The Sacramental Theology behind Contemporary Catechesis: Towards a constructive critique

David Barrett FAITH Magazine May-June 2008s

In Fr David Barrett’s September 2007 article in this Magazine “The Church and Sacramentality”, he explained Edward Holloway’s definition of a sacrament as “the enfleshing ... of an objective gift of God, ... in Christ, enwrapped in matter as befits ... the economy of God who became enwrapt with a human soul and body for the perfection and the beatification of His creature.” In a continuation of that reflection Fr Barrett proposes this sacramental theology as the much needed foundation for modern catechesis for which thinkers such as Rahner and Kasper have been searching. He is a doctoral student in Rome.

“Because God is man’s personal Environment ... the sacraments cannot be the manifestations of what man already is, they are a gift of something he does not possess fully from conception, a gift he could never ... dare claim as his rightful possession.”

Doubts About Theological Underpinnings of Modern Catechesis

Having tried to explain the main thrust of Holloway’s thinking on the Church and Sacraments in the September 07 issue of Faith, it seems appropriate to examine some tendencies found in the Church today which, in one way or another, have their source in the work of certain theologians.
A committee for the United States Bishops Conference has recently become conscious of the fact that many catechetical texts used in teaching and instruction do not match up to the real Faith of the Church, as expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.[1] This is a confirmation of what has been said in many editorials of this publication over the last thirty years.

In the areas of the sacraments and the Church we find the Bishops articulating concerns that all of us have faced when we have come into contact with the so-called ‘new catechesis’. They state that many do not clearly present “the Church as established by Christ to continue both His presence and His work in the world.” Coupled with this, there is little attention given to the Church’s teaching authority. As for the life of grace, the emphasis is first of all on human initiative and experience as “the prerequisite for divine action”. Grace is not seen as God’s work of leading mankind into Trinitarian communion. The sacraments are viewed as “representative of events in human life of which God becomes a part, rather than signs and reality of divine life of which man becomes a part.”


For many this catechetical approach had its impetus from the reflections of a number of theologians broadly belonging to the transcendental school. One such is Karl Rahner. His writings are vast, and sometimes views of his to which we might object are curiously placed side by side with seemingly opposed views, with no obvious resolution between them. Many of his ideas have been used and developed by people in the ‘modernist’ catechetical movement.

In Foundations of Christian Faith, Rahner deals with the sacramental life in the second part of chapter eight. Much of what he writes has at first sight a good deal that would not be objectionable: his treatment of the sacraments in some ways is rather simple. He tries to show how the sacraments flow from the Church’s nature as the primal sacrament, the “ongoing presence of Jesus Christ in time and history.” This may sound agreeable. However, he goes on to make a fundamental statement whose content most of us could recognise from many a religious education syllabus today:

What we call church and what we call the explicit and official history of salvation, and hence also what we call the sacraments, are only especially prominent, historically manifest and clearly tangible events in a history of salvation which is identical with the life of man as a whole.[2]

Further on Rahner states this idea in a slightly different way: is clear, as the sacraments show, that a Christian does indeed live a tangible and ecclesial life, but that the ultimately Christian thing about this life is identical with the mystery of human existence....To be a Christian is simply to be a human being, and one who also knows that this life which he is living, and which he is consciously living, can also be lived even by a person who is not a Christian explicitly and does not know in a reflexive way that he is a Christian.[3]

Here I believe that an orthodox Catholic vision must walk a different path. While it is true that Rahner’s presentation of man as a ‘supernatural existential’ does aim to maintain some kind of nature of man such that it cannot be absolutely identical with his supernatural vocation, the texts quoted above appear to indicate that the supernatural life that is given to the believer is something already possessed by the non-believer in equal measure. All that distinguishes them is that the Christian has come to explicit awareness that the source of this is God in Jesus Christ, an awareness which thereby implies his own appropriation and willed acceptance of this fact.

God as Environer

Holloway’s book, Catholicism: A New Synthesis, does not present the self-communication of God as something that actually constitutes the human person as such. For him it is not true that the supernatural life is fully imparted with existence, even though it needs to be categorically affirmed by the individual. Rather, because of man’s real historical nature, as a spiritual and corporeal being in a history of being, man’s identity is not from the first moments immediately imbued with the fullness of this life. True, he is made in the self-giving love of Christ and so naturally and dynamically seeks the Lord who Himself desires this creature as a son. Nevertheless, the structure of man’s nature implies growth and stages of increase in wisdom, stature and grace. In a strange kind ofa way, Rahner’s view of man being dynamically constituted in a permanent existential of supernatural life is actually rather static and in the end a-historical, despite his insistence on the need for categorical instances that open this existential up.

For Holloway man needs to grow into this unique filial relationship with God in a manner suitable to his nature. No creature in nature has its potential fully developed with the initial moments of its existence; it needs to be deployed and actuated in relation to other beings. With man this is particularly true and so the fullness of the supernatural life that God gives is not given a priori in an ‘athematic’ transcendental act but effected through, with and in words, signs and actions – ultimately in Jesus Christ.

Only thus through a truly personal encounter in space and time can man come to know and love the God who calls to his heart. The Incarnation and the sacramental economy fit in with man’s structure as a being. In keeping with an evolutionary universe, a universe of space and time, of growth and passage, man, who relates to others in moments and places, who relates to them through the flesh, and whose relationships with them can never be fully constituted from the beginning but admits of stages, will need the sacramental economy to grow in his relationship with God. At the same time, from God’s angle, as it were, if He creates matter with its aspects of space and time then in His communication with man He will not ignore the structure of what He has created but will take it seriously whenHe gives His divine life. Holloway’s view of the sacraments takes full account of these perspectives which are those of the one Unity-Law. Hence man although initially influenced by the touch of God upon Him at the creation of the soul will need stages in His relationship with God. These stages will need to be concrete actions of personal giving to man as material as well as spiritual. They will therefore be ritualised and involve some visible expression and will respond to the different aspects and needs of man’s present existence. They will not be the construction of man searching for the best possible relationship with God; like all other creatures who receive their life not from themselves but from their environment, man will not be able to actualise his own fulfilment. Because God isman’s personal Environment these stages will be the deployment of God’s gifts and grace to man in and through Christ.

Nature and Grace

As a result the sacraments cannot be the manifestations of what man already is, they are a gift of something he does not possess fully from conception, a gift he could never attain on his own nor dare claim as his rightful possession. They are instead the promise of what man will be when fully transformed into glory and they are the bestowal upon man of a life into which he is growing and at which he has not yet fully arrived. This is a life revealed and given in the most historical, tangible and hence also universal terms. Christ, God made man, brings to man a fulfilment which of his own nature he could never obtain for himself. The human creature looks for its provision from the One to Whom he is relative and it is provided in a manner that is suitable to his nature.

Consequently, it is clear that the sacraments cannot just be categorical instances of what man is already: they are a giving of something that he is not yet and a summons to an eschatological fullness which will only be attained in the final Resurrection. This also means that the Christian is indeed something morethan just a human being. By the sacraments and through them alone is man divinised and becomes truly a son of God and dwells in a spiritual and corporeal union with Him. Any touch of the redemptive love of grace in an unborn child is indeed an entitative draw, but a draw is not the plenary communication of the gift!

Where From?

ahner’s thought on the sacraments sees them as the actions of the Church or rather the expressions of the Church as she interprets herself as the primal sacrament, the efficacious sign of salvation in the world. This is not to reduce them as actions of grace. However the sacraments are seen as the unfolding of the sacramentality which characterises the Church’s identity.[4] Coupled with this, he sees the sacraments as actions of God and of man:

A sacrament is a tangible word and a tangible response. It comes from God and from man.[5]

As a result, he presents the sacrament as a partnership between God and man, even though there is a radical difference between Creator and creature. In each sacramental action the Church actualises its own identity “as the ongoing presence of eschatologically victorious grace”.[6] This in Rahner’s mind does not reduce the grace-giving nature of the sacraments, nor God’s involvement in them, since the Church is the most concrete expression and continuation of God’s triumphal presence in the world in Christ:

To this extent it is theologically legitimate to understand the sacraments as the most radical and most intensive instance of God’s word as a word of the church when this word represents an absolute involvement of the church and is what is called opus operatum.[7]

Who is the Primary Agent?

Holloway’s approach as we have seen would not view the sacraments as effective expressions of the life-giving relationship between God and man, summed up and brought to completion in Christ. They are not just actions of God and man. The relationship is not one of God and man relating to each other (even if for Rahner man’s ability to relate is itself a grace from God) but it is unified in Christ who is God and man: He is the principal agent of the sacraments and He acts directly in each of them. The nature of the sacraments does indeed reflect something of the relationship between God and man; but more properly we can say that the Sacraments reflect and flow from the identity of Christ, God and man, our way, our truth, our life and our bread of life. They involve the co-operation of ahuman being in their performance. However their nature as word of God and word of man does not primarily derive from the minister’s own personality but from Christ who in Himself is the perfect gift of God to us, God as man. It is He who designates (sometimes through the Magisterium which is His mind, teaching with his authority and guarantee in the Church) the sign that shall be the instrument of the giving of His life and it is this sign that becomes the means by which the finality of His identity as our life is brought to completion.

The minister simply “extends through [his] own...status and character participated with Christ, the Personality of the Lord.”[8] So the minister has a real task but the sacrament itself should not be seen as his word or that of man or the Church, deriving from them, in relation to a word that comes from God: rather it is the “enfleshing...of an objective gift of God” that follows through from the structure of the Incarnation and so it is Christ’s own action as God and man, in the sacrament itself and in the minister who administers it. It is an action of God and of man in this sense therefore: it is the action of God made man. It should be obvious therefore that the primal sacrament is not the Church but Christ Himself: he is the original,so to speak, from which all the sacraments derive their nature and so they are His mediations to us of who He is and what He does for us. This does not reduce the Church’s role but rather reinforces it as “the fullness of Him who fills the whole of creation” (Ephesians 1:23), His own Body in the world and not just some ongoing human convention: she is the vessel or Ark of salvation.

The Institutional Church

Finally, we know that today very often there is much discussion of the outward institution of the Church and its relation to its real inner nature. I use these words advisedly because the question often implies a kind of polarity and separation between the two. Walter Kasper sees the problem as that of explaining “the relationship of the visible form of the Church to its hidden nature, which can only be grasped in faith”, the relationship between its spiritual reality and its institutional form.[9] Often many characterise the visible elements as outward appearances that can be replaced and have various degrees of relationship to the real core. They are seen as relative and so it is not infrequent that one hears the idea that if they can bechanged then they ought to be changed.

Holloway’s perspective does not appear to differentiate these relationships so starkly. Rather they can be integrated. Here I believe that his notion of the relative substance is helpful. The appearance of the substance is not separate from its actual identity: it is the substance in action, in relation to its environment, changing and adapting to it but only insofar as its formal unity, given in its relationships, permits. This is true also for the Church. Its outward, visible nature is not incidental but the substance in action. It is true that occasionally certain forms, institutions and practices no longer have a meaningful value and the substance or the Church expresses herself in a different way more suited to its evangelical encounter with the world around. Those parts that are nolonger meaningful die away but not without having helped in the growth of the whole. In the encounter with the world and with sin it can take on certain values that are dissonant with its real nature; the substance asserts itself and slowly discerns the alien character of these things and as necessary rejects them or modifies them so as to adopt them purified. Therefore visible forms in the Church are not absolutely relative but manifestations of its life as a life in Christ, an overflow of the workings of the Holy Spirit.

It is true that we cannot see or perceive the Trinity with whom the Church has communion, nor can we actually see the Holy Spirit acting in the sacraments. However this does not invalidate the analogy with the relative substance because the Incarnational structure of the Church and sacraments entails that what is spiritual is only manifested in a concrete, visible and hence material way. In the sacraments we do see God in action in a world of space and time; the Church visibly manifests communion with the
faith, hope and charity. Rather than oppose in any way the visible and the invisible nature of the Church, as if the visible form of the Church were a problem, we see that the outward manifestation of the Church is to be expected from the structure of matter, of man and of the Incarnation. Its growth, its renewal, its pruning are to be expected of something that grows organically like any other living body in the world, except that it is living in a social form not its own life but that of Christ. As a result some things will remain ever necessary, even if their manner of deployment will change as the Church seeks to proclaim more effectively the message of salvation. A good example is in the growth and manifestations of the papacy in the Church: the essentials were there in the beginningbut their active manifestation has evolved and the understanding of the full meaning of these essentials has grown. We see the modern papacy abandoning the trappings of secular kingship. At the same time we find the present Pontiff clearly developing the role of his office. For example, in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis he seems to express a further aspect of the role of the Pope: the Pope by his own authority not only teaches the Faith as the head of the College of Bishops but is also able to discern clearly what teachings are indeed infallibly taught by the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church. This appears to be nothing more than a natural development of the charge of Christ to Peter, “You in your turn must strengthen your brethren.” (Luke 22:32)


In conclusion, Holloway’s vision should principally recall all of us to a true renewal of our own life in Christ. The necessity of the Church and of the sacraments, through which flow the graces that those outside the Church receive, is vindicated. However, this also invites us to make them substantial to our lives and in no way merely incidental to them. This necessity is a source of renewal for the whole Church, whose members so often today have lost a sure grasp of her identity and of her unity with Christ, and therefore too often do not see the need not only for the sacraments but also for any kind of missionary endeavour at all. This corrosion of faith can be answered and reversed but in order to do so we must, as Holloway says, realise “the need for personal prayer, penance,humility, and union with God by meditation and mystical communion,”[10] so that thereby the Word of God will be manifested in our world not as “the breath of any imaginary pale Galilean, but the splendour and dynamism of God in the power of the Spirit,” Jesus Christ “the bringer in of the enormous vision that is splendid, the majesty of the Intellect of God and of Man, the fullness of the Kingdom on Earth which God has made for Man, and can bring to consummation only in and through His creature, Man.”[11]

[1]The quotations that follow are taken from the printed extract found in The Sower, April, 1998. With it is an interesting article by Michael J. Wrenn and Kenneth D. Whitehead entitled “Teaching a Different Faith”.
[2]Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith (Crossroad, New York, 1989), 425-426.
[3]Ibid., 430.
[4]Ibid., 412-413.
[5]Ibid., 427.
[6]Ibid., 428.
[7]Ibid., 427.
Catholicism, 312.
[9]Walter Kasper, Theology and Church (SCM, London, 1989), 112.
[10]Catholicism, 501.
[11]Ibid., 491.

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