“The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1131). To help unpack this dense paragraph and take us beyond what we learned as children during catechesis, Roger W. Nutt will take us through his pick of the five best books on the sacraments in general.
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First of all, could you tell us a bit about what has drawn you to focus your research on the sacraments? A couple of things have influenced my interest in Catholic theology.
I am a convert to the Catholic faith. I was raised in a very non-liturgical form of Reformed Protestantism: a branch of the Baptist denomination. I was not exposed as a child to the Pre-Reformation theological tradition of the Church. Quite frankly, the Christian community that I belonged to had some fairly strong anti-Catholic sentiments. It was only when I became an undergraduate and had some of the basic beliefs challenged at a secular university—some of the beliefs that I held—that I had to look a little more deeply than the Reformed theology that I was raised in to see if the faith could stand up to how it was presented at the school where I was an undergraduate.
I was deeply struck by the great figures of the Catholic theological tradition, particularly Saint Augustine, then Saint Thomas Aquinas. I fell in love with the Church’s teaching on the real presence. It was really a desire to be in full communion with the Church—to be able to receive Holy Communion—that was a major catalyst in my conversion.
Through that experience, I decided that I would pursue the study of Catholic theology at the graduate level and focus on Saint Thomas, especially on the Third Part of the Summa theologiae, where he treats both Christology and the sacraments.
So, I have never really been able to separate my academic study of theology from my own profession of faith because the Pre-Reformed theological tradition of the church had such a deep impact on my own personal life and my own faith-journey.
You have written a general study on the sacraments, Principles of Sacramental Theology. Could you tell us a bit about that book, which gives an overview of today's theme? That work was an attempt to fill a lacuna in the current literature on sacramental theology, which used to be a standard part of any substantive course or program of studies in theology. It covers the material that applies to all of the sacraments. Sometimes it was called the material or the general principles of the sacraments in common. But we often do not think about it today. What is a sacrament? What are its basic effects? How do they confer those effects? What must the minister intend? What is its requisite matter and form? Those are all questions that apply in some way to each of the seven sacraments.
When one was formed in Catholic theology, one usually studied the general principles prior to studying each of the seven sacraments. That is still the case in some institutions today.
But in the English language, for nearly five decades, no substantive new work on the general principles had been published. There was a standard work from an older generation, Principles of Sacramental Theology by the Jesuit Bernard Leeming. Mine was really an attempt to fill that gap in the literature because of the historical problem.
This problem impacts other branches of theology. We see it especially in biblical studies. It has impacted sacramental theology during the last couple of decades. The sacraments were studied as rites. So, you could study thirteenth-century Eucharistic prayers or the fourth-century architectural styles and churches, or eight-century baptismal fonts. Some of those historical studies are very fruitful. But what happened is that liturgical studies in some ways swallowed sacramental theology, especially the general principles of sacramental theology. So, students were introduced to the sacraments as rites of worship that could be studied historically. However, in the last few decades, studentswere not always getting those general principles that really transcend particular historical contexts and are very important for understanding the spiritual significance and importance that the sacraments have in the life of the Church. For example, the invisible effects of the sacraments, such as sacramental grace and sacramental character are very important to understanding the centrality that the Lord intended the sacraments to have in the life of the Church. However, those types of things are not really accessible through liturgical studies. What I am attempting to do in the book is to provide an accessible introduction for students of sacramental theology so that they can understand how these general principles are really the foundation for understanding the place and role that the sacraments are to have in the life of the Church.
You've mentioned how this is important for students of theology. I imagine that it is also of vital importance in catechesis. For example, in the recent diocesan synods that have taken place throughout the world, there are proposals coming from some local churches for the ordination of women as deacons. That touches upon a principle of sacramental theology: that the sacraments are not instituted by the Church, but by Christ. The Church can institute certain parts of the liturgical rites in which the sacrament is celebrated, such as the washing of the feet in the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Good Thursday. However, underlying these proposals there seems to be an assumption that the Church can extend the sacrament of holy orders—at least its first degree—to women. The Church’s understanding would be, “Well, that is not possible. The sacrament was instituted in this way by Christ, not by the Church. We don't have any power over that.” So, there seems to be something amiss in catechesis about the sacraments. Do you think that the Church is not doing something right in its catechesis on the sacraments? Yes, I do. Some of the works that I have selected touch on these things. But, to answer the broad arc of your question, sometimes in class— or when I when I speak about these topics at the more popular level—I will ask the following rhetorical question. “What happened to all the miracles?” If you read the Old Testament and the New Testament, it seems like God was constantly manifesting himself and convincing people of his reality through radical miraculous interventions. One of the basic points that has been lost in the life of the Church today is that the Lord instituted the seven sacraments to be the seven principal rites of worship in the life of the Church, and the certainty that we have in faith that the Lord operates through those seven rites, to transform our hearts and justify us by way of the gift of grace, is totally underappreciated. We have these visible signs that the Lord gave the Church to communicate invisible realities and to deepen the communion that we have with him, as he is alive and risen in heaven now. However, there has not been a dynamic catechesis on the fact that the Risen Lord continues to minister to us through these visible signs in the Church. In fact, they are the highest forms of prayer and the deepest forms of intimacy that we can have with the Lord.
"We would not have liturgical rites in the Church if the Lord had not instituted the seven sacraments. We do not and we should not get our knowledge about the sacraments from the liturgy, but the theological meaning of the sacraments should illumine for us what the rites mean."
The rites seem like historical constructions that can be manipulated and not as the principal gifts that the Lord gave to the Church to sustain her and to lead us into eternal life. This connects to the point that I made earlier. There is a problem with an overly historical approach to liturgical studies. We can forget that we would not have liturgical rites in the Church if the Lord had not instituted the seven sacraments. We do not and we should not get our knowledge about the sacraments from the liturgy, but the theological meaning of the sacraments should illumine for us what the rites mean.
The first book on your list is Fr. Reginal Lynch’s Cleansing of the Heart, which takes for its title a phrase of St. Augustine’s. This is a study on St. Thomas Aquinas’s account of sacramental causality. Why is this theme important and what does St. Thomas teach us about it? Fr. Lynch is one of the finest sacramental theologians in the Anglophone world, and I learned a great deal from studying his book carefully. St Thomas’s teaching on sacramental causality is important because it helps us understand that the Lord connected spiritual effects— [spiritual effects] that we need to be conformed and transformed into having union with God—to the operation of the sacraments. When we talk about sacramental causality it can seem to the modern ear that we are not talking in a very spiritual way. In the post-Newtonian world, causality is understood in terms of force. In a strictly a-metaphysical Newtonian understanding of the world, things impact each other by crashing into one other. In the deeper understanding of causality, that we receive from the ancient world, a cause is a many-layered explanation or account for why something is the way it is. We are all familiar with Aristotle's four causes. There are really four ways of understanding something: the material component, the efficient component, the formal component, the final component. So, when we speak of sacramental causality, we are not explaining how the Lord impacts us by way of physical force, but how he brings about the supernatural and spiritual effects of grace and character into the life of the soul.
The Church does have an official doctrine of sacramental causality. It is couched within the three Latin words ex opere operato, namely, that the sacraments cause or bring about their effects “from the work worked”. This precise doctrine of sacramental causality connects the celebration of the sacraments with the ministry that Christ continues to exercise in the Church from heaven. It explains to the faithful why the sacraments are so important for the Christian, spiritual, and moral life.
Father Lynch is a wonderful expositor of Saint Thomas and the commentatorial tradition on St. Thomas’s doctrine of instrumental causality in the third part of the Summa theologiae. St. Thomas introduces the question of the sacraments (q. 60) after treating [the hypostatic union and the life of Christ] for fifty-nine questions. For St. Thomas, it is very clear that the efficacy and power of the sacraments in the life of the Church is something that follows upon the significance of the union of God and man in Christ. Fr. Lynch does a wonderful job of unpacking the significance of the general doctrine of sacramental theology and then tracing the development of St Thomas’s teaching of this doctrine, especially in its most mature articulation in the Third Part of the Summa theologiae.
Here is one of the really important things that Fr. Lynch teaches. He derives it from the commentatorial tradition, especially from Cardinal Cajetan. When we talk about the sacraments as instrumental causes, it is perhaps best not to think of tools as instruments. Sometimes St. Thomas uses those analogies: the artisan taking up a tool and bringing about an effect in marble or wood. However, he relates it specifically to musical instruments. Cardinal Cajetan uses the example of a harp. The instrument is taken up by the musician, who produces musical notes through its own proper instrumentality, but primarily though his own motion of playing it. That is a wonderful analogy for understanding how the effects of grace and character are conferred upon the recipient of the sacraments by our Lord and by the minister who celebrates. It is not as if the sacraments on the one hand are just passive conduits through which grace passes. They do not confer supernatural effects through their own finite and created significations. They do so by being taken up by the Lord as his instruments. They bring about higher effects because they are moved by a higher motion. Fr. Lynch does a very fine job of treating these points with great nuance.
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