Why Our Sacraments Often Don’t Connect With Real Life
A guest presentation by Dr. Joseph Martos
(Published in National Catholic Reporter vol. 52, no. 9, 2016)
We are told that in baptism we receive new life in Christ, yet baptized babies don’t seem to be any different from unbaptized ones.
We are told that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life, yet we often don’t get much out of the mass, and it is rarely a peak moment in our week.
Why is this?
For years I have been sifting through twenty centuries of church history and Catholic theology, and I have made some important discoveries.
The first is that in the first two centuries of Christianity, theology was based in experience. Words that were later taken to refer to things that are outside the realm of experience were originally attempts to talk about things that the followers of Jesus were experiencing.
For example, when Paul wrote about justification by faith, he was not talking about getting right with God by believing in Christ, but about getting your life straightened out by trusting that what Jesus taught is true. When the Book of Acts talks about being saved through baptism, it does not mean washing away sin by going through a ritual, but it means being rescued from selfishness by being immersed in a caring community. When you read an English translation that mentions the Holy Spirit, the original Greek is talking about a spirit of godliness or goodness that leads people to care about and take care of others.
Scholars who study other early documents like “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” (often called the Didache for short, from the Greek word for teaching) are finding that these writings were also attempts to spell out in words what the followers of Jesus were experiencing in their lives. But in the third century, things began to change.
You could say that, over time, the experience behind the early writings got forgotten, but the words remained. The writings were recognized as precious, and they got called sacred scriptures. Even the Didache appeared in some early lists of sacred scriptures.
Christian intellectuals in the third century, sometimes called apologists, tried to explain their faith to people in the wider pagan world who suspected that the followers of Jesus were members of a dangerous cult. In response, one apologist name Justin compared the Christian community meal to a temple sacrifice, where pagans shared food in the presence of their god, to show that Christians were religious even though they did not worship in temples. But other apologists began to talk about their faith as a set of beliefs rather than as a way of living. The words were becoming disconnected from the experiences that gave rise to them.
In the fourth century, Constantine wanted to unify the sprawling Roman Empire with a single religion, so he legalized and promoted Christianity. When Christians began to travel freely throughout the empire, they discovered that people in different regions had different theologies. Some believed that Jesus was a prophet, others that he was God, others that he was both human and divine. Instead of uniting Constantine’s empire, Christians started arguing with one another and dividing it even further.
To address the problem, Constantine ordered all the bishops to his villa in Nicaea, and he forced them to stay there until they produced a document they could all agree on. They came up with the Nicene Creed, a statement of belief that said nothing about the Jesus way of living but only about divine beings and the earthly church. The first removal of theology from the experience of Christian living was complete.
The Middle Ages
The attempt of the emperors to preserve the empire failed, and in the fifth century the western or European half of it fell to barbarian invaders from the north. The so-called Dark Ages lasted until the tenth century. Theological thinking came to a halt while people struggled to survive.
Church life, on the contrary, evolved and flourished. The elaborate eucharistic liturgy got pared down to a mass that could be said by missionaries who carried the faith to the tribes that were settling on the continent, and it was called a sacrifice even though no one remembered why. Baptism became a short rite that was performed on babies in a church or adult converts in a river. Confirmation could be given by a bishop on horseback to children who were held up for him to touch. Private confession was introduced by monks for people who needed assurance of God’s forgiveness. Weddings became church ceremonies because there needed to be a public record of marriages. Ordination became a series of rites for apprentices who were learning how to be clerics as they ascended through a series of holy orders. Anointing of the sick began as a ministry to people who were ill, but in the absence of modern medicine it became a last anointing called extreme unction.
By the eleventh century, the chaos had subsided. The weather got warmer, farming flourished, commerce expanded, towns grew into cities, cathedrals were built, and schools were founded. Monks turned their attention from copying ancient manuscripts to studying them. Philosophy and theology were reborn.
Among other things, the schoolmen of the high Middle Ages turned their attention to religious rituals, and especially to those called sacraments. How did bread and wine turn into the body and blood of Christ? Why could baptism and confirmation be received only once? How did the sacraments of penance and extreme unction work? What were the different powers of priests and bishops? Why was the bond of marriage indissoluble? Like Christian writers in the first and second centuries, the schoolmen reflected on their experience to describe and explain the life in medieval Christendom.
The schoolmen did not realize, however, that much of their theological language was already somewhat removed from life, and so they thought that salvation meant going to heaven, that the gifts of the Holy Spirit were not experienced, that sins were remitted even if they were committed again, that the bond of marriage was invisible, that priestly powers were unrelated to priestly ministry, and that extreme unction could be received by someone who was unconscious. They saw nothing amiss in a mass that was performed by a priest using words that the people could not hear, much less understand, and who paid attention only when a bell was rung.
The Modern Centuries
In many ways, sacramental ministry devolved into sacramental magic in the late Middle Ages, but the church’s leadership rejected repeated calls for reform until the sixteenth century, by which time half of Europe had turned Protestant. The Council of Trent reformed the sacramental system, eliminating the most superstitious practices, insisting that bishops be true shepherds of their flocks and that priests be trained in seminaries. From the sixteenth to the mid-twentieth century, Catholic sacramental practice and Catholic sacramental theology mirrored one another.
The baptismal and priestly characters explained why Catholics never left the church and why priests never left the ministry. The Eucharist was surrounded by great ceremony, elevated at mass and ensconced in a monstrance for exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, and received only rarely, usually after a sincere confession of sins to a priest. The indissoluble bond of marriage explained why Catholics never divorced. Confirmation and extreme unction did not have very visible effects, but Catholics trusted that the former was good to receive in adolescence and the latter was good to receive before dying. The Catholic Church remained medieval in form and thought well into the twentieth century.
Vatican II and After
At the Second Vatican Council, the world’s Catholic bishops called for an updating – aggiornamento in Italian – of the Church’s sacramental practices. Historians and liturgists reached back past the Middle Ages to retrieve earlier forms of the mass and other rites that had gotten lost during the Dark Ages – things like praying in the language of the people, receiving communion in the forms of both bread and wine, rethinking the relation between sin and confession, and returning anointing to the context of ministry to the sick.
Unexpectedly, the unity of practice and theology began to dissolve. People stopped going to confession regularly. Priests began leaving the priesthood and the number of seminarians dwindled. Married Catholics started divorcing in greater numbers and even remarrying without waiting for an annulment. The primary effect of confirmation seemed to be dropping out of church. Even baptism was no guarantee that people would remain Catholics or even Christians, as those who left the Church sometimes became agnostics or atheists, Jews or Muslims.
Alarmed by this apparent defection from the faith, popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI attempted to restore what was lost, insisting on strict adherence to ecclesiastical rules, affirming traditional doctrines, stifling dissent, and denying any further developments in sacramental practice such as allowing deacons to anoint the sick or allowing priests to marry. But the traditional doctrines no longer match Catholics’ contemporary experience of church membership, marriage and ministry, not to mention their sense of sin and their experience of illness. Even Catholic worship feels different from the way it did in the days of the Latin mass and Gregorian chant, and the previously strong sense of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is hard to recapture. As happened in the third century, there is a growing gap between theology and experience, only this time the theology is twice removed from life. Official teachings about the mass and sacraments are not only disconnected from people’s everyday lives, but they are also often disconnected from people’s experience of worship. As noted earlier, for many people the liturgy is not the main source of their spiritual nourishment nor the high point of their week.
Around the time of the Council, Catholic thinkers like Edward Schillebeeckx in France, Karl Rahner in Germany, Bernard Cooke in the United States and Louis-Marie Chauvet in France tried to reinterpret the sacraments in more contemporary ways. Fifty years later, however, their work is not given much attention because it suffered from a fatal flaw. Instead of reflecting on the experience of ritual worship, as was done in the early centuries and in the Middle Ages, they reflected on the church’s sacramental doctrines and tried to translate them into thought categories derived from existentialism and phenomenology, the psychology and sociology of religion, and even postmodern philosophy. By being tied to medieval doctrines, however, these theologians found themselves having to explain why baptism is permanent, how confirmation gives spiritual strength, why confession is needed, how anointing benefits the sick, why marriage is indissoluble, and why the priesthood is forever. But these ideas no longer correspond to the world inhabited by most Catholics, so contemporary theologies are just as removed from real life as the scholastic theology they had hoped to replace.
Is there a way out of the current confusion? There is, but it is neither a dogmatic reassertion of the past nor a freefall into cultural relativism. We need to rediscover what is essential to the Christian way of life, reinvent ways to ritualize that, and reformulate what those rituals mean in terms that are faithful both to the teachings of Jesus and to the experience of living in accordance with them.