Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Theology of the Wounded

In the Church today, it is conventional wisdom that the sacraments are not appreciated enough.  What are we to do about it?  I am of the opinion that we cannot develop a proper evangelization and theology centered around the sacraments because of the way we currently practice our faith.  Any proper evangelization begins at home, and we need to take a better look at some realities of our faith.  I believe these realities will challenge us in a new way.

It is a common cliche in evangelization that we must reach out to "the wounded", those outside the Church, those affected by sin in traumatic ways, etc.  While we should do this, I think we would do well to remember one important fact:  we, each and every one of us, belong to "the wounded."  To understand this, we must understand the reality of a little used word today in the Church:  concupiscence.  The Catholic Church defines concupiscence in the following manner:

Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam's descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin - an inclination to evil that is called concupiscence. Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ's grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle.  (Paragraph 405)
As a result of the sin of Adam, human nature changed.  Sin is something that comes pretty easy to us.  While the explanations for this are varied, the reality is undeniable: this inclination leaves a wound that remains with us.  However, this is not the end of the story.

As the Catechism reminds us, there are things which turn us toward God.  While the sacrament of baptism is the primary means of doing this, one can see God's call in many things of creation.  John Paul II made a couple year's worth of general audiences out of the fact that we can see God's call towards Him stamped within the very reality of the human body.  This calling inevitably conflicts with the reality of concupiscence.  At this point the struggle for holiness begins.

This is where the importance of the sacraments come in.  As anyone who took Catholicism 101 can tell you, sacraments impart what is called sanctifying grace to the Christian.  The Catechism defines sanctifying grace as a "habitual gift, a stable and supernatural disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love."  (Paragraph 2000)

The only way we can be enabled to live with God is if that inclination to sin is dealt with.  That is the purpose of the sacraments.  Sometimes this is explicitly mentioned, such as when the sacrament of Holy Matrimony is called a "remedy of concupiscence."  Yet all the sacraments, to one degree or another, accomplish this.

Now when this reality is considered, one question naturally arises.  If the sacraments are how concupiscence is healed, why is it that we still are inclined to sin even after receiving the sacraments?  The Catechism again provides us an insightful answer in paragraph 2002.  They state that God's free initiative demands man's free response.  One iota of grace from the sacraments, in theory, would be enough to completely cure man from all concupiscence.  Yet this is not the case in reality. While grace indeed is a powerful gift, we must use that gift properly.

Yet human experience teaches us that we seldom, if ever do something "perfectly."  This is why frequenting the sacraments must be habitual.  Every time we receive one of the sacraments, concupiscence is weakened and we become less and less attached to sin.  Provided we use our gifts properly, we can even replace that attachment to sin with a greater and greater attachment to God.  That makes the sacraments even more efficacious, and the cycle repeats itself with every reception.

This can be a challenging message for today's Catholics, even those who are perfectly orthodox.  It isn't easy to recognize how disposed to sin we are, and it certainly isn't sexy to describe advancing in holiness in such incremental and small terms.  Some popular Catholic evangelists even describe such an approach as the antithesis of the meaning of life.  Yet I would counter that it is a far humbler and more realistic assessment of our condition.  Holiness is a difficult thing, and a lifelong process.  The sacraments make this a goal we can achieve, and we should spend as much of our time as possible encouraging this mindset.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Beyond Booster Shots: A Different Approach to the Sacraments

During a recent debate caused by an article in Catholics News Agency, this humble journalist decided to take a different approach from the standard discussion, and planted our flag around a defense of the sacraments.  While it might have been a curious defense, I hope to explain at least my reasons for doing so.  Going forward, I think it is a powerful tool for the evangelization not just of those outside the Church, but of Catholics as well.

As Catholics, we should have a special love and affection for the sacraments.  While God provides grace through thousands of everyday situations, it is through the sacraments that he provides grace in a very special manner.  He provides sanctifying grace that makes us holy and allows us to live a Christian life to the fullest.  On this, anyone worthy of the name Catholic would agree.

Yet I think we Catholics approach the sacraments from a flawed analysis.  We view them as mere "booster shots" for the already holy.  So long as we are without mortal sin, we go to the sacraments, get our booster shot of infused grace, and we become holier.  While there is certainly this aspect to the sacraments, there needs to be a lot more to the sacraments if we are taking the Biblical, historical, and magisterial evidence seriously.

Now if we all remember our catechism classes, we remember hearing that a sacrament is a visible sign conferring an invisible reality.  This is certainly true, but not what I want to focus on. Now me, I slept through my Catechism class as a child, so thankfully I found the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which provides an explanation that, while not contradictory to the above definition, it goes in a different direction, one far more fascinating I would argue.

They [the sacraments] are "for the Church" in the sense that "the sacraments make the Church," since they manifest and communicate to men, above all in the Eucharist, the mystery of communion with the God who is love, One in three persons. (Paragraph 1118)
Christ instituted the sacraments of the new law. There are seven: Baptism, Confirmation (or Chrismation), the Eucharist, Penance, the Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders and Matrimony. the seven sacraments touch all the stages and all the important moments of Christian life: they give birth and increase, healing and mission to the Christian's life of faith. There is thus a certain resemblance between the stages of natural life and the stages of the spiritual life.  (Paragraph 1210)

From these paragraphs, I think we can come to a far deeper understanding of the sacraments, moving beyond the dogmatic textbook definitions to how those definitions matter in our everyday lives.  From this, we can see that the sacraments, far from being just a booster shot, are the essential activities of the Christian life.  On the natural level, they serve as a remembrance (in the truest sense) of the communion we were originally called to have with God that was damaged by sin, and the way to which that communion is restored.

Yet the sacraments of the New Covenant go beyond this powerful means of salvation to provide something even greater.  They not only call us back to the original calling Adam had, but they provide us something even greater than Adam ever possessed.  This is what makes the sacraments so important to the Christian, yet it is the aspect I believe is least covered in catechesis and evangelization.   I think this is a central problem facing Catholics today.  If we examine our lives closely, we are not treating the sacraments the way the Catechism describes them.  If we are lucky, we go to confession only if we screw up majorly, and then only to avoid hell.  We go to communion to be fed by Christ, but we don't do much to ponder the purpose of the sacrament.   This needs to change.  Hopefully in the future I can outline ways I think it needs to change, but most importantly I want individuals to talk amongst themselves (or even to themselves) about how we approach the sacraments, and where we can change and improve our approach.