In the last essay we noted that there are three kinds of Churches: creedal, sacramental, and Pentecostal. This morning we are going to study the sacramental concept, as illustrated by the Roman Catholic Church.
Roman Catholicism traditionally has taught that there is no salvation apart from the sacraments. For the Roman tradition, a sacrament is a spiritual grace bestowed by physical means. This grace is received from God, in Christ, through the Church.
Now Catholicism teaches that there are seven sacraments: Baptism, Penance, Eucharist, Confirmation, Anointing, Matrimony, and Holy Orders (that is, ordination). One must participate in five of the sacraments to be a part of the church. Of course no one is required to marry or take holy orders. On the other hand an individual can participate in a maximum of six sacraments, because the church does not permit anyone to both marry and take holy orders.
In Roman Catholic thought, three factors make a sacrament valid. First, there has to be correct matter. For example, for Baptism to be valid, water is the correct matter to be used. Second, there must be correct form. That is, the appropriate ritual must be used and the proper words said. Third, the participants, especially the person officiating, must have correct intention. That is the administrator, and the person receiving the sacrament where that person is capable of having an intention, must intend their actions to be sacramental. For example, when actors act out a baptism in a play or movie, it is not actually a baptism, because there is no correct intention.
Now regarding this matter of intention, the Roman Church early on decided that the intention of the person administering the sacrament is more important than that of the person receiving it. The reason already has been given. Sometimes sacraments are administered to persons who cannot have any intention in regard to the sacrament. Infants who are being baptized, and unconscious persons who are being administered the sacrament of Anointing, would be examples.
When these three conditions (correct matter, correct form, and correct intention) are fulfilled, the grace of God is conveyed in the act of the sacrament. That is to say, the very act of administering a sacrament, the physical act itself, conveys the grace of God. As I said at the beginning, Catholicism believes that a sacrament bestows spiritual grace by a physical means.
The Latin phrase that is used, even in English speaking circles, to express this idea is ex opere operato. In a woodenly literal sense it means something like “from the working of the work,” or “the operating of the operation.” Thus the power of the sacraments is in the sacraments themselves. They literally convey God’s grace to people. Obviously the grace comes from God. But it comes exclusively through the Church in the Roman view. And of course they mean the Roman Catholic Church.
The first Roman Catholic sacrament I want to discuss is Baptism. Baptism is absolutely essential for salvation according to Roman Catholicism. This is true, because Baptism is the means of receiving forgiveness from God for the culpability of original sin. Since this sacrament is essential for salvation, the Roman Church will accept baptism by a layperson, if necessary. That is, this sacrament does not have to be performed by a priest to be valid.
Like orthodox Protestantism, Roman Catholicism distinguishes between culpability that stems from original sin and culpability that stems from personal sinful acts. In the Roman Catholic view Baptism takes care of the former, but not the latter.
The second sacrament I want us to look at is the sacrament of Penance. Penance is a primary element in the process by which a Roman Catholic Christian repents of and receives forgiveness for the culpability of acquired depravity. The process involves several steps. First individuals must confess their sins to a priest.
In recent decades some Roman Catholic priests have sought to do away with the traditional confessional “box.” It has not been abolished by any means, but some priests have encouraged their parishioners to meet them in a “reconciliation room,” where penitents may discuss their shortcomings face to face with a priest, if they wish to. Thus more emphasis is being placed on counseling.
After hearing the confession the priest pronounces absolution on the penitent. That is, he pronounces the fact that the sin is forgiven. But the process is not over at that point. The Christian must yet do penance and partake of the Eucharist in order to complete the process. Now the assigned penance may involve various things, depending on the seriousness of the sin. The priest might require the penitent one to repeat a prayer so many times as an act of contrition.
Or the priest might require the penitent to do a good deed for the person wronged, or some other form of penance to give some substance to it.
Among Roman Catholics the sacrament of Penance is absolutely necessary prior to the individual’s partaking of the sacrament of Eucharist. And the participation in Eucharist completes the process of forgiveness for all the sins confessed to the priest.
And that leads us to the third sacrament I want us to discuss, the Eucharist. The term “Eucharist” comes from the Greek eucharistos, which means thankfulness. The more common Roman Catholic name for this sacrament is the Mass. Protestants more commonly call the sacrament of Eucharist the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion.
The unique feature of Roman Catholicism’s view of the Eucharist is the doctrine of transubstantiation. In the Roman Catholic liturgy of the Eucharist, there is a point in the ritual when the bread and wine are held up by the priest in an act of consecration. According to the doctrine of transubstantiation, during the consecration of the elements the bread and wine miraculously become the actual body and blood of Jesus.
Then the consecrated elements are symbolically sacrificed on the altar. Thus the death of Jesus is re-enacted. And the sins which were confessed and absolved through the sacrament of Penance are removed by this re-sacrifice of Jesus. The process of forgiveness is now complete.
The basic philosophical idea for the doctrine of transubstantiation comes from Aristotle via Thomas Aquinas. Two concepts are involved. First is the concept of substance, or essence. The substance or essence of something is that which makes it what it is. For example, the essence of God is divinity. The essence of humanity, on the other hand, is humanness. Likewise if we speak of the essence of bread and wine, the elements of the Eucharist, we would say breadness and wineness. Whatever makes something what it is defines its essence.
The second concept in the doctrine of transubstantiation is the concept of accidents. Accidents are the noticeable characteristics of something. That would include such things as color, shape, flavor, size, etc. The accidents of bread and wine involve color, texture, taste, and so on. Now in the Catholic Mass, the accidents of the bread and wine do not change. It is the substance of the elements that changes.
When the faithful eat and drink the bread and wine, the elements still look, feel, and taste like bread and wine. But they no longer are bread and wine. A miracle has happened. The transubstantiation has taken place. The breadness and wineness have become Christness. The elements are now the actual body and blood of Jesus in substance.
The fourth Roman Catholic sacrament is Confirmation. This sacrament is based upon Christ’s promise to send the Holy Spirit. It implies a nourishing, a leading, a guiding by the Spirit of God, which invests the Christian with power from on high. (Austin Milner, The Theology of Confirmation, pp. 100ff). The extent of the Spirit’s influence fluctuates in accordance with the receptivity of the individual being confirmed. Traditionally, the Bishops alone administered this sacrament, because they are (in the Catholic view) successors of the Apostles, who were (via the laying on of hands) themselves the agents of the giving of the Holy Spirit in the early church. This is no longer absolutely required. Bishops still sometimes fill this role, but it is no longer necessary to have a Bishop do it. Any fully ordained priest can administer Confirmation.
It must be stressed that in Roman Catholic thought this sacrament is not a rite of commitment. Rather it is the sacrament of the mystery of Pentecost. Some Protestant denominations have a rite of confirmation when children are about age 12 as a kind of rite of commitment. That is, those being confirmed are making their public profession of faith and are being brought into church membership. But in Roman Catholicism only persons who in conversion and Baptism have committed themselves to Christ, and who already are reborn into a new existence, are eligible for Confirmation. It is for the purpose of imparting the Holy Spirit in a personal Pentecost.
The fifth sacrament we shall discuss is the sacrament of Anointing. This sacrament consists of anointing by a priest with holy oil. Traditionally this sacrament was called Extreme Unction or Last Rites, because it was used almost exclusively for the dying. But its use has been broadened today to include anointing the sick. Practically speaking, Roman Catholics believe that they have a certain degree of culpability for sins that they have committed since the last time they participated in the Mass. Thus when death is near, the priest comes and administers the Last Rites to the dying Catholic in order to take care of that sinfulness. However, as indicated above, priests anoint the sick as an additional aspect of this sacrament.
Matrimony is the sixth Roman Catholic sacrament. To a faithful Catholic, there is no marriage apart from the church. Moreover, the bond of marriage cannot be dissolved. However, a marriage can be annulled, which is a statement by the Church that the marriage never in fact took place. What seems strange to many Protestants is the annulment of marriages that have been in place for years, and which have begotten children. They find it a bit difficult to see how the church suddenly can decide that a marriage like that never happened.
Well, you will recall that we said earlier that a sacrament must have the correct matter, form, and intention to be valid. When marriages are annulled by the Catholic Church, the reason given is that the marriage in question was an invalid sacrament. There may be exceptions of which I am unaware; but when an annulment takes place, it is because the church judges that the intention of one or both of the partners was not correct. Therefore the sacrament, and consequently the marriage, never took place. As far as the Roman Catholic Church is concerned, divorce is a civil matter, which is meaningless from a Christian point of view. Divorce is never permitted nor recognized. The only ways out of marriage are annulment and death. Obviously this official position on divorce and remarriage has caused some serious fairly pastoral problems for Catholicism, because like the rest of our society, divorce has become common among Catholics. But their official position remains unchanged.
The seventh and last sacrament in Catholicism is Holy Orders or ordination. According to Catholic doctrine, the priesthood has come down to the present in a direct line from Christ himself. This doctrine is called “Apostolic Succession.” In this view Christ passed his authority to the apostles, especially to Peter. The apostles then passed it on to the first bishops of the Church, who in turn passed it on to the present bishops.
This is why Catholicism traditionally has considered Protestant denominations to be outside the true Church. All Protestant clergy are outside the apostolic succession, because Martin Luther, who began Protestantism, was an excommunicated priest who was not even a bishop.
In this matter the Roman Church has become less strident. They now speak of Protestants as “separated brethren,” instead of saying we are unsaved. Nevertheless, official Roman Catholic doctrine still would speak of the Roman Church as the Church. Official Catholic doctrine hasn’t changed on this matter, any more than on the sacrament of marriage. Still it was a big step for the Roman Catholics to accept Protestants as “brethren,” however separated they may think us to be.