Thursday, January 16, 2014

Those Magical Sacraments

Going back to our initial Catholic theological formation, we recall the distinction between the grace attained through the sacraments ex opere operato and the grace available ex opere operantis. The former refers to the reality of the sacraments as means of grace objectively (i.e., not dependent upon the faith or consent of the person receiving them); the latter, ex opere operantis, refers to the grace received through the sacrament that is relative to the disposition of the receiver. This distinction explains why, for example, even though in each Holy Communion enough grace is objectively present to sanctify the entire universe, the actual amount of grace received by each individual will vary based on their disposition, preparedness, etc. For the saints, a single Holy Communion is immeasurably profitable; for the hardened sinner, a hundred Holy Communions per year may not profit him at all if his heart remains obstinate.

The ex opere operato aspect distinguishes the Catholic view from the teachings of the Protestants, while the ex opere operantis distinction means that the sacraments do not work in a "magical" or automatic fashion. There is thus a perfect balance, a meeting of grace and will. 

Unfortunately, in the modern Catholic Church, this harmonious balance of Tradition is thrown off. While Catholic apologists continue to (rightfully) teach that the sacraments are not "magical" means of grace as the Protestants often accuse, it is a fact that the modern Church has discarded the teaching of the ex opere operantis character of sacramental grace, that is, the grace that is relative to the disposition of the receiver. In the modern Church, the sacraments are magical.

How has the post-Conciliar Church abandoned ex opere operantis and promoted a "magical" approach to the sacraments? Let us examine what it means to be properly disposed to receive a sacrament.

Proper disposition means approaching the sacrament with pious sentiment. Our intention should be motivated by love of God, we should have a keen understanding of what we are about to receive, should have prepared for reception by prayer, and should proceed with an attitude of humility and thanksgiving. Of course, if Holy Communion, one needs to be in a state of grace and have observed the Eucharistic fast.

So how do we cultivate these dispositions? This is the pietistical reason behind sacred art, sacred music, and sacred architecture. By hearing Gregorian Chant, one's own prayer is lifted and mingles with the prayer of the angels, who always sing before the throne of God. In looking at sacred art, the mind is called to the mysteries of the faith, which the Church celebrates. Sacred architecture calls to mind the Incarnation, that God has entered time and space and that what is being celebrated in the liturgy is utterly unique. All of these things come together to cultivate a pious disposition in the hearts of the faithful that aid them in preparing their heart for the sacraments.


If we strip out all our sacred art or replace it with ugly modern art... 
If we replace our sacred music with banal modern "pop" music... 
If we pitch sacred architecture for ugly, utilitarian models... 
If we do not allow moments of silence during the Mass for private prayer, filling every available moment with hymns, responses, and gestures... 
If we do not sufficiently preach on the need for confession and penance... 

Then are we not removing from the Catholic liturgical experience anything that would help create the dispositions necessary to obtain the ex opere operantis graces? We tell the faithful that the sacraments are not magical, but then we remove from them external aid to devotion that would assist them in cultivating the disposition necessary to reap the graces ex opere operantis. We expect that the simple reception of Holy Communion alone, without any other external aid to devotion, is sufficient to secure the necessary grace. 

My friends, I'm sorry, but this is treating the sacraments like magic charms, since the faithful are expected to approach them and merit from them in isolation of any other relative factors.

In the Novus Ordo as experienced in most parishes, a parishioner has to be a saint or a mystic to truly reap the graces available in the Eucharist because they must have the requisite spiritual strength to manifest all these dispositions out of their own spiritual life with out any external aids. Not that holiness is dependent upon external aids; St. Anthony of Egypt was eminently holy and had nothing external to aid him but the desert sands. But he was a saint, and that's the point. The Church's pedagogy for centuries has understood that common people who are not saints need external aids to devotion to help focus on the Sacred Mysteries. And even the saints have reaped tremendous benefits from sacred art. How would the Church's history have changed if there was no crucifix for St. Francis to gaze upon at San Damiano?

It is foolish and unjust to tell the Catholic that the sacraments are not magical while simultaneously disassociating their celebration from any aesthetical-pietistical context, thus viewing them as things that just kind of work of their own accord. Let us return to the harmony and balance of doctrine and practice that characterized Catholic Tradition and cultivated real holiness.


Marko Ivančičević said...

funny, but modern theology deems old sacramentology of matter and form as magic stuff and magic words which effect the sacrament in the given moment.

I am not Spartacus said...

Dear Brother Boniface. Smashing as usual.

The last time I heard or read about the necessity for one to be properly disposed to receive Grave was, um, ok, never.

One may hear that at Mass at an FSSP Apostolate or read it in the classics of Catholic Apologetics but I'd be willing to bet that there are less than nine Catholic Americans who have even heard of Pope Gregory the Great's (this is off the top of my head so I may has mis-identifed the Pope) description that The Risen Christ has passed over into the Sacraments.

Oncet, after a Normative Mass offered by a Priest-Instructor of a local Seminary, I spoke with him and dropped this quote in our conversation and I could tell he was hearing it for the first time.

C'est la vie