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Protestants don’t see why Catholics who come to disagree with essential teachings of the Church don’t just leave. The answer is symbolized by the sanctuary lamp. They do not leave the Church because they know that the sacramental fire burns there on the ecclesiastical hearth. Even if they do not see by its light, they want to be warmed by its fire. The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is a magnet drawing lost sheep home and keeping would-be strays from the deathly snows outside. The Church’s biggest drawing card is not what she teaches, crucial as that is, but who is there. “He is here! Therefore I must be here.”
Adult conversion to Catholicism involves more than adding a few new beliefs. It means a whole new world and life view. No ingredient in that new perspective was more of a shock to my old Protestant sensibilities when I became a Catholic than the idea that the God-man is really present in, and not just symbolized by, what appears to be a wafer of bread and a cup of wine. It seemed scandalous!
It has ceased to scandalize me, though it has not ceased to amaze me, that Almighty God suffers me to touch him, move him and eat him! Imagine! When I move my hand to my mouth with the Host, I move God through space. When I put him here, he is here. When I put him there, he is there. The Prime Mover lets me move him where I will. It is as amazing as the Incarnation itself, for it is the Incarnation, the continuation of the Incarnation.
I think I understand how the typical Protestant feels about sacramentalism not only because I was a Protestant but because it is a natural and universal feeling. The Catholic doctrine of the sacraments is shocking to everyone. It should be a shock to Catholics too. But familiarity breeds dullness.
To Protestants, sacraments must be one of two things: either mere symbols, reminders, like words; or else real magic. And the Catholic definition of a sacrament — a visible sign instituted by Christ to give grace, a sign that really effects what it symbolizes — sounds like magic. Catholic doctrine teaches that the sacraments work ex opere operato, i.e., objectively, though not impersonally and automatically like machines. They are gifts that come from without but must be freely received.
Protestants are usually much more comfortable with a merely symbolic view of sacraments, for their faith is primarily verbal, not sacramental. After all, it is the Bible that looms so large in the center of their horizon. They believe in creation and Incarnation and Resurrection only because they are in the Bible. The material events are surrounded by the holy words. The Catholic sensibility is the inside-out version of this: the words are surrounded by the holy facts. To the Catholic sensibility it is not primarily words but matter that is holy because God created it, incarnated himself in it, raised it from death, and took it to heaven with him in his ascension.
Orthodox Protestants believe these scriptural dogmas, of course, just as surely as Catholics do. But they do not, I think, feel the crude, even vulgar facticity of them as strongly. That’s why they do not merely disagree with but are profoundly shocked by the real presence and transubstantiation. Luther, by the way, taught the real presence and something much closer to transubstantiation than most Protestants believe, namely consubstantiation, the belief that Christ’s body and blood are really present in the Eucharist, but so are the bread and wine. Catholics believe the elements are changed; Lutherans believe they are added to.
Most Protestants believe the Eucharist only symbolizes Christ, though some, following Calvin, add that it is an occasion for special grace, a sign and a seal. But though I was a Calvinist for twenty one years, I do not remember any emphasis on that notion. Much more often, I heard the contrast between the Protestant “ spiritual “ interpretation and the Catholic “material “, “magical” one.
The basic objection Protestants have to sacramentalism is this: How can divine grace depend on matter, something passive and unfree? Isn’t it unfair for God’s grace to depend on anything other than his will and mine? I felt that objection strongly until I realized that the sheer fact that I have a body — this body, with this heredity, which came to me and still comes to me without my choice — is also “unfair”. One gets a healthy body, another does not. As one philosopher said, “Life isn’t fair.”
It’s the very nature of the material world we live in, the very fact of a material world at all, that is so “unfair” that it moved Ivan Karamazov to rebellion against God in that profoundest and most Christian novel, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. As he explains to his believing brother Alyosha, “It’s not God that I can’t accept, it’s this world of his” — a world in which bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. But it might be better than fair rather than less, gift rather than payment, grace rather than justice, “fair” as “beautiful” rather than “fair” as rational “ — like a sacrament.
In fact, the world is a sacrament. We receive God through every material reality (though not in the same special way as in the sacraments proper). The answer to the Protestant objection to the unfairness of the sacraments is that only a world of pure spirit would be perfectly fair. Only angels get exactly what they deserve individually.
Praise God, we get infinitely more than we deserve! The sacraments remind us that the whole world is a sacrament, a sacred thing, a gift; and the sacramental character of the world reminds us of the central sacrament, the Incarnation, continued among us in the seven sacraments of the Church, especially in the Eucharist. The sacramental view of the world and the Catholic doctrine of the sacraments illuminate each other like large and small mirrors.
Both the sacrament of the world and the sacrament of incarnation/ Eucharist also remind us that we too are sacramental, matter made holy by spirit. Our bodies are not corpses moved by ghosts, or cars steered by angels, but temples of the Holy Spirit. In our bodies, especially our faces, matter is transmuted into meaning. The eyes are the windows of the soul.
Protestants sometimes object to the sacraments by asking whether a baby’s eternal destiny is altered if the water of baptism does not quite reach his forehead before the church building falls on him and kills him, or whether a penitent who gets run over and killed by a truck while crossing the street on his way to a sacramental confession will suffer hell or a longer purgatory only because the truck happened to hit him before rather than after confession. The answer to such a question is: not necessarily. We do not know God’s plan unless he reveals it to us, and he has revealed the sacraments. But not only the sacraments. The early Church called the death of martyrs who had no opportunity for baptism “the baptism of blood”, and the intention (explicit or even implicit) to be baptized “the baptism of desire” (thus allowing good, God-seeking pagans into heaven). This Catholic doctrine of “back-door grace” seems shifty verbal trickery to many Protestants, but it is necessary to preserve two undeniable truths: first, that we are commanded to receive the sacraments and told that “unless you eat my body and drink my blood, you have no life in you” and, second, that God is just and merciful and does not deny grace to any who seek it.
Perhaps we Catholics are like the laborers who worked only an hour, in our Lord’s parable (Mt 20:1-16), and those without the sacraments like those who worked all day. It seems unfair that both groups got the same wages. So it seems unfair that we are given all this extra sacramental help, easier grace, so to speak. But the Lord of the vineyard replied to this objection: “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own?” This reply scandalizes our sense of political justice. But it fits the nature of the world; and it is the world of nature, God’s creation, rather than politics, man’s creation, that declares the glory of God. The sacraments declare the same scandalous generosity.
We don’t deserve to be born or to be born again or to be baptized. We don’t deserve God’s sun or God’s Son. We don’t deserve delicious bread and wine or the Body and Blood of Christ. But we are given all this, and more. As Christopher Derrick put it, in a poem entitled “The Resurrection of the Body”:
He’s a terror that one:
Catholics often have a more-than-intellectual faith in the sacraments that Protestants do not understand. Thus they don’t see why Catholics who come to disagree with essential teachings of the Church don’t just leave. The answer is symbolized by the sanctuary lamp. They do not leave the Church because they know that the sacramental fire burns there on the ecclesiastical hearth. Even if they do not see by its light, they want to be warmed by its fire. The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is a magnet drawing lost sheep home and keeping would-be strays from the deathly snows outside. The Church’s biggest drawing card is not what she teaches, crucial as that is, but who is there. “He is here! Therefore I must be here.”
Kreeft, Peter. “The Sacraments.” Chapter 45 in Fundamentals of the Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 282-286.
Reprinted by permission of Ignatius Press. All rights reserved. Fundamentals of the Faith - ISBN 0-89870-202-X.
Peter Kreeft teaches at Boston College in Boston Massachusetts. He is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.
Copyright © 1988 Ignatius Press