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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).
(And before you think I’m theologically naive, make sure you read my comments that follow the quotation)
The following excerpts come from the lips of Pope Ratzinger himself, spoken Nov. 19th 2008.
On the journey we have undertaken under the guidance of St. Paul, we now wish to reflect on a topic that is at the center of the controversies of the century of the Reformation: the issue of justification.
To be just means simply to be with Christ and in Christ. And this suffices. Other observances are no longer necessary.
That is why Luther’s expression “sola fide” is true if faith is not opposed to charity, to love. Faith is to look at Christ, to entrust oneself to Christ, to be united to Christ, to be conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence, to believe is to be conformed to Christ and to enter into his love. That is why, in the Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul develops above all his doctrine on justification; he speaks of faith that operates through charity (cf. Galatians 5:14).
Paul knows that in the double love of God and neighbor the whole law is fulfilled. Thus the whole law is observed in communion with Christ, in faith that creates charity. We are just when we enter into communion with Christ, who is love. We will see the same in next Sunday’s Gospel for the solemnity of Christ the King. It is the Gospel of the judge whose sole criterion is love. What I ask is only this: Did you visit me when I was sick? When I was in prison? Did you feed me when I was hungry, clothe me when I was naked? So justice is decided in charity. Thus, at the end of this Gospel, we can say: love alone, charity alone. However, there is no contradiction between this Gospel and St. Paul. It is the same vision, the one according to which communion with Christ, faith in Christ, creates charity. And charity is the realization of communion with Christ. Thus, being united to him we are just, and in no other way.
Paul’s experience of the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus led him to see that it is only by faith in Christ, and not by any merit of our own, that we are made righteous before God. Our justification in Christ is thus God’s gracious gift, revealed in the mystery of the Cross. Christ died in order to become our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption (cf. 1 Cor 1:30), and we in turn, justified by faith, have become in him the very righteousness of God (cf. 2 Cor 5:21). In the light of the Cross and its gifts of reconciliation and new life in the Spirit, Paul rejected a righteousness based on the Law and its works.
Actually, in droves Catholics have come around to basically granting a doctrine of justification by faith.
If your reaction is, “Yeah … but they don’t mean by faith alone,” you probably have been too influenced by uninformed Protestant rhetoric and haven’t been following the ecumenical discussion carefully enough. If you say, “Yeah but when Catholics affirm justification by faith alone or by grace alone, they don’t mean the same thing the Reformers did,” well … The Reformers themselves didn’t mean the same thing by “justification by faith alone.”
There is no single doctrine of justification in the Reformation.
To this very day Protestants understand the doctrine differently (nothwithstanding much overlap between their views, and between their views and Catholic views). Thus, Martin Luther taught a sola fide, Calvin taught a sola fide, and Catholics also teach a sola fide, yet each are different in significant ways I do not have time to fully develop here. They all have one thing in common: they all affirm that justifying righteousness originates outside of us in God himself (extra nos) and justifies us by grace alone (sola gratia), and the faith by which we are justified is a free gift of God—-notwithstanding the fact that all language of “free gift” and “sola gratia” are going to be understood differently by Arminians and Calvinists/Augustinians. (It is the latter point of difference that caused a great deal of the tension between Luther and the Catholic Church).
If you still think I’m theologically naive, leave comments in the thread. It may be because I can’t say everything in one post.