Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Twice Removed: Why Our Sacraments Often Don't Connect with Real Life

By Joseph Martos

Note: This commentary was first published February 20, 2016 by the National Catholic Reporter.

In the first two centuries of Christianity, theology was based in experience. Words that were later taken to refer to things that are outside the realm of experience were originally attempts to talk about things that the followers of Jesus were experiencing.

For example, when Paul wrote about justification by faith, he was not talking about getting right with God by believing in Christ, but getting your life straightened out by trusting that what Jesus taught is true. When the Book of Acts talks about being saved through baptism, it does not mean washing away sin by going through a ritual, but being rescued from selfishness by being immersed in a caring community.

Scholars who study other early documents like "The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles" (often called the Didache for short, from the Greek word for teaching) are finding that these writings were also attempts to spell out what the followers of Jesus were experiencing in their lives. But in the third century, things began to change.

Over time, the experience behind the early writings was forgotten. The writings were recognized as precious, called sacred Scriptures. Even the Didache appeared in some early lists of sacred Scriptures.

Christian intellectuals in the third century, sometimes called apologists, tried to explain their faith to people in the wider pagan world who suspected that the followers of Jesus were members of a dangerous cult. One apologist, Justin, compared the Christian community meal to a temple sacrifice, where pagans shared food in the presence of their god, to show that Christians were religious even though they did not worship in temples.

But other apologists began to talk about their faith as a set of beliefs rather than as a way of living. The words were becoming disconnected from the experiences.

In the fourth century, Constantine wanted to unify the Roman Empire with a single religion, so he legalized and promoted Christianity. When Christians began to travel freely throughout the empire, they discovered that people in different regions had different theologies. Instead of uniting Constantine's empire, Christians argued and divided it even further.

Constantine ordered all the bishops to his villa in Nicaea, and forced them to stay until they produced a document they could all agree on. They came up with the Nicene Creed, a statement of belief that said nothing about living like Jesus, but only about God and the church. The first removal of theology from the experience of Christian living was complete.

The Middle Ages

The attempt of the emperors to preserve the empire failed, and in the fifth century, the western half fell to barbarian invaders from the north. The so-called Dark Ages lasted until the 10th century. Theological thinking came to a halt while people struggled to survive.

Church life, on the contrary, evolved and flourished. The elaborate eucharistic liturgy got pared down to a Mass that could be said by missionaries who carried the faith to the tribes that were settling on the continent, and it was called a sacrifice even though no one remembered why.

Baptism became a short rite performed on babies in a church or adult converts in a river. Confirmation could be given by a bishop on horseback to children who were held up for him to touch. Private confession was introduced by monks for people who needed assurance of God's forgiveness.

Weddings became church ceremonies to be a public record of marriages. Ordination became a series of rites for apprentices who were learning how to be clerics as they ascended through a series of holy orders. Anointing of the sick began as a ministry to people who were ill, but in the absence of modern medicine, it became a last anointing called extreme unction.

By the 11th century, the chaos had subsided. The weather got warmer, farming flourished, commerce expanded, towns grew into cities, cathedrals were built, and schools were founded. Monks turned their attention from copying ancient manuscripts to studying them. Philosophy and theology were reborn.

Among other things, the schoolmen turned their attention to religious rituals, especially to sacraments. How did bread and wine turn into the body and blood of Christ? Why could baptism and confirmation be received only once? How did the sacraments of penance and extreme unction work? What were the different powers of priests and bishops? Why was the bond of marriage indissoluble?

The schoolmen did not realize, however, that much of their theological language was already somewhat removed from life. They thought that salvation meant going to heaven, that the gifts of the Holy Spirit were not experienced, that sins were remitted even if they were committed again, that the bond of marriage was indissoluble, that priestly powers were unrelated to priestly ministry, and that extreme unction could be received by someone who was unconscious.

They saw nothing amiss in a Mass that was performed by a priest using words that the people could not hear, much less understand, and who paid attention only when a bell was rung.

In many ways, sacramental ministry devolved into sacramental magic in the late Middle Ages, but the church's leadership rejected repeated calls for reform until the 16th century, by which time half of Europe had converted to Protestantism.

The Council of Trent reformed the sacramental system, eliminating the most superstitious practices, insisting that bishops be true shepherds of their flocks and that priests be trained in seminaries. From the 16th to the mid-20th centuries, Catholic sacramental practice and Catholic sacramental theology mirrored one another.

The baptismal and priestly characters explained why Catholics never left the church and why priests never left the ministry. The Eucharist was elevated at Mass and ensconced in a monstrance for exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, and was received only rarely, usually after a sincere confession of sins to a priest.

The indissoluble bond of marriage explained why Catholics never divorced. Confirmation and extreme unction did not have visible effects, but Catholics trusted that the former was good to receive in adolescence and the latter was good to receive before dying.

The Catholic church remained medieval in form and thought well into the 20th century.

Vatican II and after

At the Second Vatican Council, the world's Catholic bishops called for an updating of the church's sacramental practices. Historians and liturgists retrieved earlier forms of the Mass and other rites that had gotten lost during the Dark Ages — things like praying in the language of the people, receiving Communion in the forms of both bread and wine, rethinking the relation between sin and confession, and returning anointing to the context of ministry to the sick.

Unexpectedly, the unity of practice and theology began to dissolve. People stopped going to confession regularly. Priests began leaving the priesthood and the number of seminarians dwindled. Married Catholics started divorcing in greater numbers and even remarrying without waiting for an annulment.

The primary effect of confirmation seemed to be dropping out of church. Even baptism was no guarantee that people would remain Catholics or even Christians, as those who left the church sometimes became agnostics or atheists, Jews or Muslims.

Alarmed by this apparent defection, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI insisted on strict adherence to ecclesiastical rules, affirming traditional doctrines, stifling dissent, and denying any further developments in sacramental practice such as allowing deacons to anoint the sick or allowing priests to marry.

But the traditional doctrines no longer match Catholics' contemporary experience of church membership, marriage and ministry, not to mention their sense of sin and their experience of illness. Even Catholic worship feels different from the way it did in the days of the Latin Mass and Gregorian chant, and the previously strong sense of Christ's presence in the Eucharist is hard to recapture.

As happened in the third century, there is a growing gap between theology and experience, only this time the theology is twice removed from life. Official teachings about the Mass and sacraments are not only disconnected from people's everyday lives, but they are also often disconnected from people's experience of worship. For many people, the liturgy is not the main source of their spiritual nourishment, nor the high point of their week.

Around the time of Vatican II, Catholic thinkers like Edward Schillebeeckx, Karl Rahner, Bernard Cooke and Louis-Marie Chauvet tried to reinterpret the sacraments in more contemporary ways. Fifty years later, however, their work is not given much attention because it suffered from a fatal flaw.

Instead of reflecting on the experience of ritual worship, they reflected on the church's sacramental doctrines and tried to translate them into thought categories derived from existentialism and phenomenology, the psychology and sociology of religion, and even postmodern philosophy.

By being tied to medieval doctrines, however, these theologians had to explain why baptism is permanent, how confirmation gives spiritual strength, why confession is needed, how anointing benefits the sick, why marriage is indissoluble, and why the priesthood is forever.

But these ideas no longer correspond to the world inhabited by most Catholics, so contemporary theologies are just as removed from real life as the scholastic theology they had hoped to replace.

Is there a way out of the current confusion? There is, but it is neither a dogmatic reassertion of the past nor a freefall into cultural relativism. We need to rediscover what is essential to the Christian way of life, reinvent ways to ritualize that, and reformulate what those rituals mean in terms that are faithful both to the teachings of Jesus and to the experience of living in accordance with them.

Joseph Martos is a retired professor of religion and philosophy living in Louisville, Kentucky, where he divides his time between writing, social activism, and public speaking. He has held full-time teaching positions in Louisville KY, Allentown PA, Cincinnati OH, and Sioux City IA, and he has taught summer courses in over a dozen universities in the United States, Canada and Australia. He did graduate study in philosophy and theology at Gregorian University and Boston College, and earned a doctorate from DePaul University in Chicago, writing a dissertation on Bernard Lonergan's theory of transcendent knowledge. He served as the director of the Russell Institute of Religion and Ministry at Spalding University until the university discontinued all of its humanities programs in 2003. Martos is the author of many books and articles on the sacraments. His book The Sacraments: An Interdisciplinary and Interactive Study deconstructs Catholic sacramental theology, exposing its conceptual flaws and intellectual instability. This article is based on research published in Deconstructing Sacramental Theology and Reconstructing Catholic Ritual (Wipf and Stock, 2015).


  1. I wonder if there is any group who has rediscovered essentials and reinvented ways to ritualize them? I also wonder if people who are full-time dedicated to the service of the very needy experience the Roman rite liturgy any differently from those of us who are not? Anyone know?

    "We need to rediscover what is essential to the Christian way of life, reinvent ways to ritualize that, and reformulate what those rituals mean in terms that are faithful both to the teachings of Jesus and to the experience of living in accordance with them."

  2. He is right on. His final paragraph is a good solution; implementing it will be something else.

  3. The community is the essential substance in all the sacraments. Today's spirituality is much more vertical (Me and Jesus/Spirit) and is incomplete in my opinion.

    St. Joan of Arc had the best of both (private and communal) reconciliation rituals this year. There was liturgical music, readings by prayer partners, an opportunity to contemplate our failures and then write them on a piece of paper. Later, we were invited to whisper those failures to the priest (2 priests in the open) in the same fashion as we would approach Eucharist -single file. We then put our slips of paper in a large vase (later to be burned) and then we were embraced by a prayer partner (laity) in a big bear hug. The community was the essential component signifying full absolution, forgiveness and an open arms welcome back into the Church (People of God). Truly a Spirit filled service that demonstrated God's mercy and faithfulness.

    Nancy Gotto

  4. For myself, I question the data and information the author has, if any, that priests never left the priesthood and spouses never left each other in the “idyllic” medieval times. Henry VIII could not get a divorce, so he just beheaded the wives he didn’t like. Does that count as “never leaving”?

    Bob Beutel

  5. Martos is a venerable scholar, especially in things liturgical. For that reason I was surprised by his whirlwind, and thus necessarily reductive, tour through Christian history in this article. He of all people would know that the story of the development of theology for whole chunks of centuries cannot be boiled down to a paragraph. I found this article unworthy of his reputation. For example, how can one speak of the council of Nicea and not say anything about Arius and Arianism? That was the sole reason for the convocation (theologically, anyway) of the synod. And it is a fairly elementary interpretive rule of conciliar texts that what is not in dispute is not discussed in documents. The fact that the Nicene Creed does not speak to the issue of following Jesus is no proof that such an instinct had disappeared. I think Martos' overall thesis here is something very worthy of taking seriously, but he has done a very sloppy job in its defense, in my opinion.
    Fr. Mike Byron

  6. Thanks, Fr. Mike. I noticed the sketchy historical flyover too. Even in the language it seems directed to a specific audience.

    If he is right in the four paragraphs about the fatal flaw in the Vatican II theologians' method--just before the final paragraph--that is a pretty big point. Do you think the problem is being addressed anywhere?

  7. One reason may be that they are based on an antiquated defunct redemption/atonement theology. We are not fallen, but evolving.

  8. Thank you for posting Joseph Martos' article and for the invitation to comment on it. I read it when it first appeared in NCR in February, 2016. I enjoy and agree with his historical review of the Church's liturgical and sacramental practice. His statement "in many ways, sacramental ministry devolved into sacramental magic in the late Middle Ages" is a good summary of the period, and the later reforms of the Council of Trent, while correcting the most flagrant abuses, were incomplete. Which brings us to Vatican II. Prior to the Council the disjunction between the church's sacramental theology and people's lived experience had grown nearly complete. As we used to say when I was teaching theology, "wall paper without walls!" At the same time we need to remember that failures in church teaching and practice are not all that is to be said. My pastor, Father Michael Reding, reminded us today in reflecting on Jesus post resurrection meeting with the apostle Thomas, that the Risen Christ's body is filled with wounds, and that wounded body is the Church. Failures and disjunction in church life and practice ought not to surprise us though they hurt, and are never the last or only word.

    Martos is not very optimistic about the ability of contemporary theologies around the reformed Mass and sacraments to connect truly with people's lives. And he says we need ways to ritualize what is essential to Christian life. While I would agree that much of the experience of ritual worship falls short of doing that, I am not as quick to agree that existing forms of worship are at fault. So much depends on how they are celebrated. The post Vatican II reforms of the liturgy are very significant, and they continue to undergo reform. They require considerable prayer and reflection over time to achieve their purpose. While not at all perfect I think way too often their profundity is not understood well by those who are charged with preparing and leading the prayer with the result that too often the prayer is superficial or secularized to make it appear relevant. In some ways it is not that they have been tried and found wanting; they have not really been tried. Maybe in the end Martos' judgment about the inadequacy of our prayers forms is accurate. But I, for one, am not there yet. Meanwhile, Martos gives us a very good article to ponder.

    Jim Moudry

  9. On Confirmation:
    Martos' statement about the post Vatican II years in reference to the sacrament of Confirmation, pushed my button. He says "The primary effect of confirmation seemed to be dropping out of church". I submit that effect is of our own making and could have been and still can be avoided. In the years following Vatican II it became evident that Confirmation was "a sacrament in search of a meaning". Why? It had been dislocated from its traditional location as part of Christian initiation. (It is not an accident that the listing of the order of the sacraments defined at the Council of Trent and still today is "baptism, confirmation, eucharist..."). The dislocation was the consequence of the incomplete reforms of Pope Pius X in 1907 when he moved the age of first eucharist from ages 14-15 back to age 7 ("the use of reason") without attending to its effect on confirmation which had always been celebrated before first eucharist as part of the initiation into the eucharistic community. The effect on confirmation as liturgical scholars have noted for years was to leave it dangling in a pastoral vacuum which pastors, parents, and religious educators of children tried to make sense of. The issue was greatly discussed in the 1970s and after between liturgists and religious educators with the latter arguing that Confirmation could be "used" to assist teen agers to make a commitment to follow Christ and stay in the church. And that is what happened in most dioceses of the United States (although in the archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis the option was allowed for a time for parishes to celebrate confirmation prior to first eucharist and some did). But the new practice of teen confirmation prevailed and it ended, in effect, the traditional meaning of the sacrament, namely, an anointing and handlaying to complete and strengthen one's baptism and lead to the commitments that partaking in the Eucharist demand. Has this radical change in the tradition and meaning of confirmation had its desired results? Do our Catholic teens celebrate this sacrament as a convincing "adult commitment" to follow Christ and be full members of the church? Obviously, some do, but far greater number of teens choose not to participate saying they are not ready in their volatile teen years to make that kind of commitment and so the sacrament is forgotten. Or, if they feel pressure to receive confirmation, it often has as its after effect, as Martos says, "dropping out of the church" . It should be noted that the practice of delaying confirmation to teen years long after first eucharist is unique in the Catholic church to children born of Catholic parents and baptized in infancy. All others coming into the church, unbaptized adults and children of catechetical age, and those baptized in other Christian traditions, receive confirmation before coming to eucharist--the traditional order with its ancient meaning. As I said, Martos' throwaway comment pushed my button.

    Jim Moudry

  10. Thanks, Jim. Is your point about the Roman rite that if the leaders prepared well and the participants prayed and reflected well over time, the rite itself would more than adequately ritualize the essentials of the Christian life as experienced by contemporary Christians? Maybe so, but given all our ordinariness, could we get to the profound in a simpler way? The pope seemed to be able to do that in the foot washing by the people he chose to participate and the reverence he manifested.