instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Fruitful Sacramental Preparation

Ralph Martin, president of Renewal Ministries and associate professor of theology at Detroit's Sacred Heart Major Seminary, has an article in Nova et Vetera titled, "The Post-Christendom Sacramental Crisis: The Wisdom of Thomas Aquinas."

The sacramental crisis of the title has two interrelated aspects:
  1. A "radical drop in the numbers of those who still bother to approach the sacraments."
  2. "[T]he apparent lack of sacramental fruitfulness in the lives of many who still partake of the sacraments."
Obviously, an unreceived sacrament is a fruitless sacrament, but if a sacrament is not fruitful, why bother to receive it in the first place?

The key section of the essay is a discussion on making reception of the sacraments more fruitful, in light of St. Thomas's teaching on adult baptism. Specifically, Martin recommends recovering a balance in sacramental preparation, reflected in St. Thomas's writings, that was thrown off after the Protestant revolution:
The reaction to the theology of the Protestant reformers produced in the Catholic Church what could be regarded as an overemphasis on the ex opere operato (by the fact of the action being performed) aspect of the sacraments working, to the neglect of the practical importance of the ex opere operantis (from the action of the doer) aspect. The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms the importance of both aspects:
From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them.
While no one would intentionally ignore the disposition of the one in sacramental preparation -- I use "no one" in a rhetorical sense here; empirically, people are capable of anything -- it's not only inadequate to argue that the sacrament itself will make up for what is lacking in the recipient, it's flat-out contrary to what the Church teaches. If "Ex opere operato" is how a given sacramental preparation program addresses the question of subjective disposition, then, objectively, that sacramental preparation program doesn't address the question of subjective disposition.

Martin quotes St. Thomas's article on "Whether sinners should be baptized" to explain why subjective disposition needs to be addressed in the sacramental preparation of adults:
[A] man may be called a sinner because he wills to sin and purposes to remain in sin: and on sinners in this sense the sacrament of Baptism should not be conferred.

First, indeed, because by Baptism men are incorporated in Christ, according to Galatians 3:27: "As many of you as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ." Now so long as a man wills to sin, he cannot be united to Christ, according to 2 Corinthians 6:14: "What participation hath justice with injustice?" Wherefore Augustine says in his book on Penance (Serm. cccli) that "no man who has the use of free-will can begin the new life, except he repent of his former life."

Secondly, because there should be nothing useless in the works of Christ and of the Church. Now that is useless which does not reach the end to which it is ordained; and, on the other hand, no one having the will to sin can, at the same time, be cleansed from sin, which is the purpose of Baptism; for this would be to combine two contradictory things.

Thirdly, because there should be no falsehood in the sacramental signs. Now a sign is false if it does not correspond with the thing signified. But the very fact that a man presents himself to be cleansed by Baptism, signifies that he prepares himself for the inward cleansing: while this cannot be the case with one who purposes to remain in sin. Therefore it is manifest that on such a man the sacrament of Baptism is not to be conferred.
 To put it in positive terms, baptismal preparation ought to attend to subjective, personal repentance and conversion, as well as presentation of doctrine. Arguably, repentance and conversion are the more important part.

And as with baptism, so mutatis mutandis with the other sacraments.