1).

Indeed, later on in the same work, Alexander claims that the sacrament of matrimony does sanctify the couple who worthily exchange consent, giving an increase in grace to those who remain in charity (Glossa in IV Sent. 26.7c).

While this may seem to be a contradiction to what he said earlier, that matrimony does not produce sanctifying grace, in fact we note that in the later passage, he does not expressly mention sanctifying grace. What he seems to be talking about, rather, is what later theologians refer to as the ‘sacramental graces’, that is special actual graces that are given by the sacrament, which differs from those received in other sacraments. As long as the couple persevere in the state of grace, that is, in charity, they can expect an increase in such sacramental grace.

And what are these special graces? For Alexander, it is the grace which helps overcome or lessen concupiscence. Before Christ, matrimony was already a remedy for concupiscence: marriage provided an ‘outlet’, so to speak, for what would otherwise be sinful desires. However, it was only when Christ elevated the institution of matrimony to a sacrament that it actually produced grace to overcome it, that is, to heal the wounds of sin rather than simply avoid sin. It is the union of the couple in charity, expressed through the mutual consent that makes the sacrament, that disposes them to receive this grace.

According to Alexander’s theory, therefore, the consent of wills is both a sign and a cause of grace. It is a sign, because it signifies the union of charity between Christ and the Church; and it is a cause of grace since it is what sanctifies the couple, disposing them for the grace to overcome concupiscence. This causal aspect of the sacrament is something far less than what it signifies, enabling Alexander to posit it as the least of the sacraments qua cause, but the greatest qua sign.

This is perhaps what the author of Amoris Laetitia is getting at. Consecrated virginity, according to Amoris Laetitia, is also a sign, which ‘speaks to us of the coming of the Kingdom and the need for complete devotion to the cause of the Gospel’ (159), and which ‘symbolises a love that has no need to possess the other’ (161). These signs, noble though they are, fall short of the loftiness of what matrimony signifies. It is not a tight line of reasoning – but it is, I suspect, what Amoris Laetitia wishes to communicate.

Be that as it may, what is perhaps more interesting is the role Alexander seems to have had in the development of sacramental theology. His work stands as a crucial bridge between those who denied the efficacy of the sacrament (i.e. that it caused grace at all) and the later, definitive teaching which we find already in St Thomas Aquinas and articulated thoroughly in the magisterium of the Church. According to this teaching, matrimony does indeed confer sanctifying grace, as well as graces that perfect the couple in their married state: the influx of grace heals the wounds of sin, which are obstacles to the perfection of this union) and grants the virtues necessary to live out a life of more complete charitable union, thus more perfectly representing the union of Christ and the Church.



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