15 The second part of the Catechism explains how God’s salvation, accomplished once for all through Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit, is made present in the sacred actions of the Church’s liturgy (Section One), especially in the seven sacraments (Section Two).
Paragraph 15 is relatively brief but it embodies two distinct meanings of the word “sacrament.” I got my ladder and climbed up to my old volume of The Encyclopedia of Theology: the Concise Sacramentum Mundi (1975) edited by the great Karl Rahner himself. The SM is a theological dictionary of major themes, and I thought there might be helpful information here within its 1800 pages. If nothing else, I get a lot of dusting done while retrieving old sources.
The opening section of this treatment of the term “sacrament” in SM begins with the observation that there is a generic sense of the word, which the Catechism captures in its use of the term “sacred actions.” As early as New Testament times, Biblical authors understood the essential principle that individual acts (Baptism and Eucharist in that time) shared in common a unique purpose as extensions of God’s salvation. The SM is quick to point out that at its root the word sacrament is somehow synonymous with the Church itself, that the Church exists as the saving vehicle of God’s expressed wish to “draw all men to myself.” The historical progression has been to identify the specific moments of how this happens, so that by the high middle ages the word sacrament became wedded to the (by then) seven events through which this happens.
Interestingly, the authoritative writers of the Church over history felt no reservation about asserting that the Old Testament had its own sacraments, valid in its time and place. Catholic sacraments are distinguished by the fact that modern day church sacraments were instituted by Christ, by direct command, imitation or inference. Mainstream Catholic theology has always argued that sacraments are visible or “outward” signs that effect an invisible result. In addition, the Church has maintained throughout history that sacraments do not depend upon the holiness of the minister, but upon the proper execution of the rite, a major point of disagreement between Catholics and classical Protestant thinking.
Para. 15 seems to indicate that the Catechism will attempt to put forward the nature of the sacramental life of the Church as a whole, and then address the individual seven events and their places in the salvific process. The SM, though, notes that any discussion of individual sacraments must be preceded by studies in a variety of other disciplines—history of the development of sacramental teaching, [Christian] anthropology, grace, Christology, eschatology and especially ecclesiology, or the nature of the Church itself. The reason for this is that too much practical focus upon individual sacraments glosses over the one overarching sacramental reality, that of the image and understanding of the Church itself as the primary sacrament or witness of God’s actions.
The Church’s self-image and self-understanding is a very long story in itself. Suffice to say that for much of the past 1500 years the Church has seen itself as the Kingdom of God on earth, and under this banner has exercised or attempted to exercise considerable authority in both the spiritual and temporal reign. Probably the most audacious example is the late medieval Pope Boniface VIII (d. 1303) who issued an astounding claim in his encyclical Unam Sanctam that “we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” Needless to say, this claim won him not only a place in Dante’s Inferno but more seriously in a king’s prison. The concept of a Church with temporal as well as spiritual powers probably did not really die until Pius XI effected a concordat with Mussolini in 1929; Vatican City is the last vestige of the medieval dream of ultimate spiritual and temporal power.
This still left the question of the identity of the spiritual role of the Church in the world. By the twentieth century if not earlier even Catholic theologians were growing more consciously uncomfortable about a total identity of the Church as the Kingdom of God as the term was used by St. Mark and others in the New Testament. Obviously, the claim of identity was offensive not just to Protestants but to Orthodox believers who share legitimate sacramental life despite final obedience to the Patriarch of Constantinople. But if the Church was identifying itself as the sacrament of God’s life, there would need be greater onus for reform and humility. This is one of the theological reasons for the convocation of Vatican II. (This is not quite the same theological question as whether one can be saved outside the Church, which we will address later in the series.)
So, in studying sacraments, one begins with the Church itself as the living primary sacrament: its holiness, fidelity to Sacred Scripture, its continuation of the work and intent of Christ. A basic principle of difference between Catholic and classical Protestant thinking is that the Roman Catholic Church continues to hold that the true Church is visible. Other strains of Christian thought hold for a purer, invisible Church, but over the years my personal belief is stronger in the Roman Catholic concept, although it places the Church under greater pressure to perform well. Christ himself, after all, as a living being was sacramental: the symbols and actions of his life were and are effective and saving. It makes sense to me that his Church, whatever its form, would be real, sacramental, and effective.
Of course I would be the first to admit that very often the Catholic Church does not look or act as the Body of Christ. In 1959 John XXIII recognized this, too, which is one of his primary reasons for invoking a reform Council. I might add here another maxim of the science of ecclesiology: every local Catholic Church, diocese or parish, contains what it necessary for full salvation. Thus, each diocese, and more to the point, each parish is in its particular way a sacrament of Christ unto itself. I happened to catch an article the other day written by a woman who had moved to Philadelphia from Louisville. (If you care to read this article, don’t miss Garrison Keillor’s wonderfully humorous but very accurate discussion of the sacramentality of Episcopal parishes, in the blog section.) While I disagreed with some of her points about parishes—too utopian for me—there is the ongoing truth that when the rubber meets the road, the principle of sacramentality is best experienced (or least) by the signs of Christ present in a person’s parish—from the Consecration to the coffee and donuts.