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The Sacraments | Peter Kreeft | From Fundamentals of the Faith
Protestants don't see why
Catholics who come to disagree with essential teachings of the Church don't
just leave. The answer is symbolized by the sanctuary lamp. They do not leave
the Church because they know that the sacramental fire burns there on the
ecclesiastical hearth. Even if they do not see by its light, they want to be
warmed by its fire. The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is a magnet
drawing lost sheep home and keeping would-be strays from the deathly snows
outside. The Church's biggest drawing card is not what she teaches, crucial as
that is, but who is there. "He is here! Therefore I must be here."
Adult conversion to
Catholicism involves more than adding a few new beliefs. It means a whole new
world and life view. No ingredient in that new perspective was more of a shock
to my old Protestant sensibilities when I became a Catholic than the idea that
the God-man is really present in, and not just symbolized by, what appears to
be a wafer of bread and a cup of wine. It seemed scandalous!
It has ceased to scandalize
me, though it has not ceased to amaze me, that Almighty God suffers me to touch
him, move him and eat him! Imagine! When I move my hand to my mouth with the
Host, I move God through space. When I put him here, he is here. When I put him
there, he is there. The Prime Mover lets me move him where I will. It is as
amazing as the Incarnation itself, for it is the Incarnation, the continuation
of the Incarnation.
I think I understand how
the typical Protestant feels about sacramentalism not only because I was a
Protestant but because it is a natural and universal feeling. The Catholic
doctrine of the sacraments is shocking to everyone. It should be a shock to
Catholics too. But familiarity breeds dullness.
To Protestants, sacraments
must be one of two things: either mere symbols, reminders, like words; or else
real magic. And the Catholic definition of a sacrament — a visible sign
instituted by Christ to give grace, a sign that really effects what it symbolizes
— sounds like magic. Catholic doctrine teaches that the sacraments work ex
i.e., objectively, though not impersonally and automatically like machines.
They are gifts that come from without but must be freely received.
Protestants are usually
much more comfortable with a merely symbolic view of sacraments, for their
faith is primarily verbal, not sacramental. After all, it is the Bible that
looms so large in the center of their horizon. They believe in creation and
Incarnation and Resurrection only because they are in the Bible. The material
events are surrounded by the holy words. The Catholic sensibility is the
inside-out version of this: the words are surrounded by the holy facts. To the
Catholic sensibility it is not primarily words but matter that is holy because
God created it, incarnated himself in it, raised it from death, and took it to
heaven with him in his ascension.
believe these scriptural dogmas, of course, just as surely as Catholics do. But
they do not, I think, feel the crude, even vulgar facticity of them as
strongly. That's why they do not merely disagree with but are profoundly
shocked by the real presence and transubstantiation. Luther, by the way, taught
the real presence and something much closer to transubstantiation than most
Protestants believe, namely consubstantiation, the belief that Christ's body
and blood are really present in the Eucharist, but so are the bread and wine.
Catholics believe the elements are changed; Lutherans believe they are added
Most Protestants believe
the Eucharist only symbolizes Christ, though some, following Calvin, add that
it is an occasion for special grace, a sign and a seal. But though I was a
Calvinist for twenty one years, I do not remember any emphasis on that notion.
Much more often, I heard the contrast between the Protestant " spiritual "
interpretation and the Catholic "material ", "magical" one.
The basic objection
Protestants have to sacramentalism is this: How can divine grace depend on
matter, something passive and unfree? Isn't it unfair for God's grace to depend
on anything other than his will and mine? I felt that objection strongly until
I realized that the sheer fact that I have a body — this body, with this
heredity, which came to me and still comes to me without my choice — is
also "unfair". One gets a healthy body, another does not. As one philosopher
said, "Life isn't fair."
It's the very nature of the
material world we live in, the very fact of a material world at all, that is so
"unfair" that it moved Ivan Karamazov to rebellion against God in that
profoundest and most Christian novel, Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. As he explains to his
believing brother Alyosha, "It's not God that I can't accept, it's this world
of his" — a world in which bad things happen to good people and good
things happen to bad people. But it might be better than fair rather than less,
gift rather than payment, grace rather than justice, "fair" as "beautiful"
rather than "fair" as rational " — like a sacrament.
In fact, the world is a
sacrament. We receive God through every material reality (though not in the
same special way as in the sacraments proper). The answer to the Protestant
objection to the unfairness of the sacraments is that only a world of pure
spirit would be perfectly fair. Only angels get exactly what they deserve
Praise God, we get
infinitely more than we deserve! The sacraments remind us that the whole world
is a sacrament, a sacred thing, a gift; and the sacramental character of the
world reminds us of the central sacrament, the Incarnation, continued among us
in the seven sacraments of the Church, especially in the Eucharist. The
sacramental view of the world and the Catholic doctrine of the sacraments
illuminate each other like large and small mirrors.
Both the sacrament of the
world and the sacrament of incarnation/ Eucharist also remind us that we too
are sacramental, matter made holy by spirit. Our bodies are not corpses moved
by ghosts, or cars steered by angels, but temples of the Holy Spirit. In our
bodies, especially our faces, matter is transmuted into meaning. The eyes are
the windows of the soul.
object to the sacraments by asking whether a baby's eternal destiny is altered
if the water of baptism does not quite reach his forehead before the church
building falls on him and kills him, or whether a penitent who gets run over
and killed by a truck while crossing the street on his way to a sacramental
confession will suffer hell or a longer purgatory only because the truck
happened to hit him before rather than after confession. The answer to such a
question is: not necessarily. We do not know God's plan unless he reveals it to
us, and he has revealed the sacraments. But not only the sacraments. The early
Church called the death of martyrs who had no opportunity for baptism "the
baptism of blood", and the intention (explicit or even implicit) to be baptized
"the baptism of desire" (thus allowing good, God-seeking pagans into heaven).
This Catholic doctrine of "back-door grace" seems shifty verbal trickery to many
Protestants, but it is necessary to preserve two undeniable truths: first, that
we are commanded to receive the sacraments and told that "unless you eat my
body and drink my blood, you have no life in you" and, second, that God is just
and merciful and does not deny grace to any who seek it.
Perhaps we Catholics are
like the laborers who worked only an hour, in our Lord's parable (Mt 20:1-16),
and those without the sacraments like those who worked all day. It seems unfair
that both groups got the same wages. So it seems unfair that we are given all
this extra sacramental help, easier grace, so to speak. But the Lord of the
vineyard replied to this objection: "Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish
with my own?" This reply scandalizes our sense of political justice. But it
fits the nature of the world; and it is the world of nature, God's creation,
rather than politics, man's creation, that declares the glory of God. The
sacraments declare the same scandalous generosity.
We don't deserve to be born
or to be born again or to be baptized. We don't deserve God's sun or God's Son.
We don't deserve delicious bread and wine or the Body and Blood of Christ. But
we are given all this, and more. As Christopher Derrick put it, in a poem
entitled "The Resurrection of the Body":
He's a terror that one:
Turns water into wine,
Wine into blood –
I wonder what He turns
Catholics often have a
more-than-intellectual faith in the sacraments that Protestants do not
understand. Thus they don't see why Catholics who come to disagree with
essential teachings of the Church don't just leave. The answer is symbolized by
the sanctuary lamp. They do not leave the Church because they know that the
sacramental fire burns there on the ecclesiastical hearth. Even if they do not
see by its light, they want to be warmed by its fire. The real presence of
Christ in the Eucharist is a magnet drawing lost sheep home and keeping
would-be strays from the deathly snows outside. The Church's biggest drawing
card is not what she teaches, crucial as that is, but who is there. "He is
here! Therefore I must be here."
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Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor
of philosophy at Boston College who has written over forty books, including C.S.
Lewis for the Third Millennium, Fundamentals
of the Faith, Catholic
to Virtue, Three
Approaches to Abortion, and The
Philosophy of Tolkien.
His most recent Ignatius Press books include Socrates
Meets Descartes, You
Can Understand the Bible, The
God Who Loves You, and Because God Is Real:
Sixteen Questions, One Answer.
A complete list of Ignatius Press books
by Kreeft can be viewed on his IgnatiusInsight.com
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