I’m back from a fun hiatus on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia in time for the Indianapolis 500 (which I have not missed on TV since 1970) and to resume our daily adventures over coffee. If by chance this is your first visit to the Café, presently our Saturday posts are addressing the history and essence of sacraments. Back on May 14 I discussed the philosophical contributions of the Greek philosopher Aristotle to St. Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth century doctor of the Church whose synthesis of sacramental reality remains in our tradition today, though modified.
I did neglect one point on the thirteenth century Catholic fathers (Aquinas, Bonaventure, Albert the Great, among others). They all understood that their theological writings were “constructs,” attempts to answer such questions as “how is a sacrament real if I don’t feel anything” or “why can baptism be administered only once?” In technical terms, these theological giants understood that their works were analogies, time conditioned efforts to describe God’s works. There was a healthy provisional nature in play, as Aquinas never claimed to know the exact mind of God. To make such a claim would be both impossible and probably blasphemous to men of Aquinas’ character. Only 31 of Aristotle’s 200 works have survived to this day; had Aquinas in his time come into possession of the Philosopher’s full library, his own theological thinking might have taken on a more descriptive character.
One would think that given the brilliant work of the university friars and thinkers of the thirteenth century, succeeding generations would have blossomed into a new age of both understanding and celebrating Catholic sacraments. But this did not happen, due to one of history’s most awful catastrophes, something that changed the trends of European life, thought, and religion: the sudden appearance of the bacillus Y Pestis, what we call today the Black Death. I reviewed an excellent treatment of the event, The Great Mortality by John Kelly (2005). My review was posted on December 24, 2005 on the Amazon’s book site.
The plague arrived from the East in the late 1340’s, the climax of a perfect storm of mounting pressures in Europe that included a century-long cooling of the climate, a decline in agricultural productivity resulting in a gradually impoverished diet and weakened immune systems throughout most of Europe, a mass exodus to large cities which led to overcrowding and vermin infestation, and expanded trade that facilitated the spread of disease in general. The death toll in Western Europe may have reached a zenith of 60% of the population, though scientists still debate the precise numbers. Suffice to say that the United States military today uses data from the Black Plague to project the effects of a nuclear war. Moreover, it was not simply death that horrified the population, but the grotesque symptoms and agonies of dying that stayed in the European consciousness.
The Church was certainly not exempt from the chaos. Composed of human beings of varying degrees of virtue and weakness, clergy and laity behaved in various ways. The rich—including bishops and affluent clergy—fled the cities for mountain villas and refuge. The devoted clergy remained behind to comfort the sick, administer sacraments to the dying, and bury the dead with appropriate rites. (In one of history’s ironies, six centuries later Catholic clergy in Philadelphia were asked to go door to door to collect the corpses and bury those who died from the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918.) Needless to say, most the dedicated clerics and religious would themselves fall victim to the plague. Sadly, in a search for scapegoats, some Christians set upon Jews in wholesale acts of violence and homicide.
When some semblance of order was reestablished in the late 1300’s the great universities had been decimated and the clerics who survived were of a quality far inferior to their courageous peers who died in the line of service. For our purposes here, of special interest is the significant disruption of the Catholic theological tradition. The professors and scholars who would pick up the pieces after the Plague possessed the writings of Thomas Aquinas and others, but they had little understanding of the earlier scholars’ self-understanding of their work. In short, what Aquinas had put forward as analogy the new generation accepted as straight fact, divine principle etched in stone. Sacramental theology—along with most other theological disciplines—thus tended toward ossification. Growth ceased and attention turned to detail, legal questions, and what many would call outright trivialities. You may have heard the scornful description of theologians who “sit around arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a needle.” This is a parody of the very late medieval state of scholarship, a vastly inferior product to the golden age of Thomas.
With study of sacramental theology ground to a halt, the emphasis turned to “doing the sacrament right,” which in turn led to greater legalism and, in truth, a rather uninspiring experience of the sacraments for the laity. Catholics understood that sacraments were necessary for salvation and they would baptize their children and receive Easter communion, but they approached sacraments as a duty. Joseph Martos put it well, that Catholics were dutiful to sacraments but loving of their devotions. And indeed, the late Middle Ages was a time of explosive mysticism, intense personal experience of religious feeling touched off by ecstatic if subjective visions. A greater number found solace in devotions such as litanies, song, Eucharistic adoration, the rosary, stations of the cross, works for the poor, etc. Martos observes that such extra-liturgical devotions had sacramental influence in many respects, as they were signs that signified the work of God.
In fact, as the Middle Ages came to an end in the late fifteenth century, Catholic Europe was hardly moribund where religion was concerned, but there was considerable concern among Church leaders over what one of my professors referred to as a “democratization” of religious experience. In the official understanding of Church order, the seven sacraments were the official pipeline, so to speak, of God’s saving grace. That laity were developing their own observances of divine interaction was symptomatic of problems with both the catechetics and especially the celebration of sacraments. The Church would eventually meet to address necessary reforms, but Martin Luther preempted this need by several decades. We will get a closer look at Luther’s and other Protestant reformers’ thoughts and sacramental practices next Saturday.
Off to the RacesRead Now
Playing hooky today from the Café desk. An early morning 5K for a local library.
Aristotle Rides To The RescueRead Now
In looking back on last Saturday’s sacramental post, I noticed that the two internet links in the post were never connected. I corrected this today and apologize for any confusion or inconvenience. My QA team works for peanuts.
The discomfiture in the Roman Church caused by the Eucharistic writings of Berengar of Tours around 1050 roused new theological energies toward a clearer understanding and articulation of sacrament. The natural starting point would have been St. Augustine, whose definition of a sacrament as an “outward sign of an invisible reality” had been the gold standard for about 600 years. The Berengar episode had proved that a greater degree of precision was necessary, but there were other nagging questions aside from Berengar’s, and some of these ironically could be traced back to Augustine’s own theology and pastoral practice. During the Donatist controversy, Augustine maintained that “traitors to the faith” during Roman persecution did not need to be rebaptized nor did the clergy need to be reordained, and that sacraments celebrated by turncoat clergy were valid.
Implied in Augustine’s thoughts and directives is the nature of some kind of immutability or changelessness in at least some sacraments. Once baptized, always baptized. Once a bishop, always a bishop. Augustine was most likely following St. Paul’s definition of baptism as a new creation of a human being that could never be reversed. The problem here, as medievalists would point out, is understanding the nature of this permanence. By Augustine’s standards, one should be able to see a visible manifestation of a permanent sacrament. But as Berengar had observed, the bread and the wine consecrated by a priest look exactly like bread and wine, and no more. And even more to the point, a corrupt clergyman actually looked more like an “anti-sign” of his permanent identity as an alter Christus or “other Christ.”
Thus, in the post-Berengar era, Christian medieval theologians set to work on a new and logically consistent manner of defining the nature of the sacraments, a two-century process that would culminate in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). At the risk of serious simplification, suffice to say that the key to the process was the accessibility of the works of Aristotle, whose place in Western thought is so pivotal that he came to be known as simply “The Philosopher.” Aquinas essentially adopted Aristotle’s anthropology and metaphysics, most importantly in matters pertaining to the human soul.
Aristotle’s anthropology is a brilliant description of the real, i.e., material life, and the metaphysical, the invisible world of universals. In Aristotle’s view, all material things could be broken down into form and substance. Something’s form was its classification in the immaterial world of ideas: thus, while humans differ in countless ways from each other, they are united by the fact that they are all humans, a reality that is unchangeable and immutable. Aristotle’s definition allowed for a natural explanation of how a human can participate in both the material world—which changes—and the perfect world of universals, which did not.
Aristotle, of course, was not a Christian, having lived four centuries before Christ. But it did not take Thomas Aquinas and others long to connect the dots to Christian belief and experience, which was both visible and invisible. The invisible, timeless element of a human, his participation in the world of universals, became his soul, and thus the Church could more easily talk about the interconnection of observable human life and internal realities that rested upon faith.
Aristotle’s writings were not available to the Christian West until Islamic scholars introduced sound translations not long before Aquinas’s lifetime. The use of The Philosopher in Christian theology was a cause of some nervousness in the Church until Aquinas was able to demonstrate how useful Aristotle’s definitions might be in understanding sacramental action and correcting previous errors. A good example is the sacrament of baptism. Both St. Paul and St. Augustine defined the sacrament as a “rebirth,” an event that could happen only once in a lifetime. Historically, this belief was challenged in the Donatist Controversy of Augustine’s day.
Aristotle provided Aquinas with a vocabulary to describe baptism. When one is washed in the baptismal font, the effects of God reach the inner essence or form of the baptized. Medieval theology used the term “sealing” (like an impression in soft wax) to describe God’s action. God’s seal is, one could say, God’s universal mark that alters the very form of a man. And since Aristotle held that universals are unchangeable, a human cannot undo what is in Aristotelian thought impossible to change. Joseph Martos observes that since, in Aquinas’s day, there were three sacraments held to be unrepeatable, the Aristotelian principle was applied to them as well. If one listens closely to the Confirmation rite, one hears the phrase “be sealed with the Holy Spirit.” As a student for the priesthood I was taught that the Sacrament of Orders effected an “ontological change” in me, or a change in my very being. My soul would be sealed as an alter Christus with the power to consecrate and absolve, for example, and this reality can never be changed. (In a dire emergency I can still absolve sin, for example, although I have been laicized.)
Aristotle’s metaphysics also inspired the medieval Church to understand all of its sacraments in a threefold way (as opposed to Augustine’s outward sign and inner reality.) Martos uses the Eucharist as a good example. The Church came to divide each sacrament into three parts: sign only, sign and reality, and reality only. With regard to the Eucharist, the (visible) sign only was the bread and wine and the words of institution, “this is my body….” The sign and reality was the consecrated bread and wine, both food and the Real Presence of Christ; the (invisible) reality only was God uniting life-giving grace and life to the human soul. Martos concedes that this three-fold understanding of sacraments serves some sacraments better than others.
It is important to note here that one of the three parts of every sacrament is its visible ritual. The Thomistic synthesis of sacramental life would be followed by what I might call the “age of the lawyers” in which the format and formulas of the visible rite came under significant scrutiny, leading to the later medieval problems of “ritualism.” But I think we’ve done enough heavy lifting for one day. To use Aristotle’s anthropology, I’m going now to “activate my potential” for about four miles.
In the Western Latin or Roman Church, the last great father/theologian before the Dark Ages was St. Augustine, who summarized Church teaching on a number of matters including the concept of sacraments. Augustine summarized the sacramental theology of the four centuries prior to his own as “a sign of a sacred thing” and “always efficacious even when they were not spiritually fruitful.” (Martos, 46) Interestingly, though, Augustine’s definition of sacramental practice was remarkably broad: praying the Lord’s Prayer, reciting the Nicene Creed, making the Sign of the Cross, and receiving the ashes of penance were considered as actions that effected the presence and saving power of God.
Augustine's native North Africa was severely disarranged by Vandal invasions in the fifth century, and then later by the ascendancy of Islam on the African continent. Western Europe was similarly disrupted for the balance of the first millennium. Christianity did not come to an end, to be sure. As a rule, the Church would eventually come to grips with the new demographic, in many cases quite spectacularly if one considers the Franks (think Pepin and Charlemagne) and the Irish. Church missionaries took with them the practices of the mother church, which held the basic principle that a powerful God effected good things in particular rites, practices, and customs. At times missionary work did boil down to whose god was more practically effective; arguments over religion were not settled in university colloquies, at least not in 600 A.D. It is also true that new cultures inevitably added new interpretations and customs to the ancient Christian lifestyle. Ireland’s adaptation of personal and repeatable forgiveness is a good case in point.
In his Doors to the Sacred (2014) Martos also notes that there was a kind of interplay between the theory of the sacrament and the practice of the sacrament. Sometimes the practice reshaped the theory, or vice versa. When Augustine laid out the nature of original sin as transmitted by conception from the line of Adam, the urgency of baptizing infants became part of the Christian life, and the local (parish) priest was entrusted with this time pressured responsibility. However, the laying on of hands to confer the Holy Spirit was believed to be the obligatory responsibility of a bishop, and given the dangerous travel and distances of the time, bishops might not see their villages for years at a time. Thus the anointing of the Spirit became a “stand alone” sacrament which in turn would develop its own raison d’etre. Any of us confirmed in the 1950’s to become “soldiers of Christ” can vouch for that.
As is often the case it takes a good controversy to jumpstart a powerful theological debate, and by the 1000’s the Church could worry less about the Vikings and turn to one of the landmark sacramental developmental moments, the teaching of Berengar of Tours (999-1088 A.D.) and the Church’s response. The Wikipedia article linked here gives evidence that very early medieval churchmen and thinkers had been wrestling with the nature of the Eucharistic sacrament for perhaps a century. In brief, Berengar wrote and taught that the bread and wine consecrated at Mass did not literally become the body and blood of Christ. He did not deny that a Christian received the real presence of Christ, but that this took place in a spiritual way. To Berengar, the realities of bread and wine remained just that, signs of the Body of Christ; the communicant would receive both the real bread and wine (the sign) and the invisible but real Mysterium of the sacrament, the invisible working of God, the feeding of the soul unto everlasting life.
Berengar was a much respected churchman and scholar. He was not a renegade, though he could be pugnacious. His problems arose from his resistance to what might be called exaggerated realism in matters of the Eucharist. In the ninth century a scholar had claimed that Christ’s Eucharistic body was the same as his glorified body in heaven. Churchmen of the day understood that this proposition was not quite right, but they struggled to explain why. Berengar drew from Augustine’s definition of a sacrament as a “visible sign of invisible grace,” to provide a possible solution. For him the visible sign was the collective bread and wine; the invisible reality was union with Christ. In his thinking it was not necessary to proclaim a miraculous change of material substance.
As far as we know, Berengar himself died in the good graces of the Church. Despite several Church trials and censures, history’s final judgment of Berengar may be that he erred in attempting to achieve a kind of sacramental consistency. Augustine’s dual description—outer sign, inner grace—would not quite be enough to describe the complexity of the sacramental system, and the process of how sign and reality interworked. The Eucharist presented unique challenges in the sense that of all the sacraments, only in the Eucharist do the signs becomes divine (the bread and wine become the Second Person of the Trinity.) No one ever claimed that baptismal water or sacred chrism became divine, so to speak, though the believer certainly experienced God if so disposed.
Berengar was among the first of the medieval scholars to introduce the complexities of the sacramental experience. While the sacramental model of outward sign and inward reality would maintain virtually to our present day, the precise elaboration of this process would be considerably challenging for each sacrament. One of the significant challenges of the age of the medieval universities was rethinking and reformulating a variety of aspects of sacramental life, not least of which was determining a universal understanding of what precisely which experiences were sacraments, an issue finally resolved at the Second Council of Lyons (1272-1274) with the number seven, as we know them today. (St. Thomas Aquinas died en route to this council.)
Berengar’s definition of the Eucharistic process, by the way, came to be known as “consubstantiation.” The official doctrinal Catholic term for the change of the bread and the wine was and remains “transubstantiation,” meaning that the bread and wine cease to exist in their substance as food and become the actual body and blood of Christ. Consubstantialists would hold that the bread and wine remains intact but that one communes with God all the same in the act of receiving communion. Many Protestant churches hold to some resemblance of consubstantiation in their theologies of communion.
The term “transubstantiation” calls for belief in an actual change of substance. Many historians hold that the Latin phrase from the Mass which changes the bread into the Eucharist, Hoc est enim corpus meum (or “this is my body”) became an object of ridicule among enemies of the Church, from which comes the magician’s phrase, “hocus pocus.”
To satisfy my own curiosity, I checked to see if there is research on what Catholics today believe regarding the Eucharist. I came across a CARA study in 2008 (entire study here) which addresses our issue with Berengar:
Nine in ten weekly Mass attendees (91 percent) say they believe that Jesus Christ is really present in the Eucharist, compared to two-thirds of those who attend Mass less than weekly but at least once a month (65 percent), and four in ten of those attending Mass a few times a year or less (40 percent). Among Catholics attending Mass at least once a month, the youngest generation of Catholics (born after 1981) has similar beliefs about the Eucharist as Pre-Vatican II Generation Catholics (born before 1943).
A postponementRead Now
Today's entry will be late. I hope to have it posted by noon on Sunday. The post will go up on both today's and tomorrow's (Sunday's) pages.