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Book Review: The Sacraments by Louis Marie Chauvet

The following is simply a barebones sketch of an introduction to Louis Marie Chavet’s provocative critique of traditional Catholic sacramental theology and his alternative proposal.  Page numbers refer to his abridged work: Chauvet, The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body. Liturgical Press, 2001.

Chauvet’s Critique of Traditional Sacramental Theology

Chauvet uses the language of a 20th century Catholic Catechism (from the 1950’s) for the definition of the Objectivist Model: The sacraments are “visible signs instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ to produce and increase grace in our souls” (xiv).

He criticizes this model as being too narrow in its emphasis.  For example, he notes that Augustine taught that the sacrament was a “sacred sign” or “a sign of a sacred reality.”  Thomas Aquinas would come also to use Augustine’s language for the sacrament.  But in this catechism, this is not utilized in the definition.  Instead, what is important is “the objective efficacy of the sign” (xiv).  They are less revelatory signs than as operative means of salvation.

This leads to the images of the sacraments as instruments that have a quasi automatic production as long as the instrument is properly used by the minister.  Chavet thinks that this image favors questionable representations of the efficacy ex opere operato. He compliments his criticism by pointing out the fact that in the 1947 catechism’s sixteen lessons on the sacraments, the word “faith” never appears.  The only place where the subject is taken into account in this section is the warning that the subject not place any obstacle (mortal sin) to the reception of grace.  This is not a well balanced account of sacraments, thinks Chauvet.

Complaining about this narrow approach, he admits that the catechism bears resemblance to Scholastics (e.g. Thomas Aquinas), but only, he says, in overall model.  However, the scholastics “strove to purify the images” from false understandings and from being comprehensive by teaching that all concepts and images were approximate, and while the spiritual reality bears similarity to the images, it also bears some measure of dissimilarity (xvi).  Thus the sacraments are not instruments, but rather “function a little like instruments” according to the scholastics.  “While they contain grace, it is not like a vase containing a remedy” (xvi).

Here he complains that it is easy to see “the importance of the differences between the doctrine of eminent theologians … and what becomes of it in pastoral manuals of catechism and liturgy not always concerned with nuances” (xvi).

Chauvet’s Proposal of Symbol

In the end, Chavet doesn’t even think the Scholastic model with all its nuances is a good overall model for the sacraments, so he proposes the sacraments as “symbol.”  In his new model, the sacraments are part of an overall symbolic scheme or order that mediates “the world” by functioning as a language that shapes their perception of the world.  In particular, it mediates God’s new world (the kingdom), and thereby the values of that world.  The Christian thereby is shaped by the sacraments to take on these values.

This “mediation” (much like language in general) actually constructs (not merely symbolizes) the subjects self identity and personhood.  Just as the language of a culture tends to effectively shape the worldview (and therefore values and identity) of those who live in the same culture and speak the same language, so the “language” of the sacraments has a similar efficacy.  It is the linguistic “womb” of the mother church, in whose womb the Christian is effectively born.

As symbols, the sacraments effectively symbolize (or “mediate”) the whole of the Christian life in a similar fashion as a synecdoche in poetry where the part of something stands for the whole.  In a synecdoche, for example, the “hand” of God stands for the mystery of God himself, thus representing the whole of God by a part of him.  In this way, the sacraments mediate the symbolic order of the whole of the Christian life—which means they simultaneously hold in tension things that would otherwise become “desymbolzied” or isolated, and thus misunderstood in terms of their relationship to the whole.  In other words, the sacraments seen as a symbol mediating the order of the whole keeps people from thinking of the grace they receive in the sacraments apart from “the other” which it symbolizes—the community of Christians they are obligated to love, the world they are obligated to love as Christ did, etc.

The symbolic way of understanding sacraments entails Chauvet’s development of “symbol” as “a signifying whole,” (13) or, as mediating the realities of the Christian life.  Chauvet understands symbols as “fitting together” a symbolic order, providing a unifying meaning to all its parts (without which these realities are “isolated” or “desymbolized,” 15) and designating “the other,” in the case of Christian sacraments, the “symbolic womb” that precedes the Christian and mediates its understanding of the “world” of Christianity (16).  As he puts it, “One becomes a Christian only by adopting the ‘mother tongue’ of the church” (17).  “The sacraments are expressions” and therefore “they belong to what is called language,” which language is not an “instrument,” but rather a “mediation” of reality and Christian truth (3).

This requires for the Christian to relinquish the temptation for immediacy and “assent to the mediation of the church” (28).  Baptism, for example, evokes the larger symbolic order of the church in which, through this baptism, the Christian is initiated into the community where “the other is no longer to be considered a rival or a potential enemy,” but must “be welcomed as a brother or sister” (32).  The Eucharist expresses the reality of “the new ‘we’” that “applies also to the whole of the Christian liturgy” that constantly uses the language of “we,” 32).  “Every eucharistic assembly truly realizes the church of God” (37).

Compatibility with Traditional Sacramental Theology

This understanding of the sacraments does not necessarily undermine the classical ways with their emphasis on causality and instrumentality.  This is because, as Chauvet puts it, “contrary things … are in the same genus, on the same terrain.  Our symbolic way supposes a change of terrain” (95).  “The sign belongs to the order of knowledge or information or else value, whereas the symbol belongs to the order of recognition or communication between subjects as subjects and is outside the order of value” (76).

So, then, the author concludes that symbols and signs are “not on the same level” (76).  Although Chauvet claims his approach is not contrary to the classical approaches, he does, in so many words, claim that it is superior.  When he says that the classical approach was “the best one could do at the time,” he implies that his approach is better (95).  He spells out this superiority when he says “the symbolic route seems to us to supply an approach much more akin to the sacraments than that of the instrumentality employed by the Scholastics” (95).

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