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.