November 18, 2014

An All-Male Priesthood, Part Two: Church and Sacraments

This is part two of a series. Before reading the second part, I recommend that you take a look at the first part, which deals with my intentions for doing a prolonged study of this topic, and some arguments against an all-male priesthood. I won't repeat that stuff here, so get it from the source.

The Catholic Church treats the priesthood fundamentally as a sacrament - specifically, the sacrament of Holy Orders, by which a particular man [in the gender-exclusive sense] is set apart or consecrated to the priestly life. This is analogous to marriage viewed sacramentally: a man and woman, through a vow, enter into a life which is itself sacramental. Just as the whole of married life can be properly called the sacrament of marriage, so the whole life and function of a priest can be described as the living-out of the sacrament of holy orders. Therefore, to understand the sacrament of holy orders, we must first understand at least some things about what sacraments are and how they work.

As is frequently the case, when I want to begin to understand what the Church thinks about a given thing, I turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church before diving off the deep end into the libraries worth of theological literature on any given subject. In this case, the CCC defines a sacrament as follows: "An efficacious sign of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us through the work of the Holy Spirit." [Glossary, reference paragraphs 1131 and 774] This is a dense definition; allow me to expound a bit. The first thing to notice is the Trinitarian structure of this definition: the merits of Jesus' sacrifice, by the work of the Holy Spirit, bring us into reconciliation with the Father. The whole Trinity takes part in the operation of sacraments, because, ultimately, the sacraments unite us to the life of the Trinity itself: grace is participation in the life of God, Who is Three in One. The means by which this communication of Divine Life is given to humanity are "efficacious signs of grace." A fuller statement of this would be "a physical sign which effects the grace it signifies." The sacraments use material things as signs of supernatural things. The waters of baptism use the symbolism of water's cleansing properties to effect the spiritual cleansing of the baptized person. The physical sign itself - the matter of the thing, the bread, the wine, etc. - becomes the material conduit, if you will, for the outpouring of God's love and life upon a properly disposed individual. Just as God entered the human world as a man, and physically suffered and died with a real body in a real place, just so God uses material signs in the age of the Church to communicate the merits of that same sacrificial offering on the Cross. As Christ won freedom from sins in a physical death, so He transmits that freedom through physical signs. The Church's approach to the life of grace is fundamentally incarnational, making use of, and even relying on, matter.

A second point to notice in the Catechism's definition is its insistence that each sacrament was "instituted by Christ." Not only do sacraments take materiality from Jesus' own materiality, but they also draw from His historicity. This accomplishes two things. First, it sanctions and authenticates each of the seven sacraments in Divine institution. We know that these are the seven sacraments, because these are the seven things which Christ Himself told the Church to do. This involves an explicit set of Scripture references, as well as testimony to the Church's continued, conscious repetition of the Lord's actions. This conscious repetition is already contained as early as Paul's letter to the Corinthians, "For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when He was betrayed..." [1 Cor. 11:23] This conscious effort to do as the Lord did shows up again and again through the Church's defense of the sacraments through the years. For example, when Aquinas defends the words of institution, he argues that "our Lord used this form in consecrating, as is evident from Matthew 26:26." [Summa Theologiae, IIIa Q 78 a 2] Second, this reliance on Jesus' institution of the sacraments establishes Christ's own mission, words, and actions as the authoritative body that determines their form. This is explicitly spelled out in the recent synod on the family, which states, "Our gaze is fixed on Christ to re-evaluate, with renewed freshness and enthusiasm, what revelation, transmitted in the Church’s faith, tells us about the beauty and dignity of the family." [4] Our gaze must be truly fixed upon Christ in determining how we celebrate the sacraments, for it is most truly Christ who, as High Priest [see Hebrews 5], is the principal presider over every part of the Church's liturgy. [See Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7] Thus, we baptize with water only, for the Lord was baptized with water. We use bread and wine for the Eucharist, because that is what Christ used.

This reference to the actions of the Lord also extends to the meaning attributed to the physical signs as well. As Aquinas explains, "Now all these and similar errors [concerning the matter of the Eucharist] are excluded by the fact that Christ instituted this sacrament under the species of bread and wine, as is evident from Matthew 26. Consequently, bread and wine are the proper matter of this sacrament. And the reasonableness of this is seen first, in the use of this sacrament, which is eating: for, as water is used in the sacrament of Baptism for the purpose of spiritual cleansing, since bodily cleansing is commonly done with water; so bread and wine, wherewith men are commonly fed, are employed in this sacrament for the use of spiritual eating." [ST, IIIa Q 74 a 1] Christ's words in the gospels ["Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies..." Jn 12:24], the Psalms [Wine to gladden the heart of man, ... and bread to strengthen man's heart." Ps 104:15], and many other places within the texts of Scripture refer to bread and wine as having particular signification. Grain falls to the ground and dies, and so brings forth new life. Wine and bread nourish and strengthen humanity in body and spirit. If a sacrament is to "effect the grace it signifies," the signification of the matter used must have some ontological basis - a basis in Christ, the divine source of being. Bread and wine in the Eucharist must have a particular and definite meaning in order for that meaning to effect the grace God has intended it to signify when it is used in the Church's liturgy. In other words, the matter taken up and used for the sacraments must conform to Christ's intended meaning, as evident in Scripture and the Church's tradition. We must recognize that bread is nourishing, and that wine gladdens human hearts. If we deny that material things can have specific, ontological significance, then we deny the efficacy of the sacraments as instituted by Christ. The skeptical nominalism of modern theories of meaning are useless to describe sacraments - significance and meaning cannot come from humanity, cannot be in name only, or else the matter of sacraments cannot ultimately mean anything, and thus cannot effect a grace which they do not truly signify. This principle is evident in the Church's practice - even though grape wine is not prevalent in some countries, it is still mandated for use everywhere because the fermented juice of grapes carries an ontological meaning intrinsic and necessary to the sacrament.

This concludes my discussion on sacraments in Catholic thought. This is a woefully inadequate discussion, and if I ever find time to do the full-length book that I want on the subject of an all-male priesthood, I'll expand on the topic of sacramentology quite a bit more. If you still have some questions about sacraments, and want to learn more, I recommend The Sacraments by Louis-Marie Chauvet, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy from Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, or questions 60-65 of the Tertia Pars of Aquinas' Summa Theologiae. Alternatively, you can ask questions and discuss this further in the comments below. I can try to answer with the limited knowledge that I have, and hopefully can get some help from others. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for part three!


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