The Catholic Perspective III: the sacramental life

To judge by the lack of feedback, part II of this series was not well received.  I was supposed to be discussing a general thing–the Catholic geist–but now I’ve started marching through doctrines.  I can only say what I say to my students during dry or challenging course material–there will be a payoff!  Systemization of doctrine is itself a very Catholic undertaking.  So I will now complete my march through key Catholic doctrines, coming at last to the Church and her sacraments, subjects that, as any good Protestant will tell you, we Catholics are obsessed with.

How to earn salvation?  You can’t.  The idea of a just God rewarding or punishing each soul according to its individual merits is something one must overcome in order to understand any of the branches of Christianity.  How can it be that the righteousness of Jesus Christ and His own relationship to God the Father are transmitted to other human beings?  Catholics approach these questions with our distinctive attitude toward symbols and the public world; our answer comes from our distinctive doctrines on faith and the Church, grace and the sacraments.

Christ’s sacrifice, as we have argued, was a public symbolic act, meaning it is the sort of act that can be appropriated by other people via public symbolic signification.  This was discussed at some length in part II, but recall the key power of symbols to unite the actions of multiple people into a single meaningful act.  Christ’s sacrifice doesn’t inspire us to offer distinct, lesser sacrifices of our own.  Through the sacraments, we participate in His own sacrifice, a sacrifice that itself contains in symbol His whole identity as the Son of the Father.  We thus inject ourselves into the life of the Trinity, or, to put it more traditionally, the Trinity becomes present in our souls through grace.

From this understanding, the Catholic doctrines of the Eucharist follow.  The Protestants call it a “symbol”, and we agree–it is a symbol that God makes true.  It is a sacrifice, the very same sacrifice of Calvary sacramentally recalled for our appropriation.  Through this symbolic appropriation, the Blessed Sacrament is also a source of grace, the constitutive act of the Church, an establishment of communion with God and all His children in heaven and on Earth.

As with all symbolic signification, both a subjective (private) element and an objective (public) element are necessarily involved.  In the objective realm are the sacramental signs that, by their objective symbolic meanings, incorporate us into Christ’s death and resurrection.  To claim possession of these meanings requires the subjective element–the soul’s interior “Amen” of faith.

The meaning of the sacraments, that which is “spoken through” them, is given entirely by the acts themselves (which includes words spoken) read through the normative context of salvation history.  Thus, to understand what the Eucharist or Holy Orders means, one notes the words spoken and actions performed and asks “What meaning does this suggest, given the story of God’s covenant with Israel and revelation through Jesus?”  One does not ask what the participants of the sacrament are thinking; nor does one worry about their personal character.  The potency of the sacrament likewise comes from God alone, Who acting through the symbol makes it to be a true statement.  Hence the Catholic doctrine that the sacraments operate ex opere operato.

The suprapersonal nature of the sacraments allows a soul to “claim” Jesus’ words to His Father.  All those claiming Christ in this way thus make, not many statements to the Father, but a single one (appropriated many times).  They speak with a single voice, that of Christ Himself, and so constitute a corporate person.  This is the Church, called “the mystical body of Christ”.  Catholics believe that grace not only unites our souls with God, but also with each other.  Grace may “flow” from God to one person through another.  This sense of a supernatural connection between those in a state of grace, living or dead, is what inspires those distinctively Catholic practices of offering prayers for the souls in Purgatory and praying for the intercession of the saints.

Of course, salvation is through faith, a Biblical truth affirmed by both Protestants and Catholics.  Faith opens the soul to grace.  Its act of trust is an interior, private reality; each person must make his own act of trust.  However, the revelation we are to accept is a public thing.  I am saved not by accepting my private faith–some set of propositions on religious subjects, understood as I understand them–but by accepting the faith of the Church.  To accept the faith of the Church does not mean that one has looked at an exhaustive list of Catholic doctrines and decided that one agrees with every one of them.  Of course, knowingly dissenting from a Catholic doctrine does disqualify one from holding the Church’s faith, but to have gone through an exhaustive list is neither required nor possible.  This is because the faith of the Church really refers to the meaning of her sacramental worship–that which the Mass and the sacraments objectively “say”.  Lex orandi, lex credendi.  Because these are suprarational, their doctrinal content is inexhaustible.  It makes perfect sense even for a well-educated Catholic to say that he knows little about his own faith.  And yet he does believe it, even the part he doesn’t know.  Such is the nature of trust that one doesn’t require a full understanding of what one is believing to really believe it.  Faith is the interior “Amen” to the meaning of the sacraments, the conviction of the participant to mean what his acts objectively mean and to believe what they objectively proclaim, even though he grasps their meaning only imperfectly.

Faith is, thus, an open-ended commitment; no one really knows all of what he’s “signed up for” at his baptism.  For Catholics, this does relate to the authority of the Church, the competence of her teaching office to reliably draw out the doctrines implied by her inherited worship.  However, Protestantism’s acceptance of the Bible’s authority gives it a public character as well.  The Protestant accepts the Bible’s authority without imagining that he has completely plumbed its depths.  Like the Catholic, he may end up surprised by some of the things he’s committed to believing.  Even for “faith alone” Protestants, Christianity always ends up being an adventure of getting outside one’s own head.

And that’s a good thing.

4 Responses

  1. I’m enjoying this immensely. If it will keep you motivated, I’ll try to think of something to say.

  2. Hi josh. Thanks for the encouragement! Although I’m sufficiently stubborn that I’d finish this series even if *nobody’s* reading it, I always prefer it when some people do.

  3. I second Josh. I hope you continue with the series!

    Also, it seems to me that number of comments is not always the best metric for judging how well-received a post is.

  4. […] My series on Catholicism continues with a post on faith and the sacraments. […]

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