The Sacraments in Thirteenth-Century Theology
Abstract and Keywords
Thirteenth-century theologians describe the sacraments as signs that have to do with spiritual realities and effects. In these descriptions, they attend to the distinctive contributions of God and Christ, and of ordained priests, in bringing about the grace of the sacraments, here echoing the anti-Donatist teaching of St. Augustine. Thirteenth-century theologians are also alert to the importance of proper spiritual disposition on the part of recipients for fruitful engagement in the sacraments, without making such disposition efficiently causal of spiritual effects. The chapter reflects on the thirteenth-century theological concern for objective sacramental efficacy as well as appropriate subjective disposition, through the examination of two sets of texts: the teaching on the sacraments in general offered by William of Auxerre, Alexander of Hales, Bonaventure, Aquinas, and Robert Kilwardby; and Aquinas’s treatise on the Eucharist in his Summa theologiae.
The sacraments held tremendous significance for Catholic Christians in the thirteenth century. Sacramental practice shaped Catholic Christian identity, and the sacraments offered repeated opportunity for Catholic public performance and expression of faith. Infant baptism was by now long the norm, affirming formal entry into the believing community; and as decreed at Lateran IV (1215), Catholic Christians were expected to confess their sins to a priest and to receive the Eucharist at least once a year (Constitutiones c.21/Tanner 1990: I, 245). Ordained clergy officiated at marriage ceremonies, giving God’s blessing to newly formed couples embarking on a new stage of life. The sacraments also helped to distinguish Catholic Christianity from other religions, including other claimants to the title of “Christian.” Through the use of material elements in many of the sacraments, Catholics expressed their rejection of the Cathar denigration of matter and affirmed the goodness of all of God’s creation. God creates all, the visible as well as the invisible, and can employ the material for spiritual ends. In restricting the consecration in the Eucharist and the proclaiming of absolution in penance to ordained ministers (on whom a sacramental power had been bestowed through their ordination), Catholics likewise were rejecting a Waldensian claim that the conveying of grace was in some way dependent on the personal holiness of the celebrant (Lateran IV c.1/Tanner 1990: I, 230; Peters 1980: chs. III, IV; Rubin 1991: chs.1, 5). In this, of course, there is a medieval resumption of the anti-Donatist teaching of Augustine.
Catholic theologians accordingly devoted considerable attention to the sacraments, to how they worked and why, and how they fit into God’s plan for human salvation. The present chapter focuses on thirteenth-century scholastic treatments of the sacraments. The chapter falls into two parts. The first is given over to what the scholastics taught in general about the sacraments, observing where there was broad consensus as well as occasional points of disagreement. Here, I consider the teachings on the (p. 219) sacraments in general offered by such representative scholastic authors as William of Auxerre, Alexander of Hales, Bonaventure, Robert Kilwardby, and Thomas Aquinas. The second part of the chapter moves the discussion forward by examining the teaching of Aquinas about the greatest of the sacraments, the Eucharist, with the aim of showing the subtlety of his depiction of the various actors in the Eucharist—God and Christ, the ordained minister, those who receive the Eucharist worthily and contribute to the eucharistic sacrifice. In that analysis, Aquinas has, in a way characteristic of scholastic teaching (but expressive as well of his particular acuity as a theologian), struck a nice balance between sacramental objective efficacy and spiritual disposition, portraying the Eucharist as at once a means of grace and an important opportunity for spiritual expression and growth.
Sacraments in General
Important for thirteenth-century discussions was the teaching on sacraments found in the Sentences of Peter Lombard. By the end of the first third of the thirteenth century, that mid-twelfth-century writing had attained status as the de facto “textbook” on which all budding scholastics were to comment to qualify for taking up university teaching positions. The four books of the Sentences aspire to comprehensiveness, presenting the main theological topics along with the sayings of leading authorities on those topics. Through the Sentences, novice theologians were exposed to areas of consensus, as well as to disagreement on specific issues. Much of Book IV is devoted to the Christian sacraments in general and then on each of the seven sacraments in particular. In his discussion of the sacraments in general (dd.I–II), Peter announced themes that would remain current in thirteenth-century treatments of the sacraments. He discusses in turn the nature of a sacrament, the purpose of a sacrament, the composition of sacraments, and the difference between the sacraments of the New Law and those of the Old. Thirteenth-century theologians produced writings other than commentaries occasioned by the Sentences. Many tried their hand at their own comprehensive presentation and investigation of the truths of the Christian faith, according to other models of organization; works such as William of Auxerre’s Summa aurea, Bonaventure’s Breviloquium, and Aquinas’ Summa theologiae come readily to mind. But, even in such works, what Peter taught about the sacraments, the issues he thought worthy of discrete treatment along with scriptural and patristic citation, all remain in view. The later scholastics by no means simply repeat the Lombard. They add their own ideas and questions, and the investigations can be even more vigorous and pointed, and more philosophically deft. But the Lombard does provide a point of departure for thirteenth-century reflections on the sacraments. With Peter, the later theologians, for example, define a sacrament as both cause and sign of a sacred reality; number the Christian sacraments at seven; and place the sacraments in the broader context of God’s saving work through Christ, as the principal, although not exclusive, means of conveying Christ’s grace.
(p. 220) Scholastic accounts of the sacraments rest on certain shared convictions about God and about humans. God is loving and good, and acts in a wise way. God calls human beings into existence in order to share God’s own life with humans: creation is geared to salvation, to the bringing of human beings into God’s own presence in the next life, and to the sharing with humans what belongs to God. The account of human beings is firmly grounded in God’s creative and saving plan. To be human means to be made by God, for God; being human involves body (with the senses) as well as soul; realizing the possibilities set for humans by God involves the use of the powers that make a human human—those of knowing and loving—in a way intended by and pleasing to God. Sinning is factored into this account of the human, the sin that is due to the misuse of the will. To sin is to rebel against God, to reject God’s plan for humans; it is to set oneself and one’s immediate surroundings as one’s end, in place of God. Different scholastics can posit a greater or lesser disruption caused by sin, that is, can play up different facets of the “consequences of sin”; but all agree that sin is an obstacle to the successful movement of humans to God as end, one that must be overcome for God’s plan for humans to come to fruition. God does not leave sin as the final word; God meets the human condition as marked by sin with grace. The scholastics are thus attentive to the healing or medicinal function of grace: Christ the physician addresses the illness that is sin, and by grace restores the sinner to health. But they are also aware of another function of grace: the God who beatifies is transcendent, beyond natural capabilities; the grace that Christ conveys is thus also elevating.
Presentations of sacraments and their grace and of how sacramental grace works to the good of human beings, in accordance with God’s plan in Christ, display a basic dynamism. Different metaphors can be employed to convey this dynamism. For example, in the Breviloquium (Part VI, ch.1), Bonaventure, echoing Peter (Sententiae Bk.IV, d.I, ch.1), portrays the sacraments as remedy, here taking the illness that is sin, with its lingering effects, at full value. Thus, different sacraments are depicted as expelling the disease (baptism), restoring to health those who have relapsed (as in penance), and maintaining health once restored (as in confirmation, and the Eucharist). The characterization of the sacraments as “remedy” is in fact quite common; we meet it too in William of Auxerre (Summa Aurea, Bk.IV, Tractatus Quartus/61–64), Alexander of Hales (Glossa In IV, Introitus/1–8), and Aquinas (ST III, q.61, 1c). Aquinas for his part trades as well on a view of life as a journey in his account of the sacraments (ST III, q.65, 2c; III, q.73, 1c and 6c). Life in this world is a journey, by which humans are readied for, and become qualified, with God’s grace through Christ and his sacraments, for eternal life in the next. This journey, of the affections and behavior, is a spiritual journey, one that testifies to spiritual life. By baptism, someone is reborn, coming to spiritual life for the first time; that life is strengthened in distinctive ways by confirmation and by Eucharist; penance allows those who have strayed to get back on track. The sacraments are an integral part of a process in which God through Christ and Christ’s sacraments interacts with those who have been made for God, to their benefit.
As was the Lombard, thirteenth-century scholastic theologians are attentive to the sacraments as both sign and cause. The material elements employed in several of the (p. 221) sacraments have a natural aptitude for pointing to sacred reality; their signification has been determined by God’s employment of material elements in the salvific process. The actions of the celebrant in the sacrament are, too, not incidental; by natural aptitude and divine appointment, the washing with water, for example, or anointing with oil proclaim God’s actions in Christ for human salvation. Whatever the philosophical affinities of given scholastic theologians (e.g. “Platonizing,” “Aristotelian”) and their precise epistemologies, this aspect of scholastic sacramentology speaks to a holistic view of the human person. A person is body and soul, and each contributes to and is involved in spiritual progress. Sacramental signs address the senses, but not just the senses; the whole human perceives and discerns, and learns anew through the sacraments what God has done in Christ for human beings.
Scholastics offer extensive reflections on the causality of the sacraments, concerned to show what sort(s) of causality can be involved, what is caused, and the contributions of the various actors in sacramental celebration. Authors such as Bonaventure can allege a full array of causes in teaching the sacraments. As he writes in the Breviloquium (Part VI.ch.1.6), in the sacraments the efficient cause is the divine institution of the sacrament; the material cause is their representing by a sensible sign; their formal cause is gratuitous sanctification; and their final cause is the medicinal healing of humankind. The tendency in scholastic discussions, however, is to focus on efficient causality, on the doing that results in the effects of the sacraments. For each of the sacraments, the main effect is grace itself, which takes on a shape appropriate to a given sacrament. What is done, in some sense, results in grace.
But some of the sacraments (baptism, confirmation, holy orders) have character as an additional effect. Character is an indelible imprint on the soul, designating its recipient as marked off as in some particular relationship to God and Christ and for some sort of service to God, Christ, and the church (Alexander, Glossa in IV, d.I/14). All those who receive baptism receive the character that makes them members of the church and ordered to God as their end. Confirmation confers an additional character, which strengthens one’s membership in the spiritual body that is church, while by ordination, certain men are ordered to sacramental celebration. By their priestly character, they are marked as representatives of Christ, the Priest (for this designation of Jesus see Lateran IV Constitutiones c.1/Tanner, I, 230); and to them is entrusted responsibility, and power, for the sacraments. They typically officiate in the sacraments, and by their priestly character, their acting in the sacraments is effective; and some sacraments, not least the Eucharist, are dependent on their involvement. An ordained priest normally officiates in baptism, but the scholastics recognize that in case of emergency, someone who is not ordained (e.g. a lay person, even a non-Christian) can baptize (Lateran IV Constitutiones c.1/Tanner I, 230; William of Auxerre, Summa aurea, Bk.IV, Tractatus V, cap.III/103–7). All that is required in such an instance is that the baptizer intend with the words and action what the church intends, even if the baptizer does not personally believe.
The Eucharist has its own particular effect, one that fully accounts for its centrality in the sacramental system and in the life of high medieval Christians. When the sacrament (p. 222) is correctly performed, by an ordained priest acting in the person of Christ and with the intention of the church in performing the sacrament, Christ truly and infallibly becomes present. Christ has promised his presence in the Eucharist and keeps that promise, presenting himself anew in eucharistic celebration to those who seek him.
By the thirteenth century, a threefold sacramental formula was in place that displays the scholastic concern for the sacrament as both sign and cause, and which helps to summarize the effects of the sacrament: sacramentum tantum (sign only), res et sacramentum (thing or reality and sign), and res tantum (thing or reality itself) (King 1967). The formula, which in its parts goes back at least to Augustine, was broadly employed to discuss the Eucharist, but could be applied to the other sacraments as well. In the Eucharist, the bread and wine are signs only. They point to the reality that is the Christ truly present; and when they are consecrated by Christ’s priestly representative, Christ is really present; and the Christ who is truly present points to and conveys what is res tantum, which is variously described as grace, and charity, and the spiritual body that is church. In terms of the sacraments that impart a particular character, that character is identified as res et sacramentum: in baptism, for example, the washing with water (sacramentum tantum) imprints a character, which itself points to the grace and forgiveness and incorporation into the spiritual body of Christ that is church, which is baptism’s res tantum.
There are several who are involved in sacramental performance and reception. What does each do, and to what extent, if at all, is their doing efficiently causal of grace? All theologians agreed that the principal agent is God. The sacraments are divinely instituted and bring about grace by the activity of God in the sacraments. The same points can be made in Christological terms, and were. Scholastic Christology is incarnational. The person of Jesus is the second divine person; and in becoming human, the second divine person has not ceased to be fully God. By incarnation, the second divine person is also, and truly, human. Thus, as God Jesus has the authority, and the power, to institute the sacraments and make available their effects, and cause those effects. The sacraments themselves are not the source of grace, in the sense of originating grace or giving rise to this spiritual power. Grace derives from God and the fully divine Christ alone.
Why then do sacraments—created entities—convey grace? The scholastics disagreed about the reason for the effectiveness of the sacraments (Courtenay 1972; Blankenhorn 2010). For some, that the sacraments bring about grace is due simply to the will of God. God has chosen to convey God’s grace in conjunction with sacramental performance. There is a sine qua non causality at play here. God, of course, could convey grace directly; but God has decided, and made a pact (Kilwardby, Quaestiones, q.39/200) to tie God’s grace to particular sacramental elements, words, actions. Sacraments are the occasions, rather than the cause, of grace, which God alone causes. Aquinas for his part wants to ascribe an efficient causality itself to the sacraments, without undermining the divine role in the causing of grace. Sacraments are instrumental efficient causes of grace (ST III, q.62, 1c). Aquinas’ mature teaching about the sacraments as separate, instrumental causes is part of a broader theological account of instrumental causality, one that begins with and has its principal point of reference in Jesus himself. Aquinas distinguishes among several (p. 223) instrumental causes. The humanity of Jesus stands to the divinity as personal, conjoined, animate instrument: personal and conjoined, for the humanity is united to the divinity in the person of the Word who becomes incarnate; animate, for the humanity of Jesus includes both soul and body, and the Word as incarnate possesses full human capacity and acts as truly and fully human, knowing and loving in authentically human fashion. The priest stands to Christ as a separate, not conjoined, instrument; and as acting in Christ’s person, and in conformity with Christ’s will in celebrating the sacraments, the priest is the instrument through whom God works, to bring about the effects intended by God. And the sacraments too are separate instruments, inanimate however, through which God acts to bring about spiritual good (ST III, q.64, a.1). The causality of all these instruments is real, and that causality is thoroughly subordinate to that of the principal efficient cause, the God who is able to work through secondary causes.
Recipients of the sacraments, however, do not exercise any such efficient causality. The grace of the sacrament is not dependent on the faith or love or any act of the recipient; again, grace has its origin in God and Christ, and is brought about, made present, by God. But the disposition and attitude of the recipient are nonetheless pertinent to a discussion of the sacraments; on this, all scholastics are agreed. Sacraments cause grace; but not all who receive a sacrament receive its grace. In asserting the value of correct subjective disposition on the part of recipients, scholastics can at times be content with a minimalist claim: as long as the recipient does not place an obstacle (obex; see Alexander of Hales, Glossa In IV, d.IV/92) to sacramental grace, it will be received. Here, correct disposition is put negatively, in terms of mortal sin. Mortal sin thwarts, blocks, the infusion of grace. A comparison could be drawn to the sun’s rays: the sun may be shining, but the room is not lit when the shades are drawn (Alexander of Hales, Glossa in IV, d.IV/73).
But scholastics can also be more positive in stating subjective disposition, insisting on an openness on the part of the recipient to God that testifies to an existing, spiritual relationship with God through Christ. In this more expansive, positive presentation, faith informed by charity is to the fore. By formed faith, a person is a member of Christ’s spiritual body; those who are already part of Christ’s spiritual body accept, by their formed faith, the offer of grace made by God in the sacraments. This holds in the Eucharist. It holds too for penance, where a person who is repentant seeks to confess to a priest and receive formal absolution. And it holds for adult baptism, where the baptism marks a formal profession of one’s living faith. Infant baptism offers only an apparent exception to this insistence on the presence of faith in the recipient to benefit spiritually from sacramental performance. The infant, of course, is incapable of the act of faith; but there is an act of faith even in this baptism, the faith of the church, expressed by the sponsors on the child’s behalf. In terms of the threefold sacramental formula, one can put the scholastic consensus as follows: the sacramentum tantum is received by all those who receive a sacrament. So too will be the res et sacramentum, whatever the subjective disposition of the recipient (this is why the sacraments that offer the indelible mark that is character are not repeatable: character is simply imprinted on the soul). But not all ascend to the res tantum, actually get the grace and spiritual benefits of a sacrament. The mortal sinner in effect rejects the res tantum. In such sacramental reception, there is a fictive (p. 224) element; the sinner receives ficte (William of Auxerre, Summa Aurea, Bk.IV, Tractatus V, cap.II, q.1/76–82): the sinful person is only pretending to have the formed faith required for fruitful reception. The person alive in faith and charity, professing truthfully, does accept that grace, and so grows in it.
While all agreed on the need for an appropriate subjective disposition to receive sacramental grace, there was no consensus about how a person attains that disposition. For those who took at face value the facienti quod in se est (“to someone doing what lies in him”; “to someone doing his best”), the onus is on the person to take the initiative. The person must take the first step—repent of mortal sin; come to the faith that justifies—and then God will meet the person, as it were, halfway, and give grace. To someone who does her best, God gives grace. In this view, the actual reception of a sacrament involves the completion of a process set in motion by the person. For Scotus, for example, in penance what is needed at the start of the process is attrition on the part of the penitent, a sorrow for sins that may be motivated by fear of punishment. In confessing sins to the priest and receiving absolution, that attrition will be transformed into contrition, true sorrow for sins because of a desire to please God and not be separate from God, and grace is infused. Other theologians, however, placed the initiative in readying a person with God, not the person. By the time of the Summa (ST I–II, q.112, aa.2–3), Aquinas has rejected a straightforward interpretation of the facienti, here influenced by his reading of the very late Augustine (writing against the Massilians) and showing his own progress in refining a teaching on grace (Wawrykow 1995: 210–211). For the reception of habitual grace, the person does need to be prepared, but that preparation is not the human’s achievement. It is worked in the person by God, by the operative auxilium that readies the person for the infusion of habitual grace. By God’s grace of auxilium, that person is already set right with God, oriented to God by the faith and charity that accompany and emerge from grace. Such a person receives fruitfully, responding by God’s grace to God’s offer of new grace and other spiritual gifts.
Aquinas on the Eucharist
Resonance, as well as significant detail, will be added to this account of sacrament by taking a closer look at a particular sacrament, as taught by a particular scholastic theologian: the Eucharist, at the very center of Christian life in this world (ST III, q.73, a.3c), as discussed by Aquinas in his Summa theologiae (ST III, qq.73–83). What has been stated about the sacraments in general—on sacrament as cause and sign, the role of the priest, the importance of proper spiritual disposition in the recipient for fruitful reception—comes to more exact expression in Aquinas’ treatise on the Eucharist. Looking at this particular treatise will make more evident that talk of sacrament presupposes and brings to bear certain key convictions about God and Christ, and humans in relation to God through Christ. And by looking at this sacrament, according to Aquinas, the significance of Christ as priest will come into clearer focus, as will the ways in which (p. 225) sacramental performance by the entire church offers members of the church the opportunity for spiritual growth into Christ, precisely through the proclamation of their formed faith.
The point of departure here is a particular passage that falls in the first article of the penultimate question of the Summa’s treatise on the Eucharist. ST III, q.82, a.1, ad2 reads as follows:
the just layperson is united to Christ in a spiritual union by faith and charity, but not by sacramental power. And thus the just layperson has a spiritual priesthood (spirituale sacerdotium) for offering spiritual sacrifices, about which it is said in Psalm 50 :19, “a sacrifice to God is an afflicted spirit”; and in Romans 12:1, “offer up your bodies as a living sacrifice.” Whence it is also written in I Peter 2:5, “a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual offerings.” [my translation]
The passage is quite rich, and offers a distinctive access to themes that are important to the treatise on the Eucharist as a whole. It also calls for a closer consideration of the Christology that courses its way through the treatise on the Eucharist, picking up on and expanding upon ideas about Christ, in his person and work, expressed earlier in the Summa’s third part, in the ex professo treatment of Christ.
ST III, q.82 has as its topic the minister of the sacrament. The first article is concerned with eucharistic consecration: who can consecrate, and on what basis does that one consecrate? The second objection in the article thinks that every Christian can consecrate in the Eucharist. In the response to that objection, Aquinas answers with a distinction, between two priesthoods that are found in the church. The one is the priesthood to which sacramental power is attached, and so is involved in eucharistic consecration; Aquinas pursues that point in the rest of the article. The other is what he here calls a “spiritual priesthood,” one that involves spiritual union with Christ by faith and charity. This other priesthood, the main focus of this response, is in its own way pertinent to a teaching on the Eucharist.
The treatise on the Eucharist in the Summa covers a wide range of topics, from the matter and formulae of the sacrament, through the effects of the sacraments and the recipients of the sacraments, to a concluding series of reflections on the liturgy of the mass. The question in which the passage is found—q.82—turns to the minister of the sacrament; and the greater part of q.82 focuses on the priesthood to which sacramental power is attached.
By the time we reach q.82, on the minister, Aquinas has, however, made several observations about the sacramental priest. Indeed, the core of the teaching about the sacramental priest is already in place by the time we get to the article in which this passage is found; q.82 simply adds some coloring to the depiction. And in the teaching thus far about the sacramental priest, consecration in fact holds pride of place. The Eucharist is for Aquinas a sacrament, a sign of a sacred reality that causes grace. But it is a distinctive sacrament. The other sacraments come to their perfection in being applied to a recipient. This sacrament, however, has as its “first perfection” the presence of Christ (p. 226) (ST III, q.73, a.1, ad3). By the consecration, what was bread is changed into the substance of Christ’s body; what was wine into the substance of Christ’s blood. Christ is distinctively and irreducibly present in the sacrament; and Christ becomes present, and unfailingly so, when the sacrament is properly performed. Who then is the priest that consecrates, and what is the nature of his contribution to the change? First, he is the representative of Christ; he acts in persona Christi, whose instrument he is (ST III, q.78, a.1c). He is designated Christ’s representative by his ordination. In his ordination, he receives a priestly character (in addition to that character that all Christians receive in their baptism). By that priestly character, which is stamped on his soul, he is delegated for sacramental service, to represent Christ and on behalf of Christ. In the eucharistic consecration, the words he speaks are not his own, but Christ’s (ST III, q.78, a.4c). He speaks Christ’s words of institution; he is not speaking for himself, but for Christ. Christ has made the promise of his presence, and it is Christ who keeps the promise, by the words of Christ spoken by the priest. The words of consecration are transformative—through them the change is wrought—and descriptive (ST III, q.78, a.5c): this is Christ’s body, Christ’s blood.
The spiritual attributes and personal qualities of the sacramental priest, Aquinas notes by contrast, are not pertinent to the consideration of the change and the presence that results from the change. Indeed, it may be that a sacramental priest is himself not a believer, or himself a lover of Christ. What does matter is the priestly character that the sacramental priest has received, delegating him for this work. Provided the sacramental priest is able to form the intention that the church has in celebrating the sacrament—that is, to follow Christ’s command to “do this in memory of me”—that is sufficient. In this rendering, the sacramental priest is viewed as an instrumental cause (as too are the words of consecration). The principal agent in the consecration is Christ, who has instituted the sacrament and promised his presence; the change is worked by the power of Christ’s Spirit, the principal efficient cause of the change, acting through the priest and the words of consecration.
In our passage in q.82, however, there is another priesthood that is named, the spiritual priesthood; and it is apparent enough that in the present passage it is with that priesthood that Aquinas is especially concerned. This is a priesthood that is based on spiritual union, and spiritual union with Christ, and spiritual union with Christ by faith and charity. The making of the distinction—there is a second priesthood, in addition to the sacramental—and the identification of a priesthood that is “spiritual” may on first reading be a surprise. This is the first mention in the treatise on the Eucharist of a “spiritual priesthood,” a priesthood that is distinctive and that has the importance conveyed by the scriptural citations (Ps.50 :19; Rom 12:1; 1 Pet 2:5) that express what is involved in this “spiritual priesthood.” And, as a quick search in the Index thomisticus confirms, one of the scriptural verses cited in this response—that from 1 Peter—is extremely rare in the Thomistic corpus. Its use here, with the affirmation of a spiritual priesthood, thus calls out for comment.
While the term (“spiritual priesthood”) is new, what is conveyed by the term is most definitely not new to the treatise on the Eucharist. Especially in the questions on the (p. 227) effects and recipients of the sacrament (ST III, qq.78–79), Aquinas has had considerable occasion to reflect on spiritual union with Christ through faith and charity and the importance of that spiritual union in an account of this sacrament. Through his comments in this vein, Aquinas gives expression to a second theme important in the treatise, alongside the insistence on what amounts to an objective sacramental efficacy (in terms of the change and the presence): proper spiritual disposition, when it comes to the recipients of this sacrament, must be given its due.
Christ is the source of grace and charity. The coming to be present of Christ in the Eucharist thus can be the occasion for the distribution of grace and charity. Aquinas thematizes this point about the connection between Christ eucharistically present and spiritual benefits by invoking the formula discussed in the first part of this chapter: sacramentum tantum, res et sacramentum, and res tantum. After the consecration, the sacramentum tantum is the remaining accidents of the bread and wine; these signify, act as sign, pointing beyond themselves, to both the res et sacramentum and the res tantum. The res et sacramentum is the Christ truly present in the sacrament through the consecration; as signified by the bread and wine, Christ is present as spiritual food and spiritual drink. The eucharistically present Christ is thus res (of the signifying bread and wine); the eucharistically present Christ is also sacramentum, also sign, pointing to the res tantum, to what is provided by spiritual food and drink. By res tantum, Aquinas summarizes in various ways the spiritual benefits of the Eucharist. Grace and charity, to be sure; but Aquinas can also refer here to the church, to the mystical body of Christ, the body that has Christ as its head. In that body, many are brought together as one; to invoke the sacramentum tantum again, here as pointing as well to the res tantum, that body is like one bread, made out of many grains (ST III, q.74, a.1c).
The threefold formula is prominent in Aquinas’ teaching about sacramental reception. Aquinas reflects on several different sorts of possible recipients of the Eucharist. To name a few (ST III, q.80, aa.1–4): the non-believer; the person who is in mortal sin, and so is estranged from God; the person who is marked by grace, faith, and charity. What does each receive? For each, there is a “sacramental eating”: each receives the sacramentum tantum, the remaining accidents of bread and wine, which signify both real presence and spiritual benefits. Each also receives the Christ who is truly present in the sacrament (what was bread is in truth, by virtue of the consecration, the substance of Christ’s body). But not all receive the spiritual benefits; for some, there is a block between the res et sacramentum and the res tantum. Only those who eat in faith and charity, and out of grace, attain the res tantum. It is again helpful to think here in terms of the difference between the making of an offer and its acceptance (or rejection). Those who, in their reception, express their faith and charity are in effect open to the offer that Christ, who is present, makes. By their faith and charity, they accept that offer; and so their eating is both sacramental and spiritual. And in their sacramental eating that is spiritual, they receive Christ as their spiritual food and spiritual drink, and grow in grace and charity, and are more fully incorporated into the body of Christ. For others, who lack faith and charity, who lack grace because of mortal sin, there is a sacramental eating, but one that is not spiritual. The offer that the eucharistic Christ makes is rejected; they (p. 228) receive the eucharistically present Christ, but not his benefits. For that further eating, union with Christ through faith and charity is required.
One of Aquinas’ favorite designations of the Eucharist in the Summa is as the “sacrament of charity” (e.g. ST III, q.73, a.3, ad3). That title is indeed apt. It nicely underscores Christ’s own love, not least in instituting this sacrament, guaranteeing his sacramental presence when he was about to leave those whom he calls “friends” (this point about the institution of the Eucharist as by a friend for friends is made in the very first question of the treatise; ST III, q.73, a.5c). But this designation of the sacrament as the sacrament of charity also reinforces what is called for on the part of the recipients, in their fruitful engagement with the Christ who is truly present.
The Sacrament that is also Sacrifice
Much of the treatise is devoted to the Eucharist as sacrament. Aquinas has woven into the treatise another characterization of Eucharist: the Eucharist is sacrifice as well (e.g. ST III, q.79, a.5, ad7; q.83, a.1). And in the teaching about eucharistic sacrifice, charity again comes very much to the fore.
Aquinas’ comments about the Eucharist as sacrifice gather together and extend others made earlier in the Summa—about sacrifice in general, in the second part of the second part (ST II–II, q.85); on Christ’s priesthood in the third part, q.22; and an article in q.48 that describes the cross in terms of sacrifice (a.3). In all of these discussions of sacrifice, Aquinas explicitly acknowledges his debt to the teaching on sacrifice in Book X of Augustine’s On the City of God and Book IV of Augustine’s On the Trinity. Augustine’s definition of sacrifice, and application to Christ, following the scriptural witness, shapes Aquinas’ own teaching about sacrifice in the Summa.
For Augustine, and for Aquinas, a sacrifice is something done that gives God the honor due to God and is pleasing to God. In the giving that is sacrifice, four elements need to be discerned, four questions answered: “to whom is the sacrifice offered, by whom is it offered, what is offered, and for whom is it offered.” In considering the “by whom,” it will be especially important to consider the willingness with which the offering is made; the greater the charity, and so the willingness of the act and concern for the object of the giving, the more pleasing the offering will be. And in considering the “for whom,” one cannot restrict oneself to the offerer. It may well be that the intention of the offering is not just for oneself or even principally for oneself. The offering can be of more general application, that is, for others to benefit from what the offerer gives to God in doing what the offerer does.
With this understanding of sacrifice, Augustine has no difficulty concluding that in Christ one meets the paradigmatic sacrifice, sacrifice in its most perfect form. Aquinas’ discussion of Christ’s priesthood, in ST III, q.22, shows that Aquinas has made this assessment his own. In the treatment of Christ as priest, sacrifice stands to the fore. Christ the Priest offers himself to God, who is pleased by this offering; and this offering is (p. 229) perfect, done out of perfect charity. Lying behind Aquinas’ depiction of the perfection of this sacrifice is his earlier account in ST III, q.7 of Christ’s personal holiness as rooted in Christ’s perfect grace and charity. As is well known, Aquinas advances an incarnational Christology, and in that Christology he wants to take seriously the divine personhood, the full divinity, and the true humanity. The Word, the fully divine second person, has without loss to itself as fully divine person taken up and expressed a second nature and fully instantiated that humanity. The Word incarnate is the subject of that humanity, the agent of the human doings and undergoings ascribed in scripture to Jesus. A fundamental goal of Aquinas in this incarnational Christology is to speak correctly of Christ, to know what is in play, in terms of the Christology, when speaking of Christ. Is a statement made with regard to the divinity? Made with regard to the humanity? In the discussion of Christ and his priesthood and his sacrifice, Aquinas puts the focus where he thinks it should be. The Word incarnate is priest in terms of the humanity that has been taken up and expressed by the Word. The Word incarnate is morally perfect, and so can make the perfect offering, because the human Word is full of grace and charity, has received from God these perfections which allow for fully correct action in relation to God. And so, as in III.22 where Aquinas is contemplating Christ’s sacrifice and asserts its perfection, he is in effect able to make the point on two grounds, having to do with two of Augustine’s four elements in sacrifice. What is offered—Christ’s holy actions and ultimately his holy life—is perfect; Christ offers his actions and life perfectly, in perfect obedience and love and out of the perfection of his grace (ST III, q.22, a.2). And to continue this tracing of Christ in terms of perfect sacrifice, and to bring up another element of the Augustinian account of sacrifice: q.7, on Christ’s personal holiness, is followed by a question (8) that deals with Christ as head of the mystical body that is the church. That headship is due to grace, due to the same grace that provides for his personal holiness, but now viewed from a different angle, with an eye to the acting out of that grace and charity as for others. What we meet in qq.7–8, which undergird the depiction of Christ’s priesthood and sacrifice, is in effect the Thomistic gloss on the Johannine point: Jesus was “full of grace and truth; from that grace we have all received” (John 1: 14, 16).
In ST III, q.48, Aquinas will reflect on the sacrifice of the cross, employing the Augustinian definition of sacrifice and breaking this sacrifice down in terms of the four Augustinian elements. However, Aquinas will not restrict sacrifice to the death on the cross; nor does he want to suggest that only dying for God is sacrificial. All of Christ’s actions can be thought of in terms of sacrifice; and given Aquinas’ notion of Christ as model for moral emulation, he thinks that Christian acting, done in imitation of Christ, can be put in sacrificial terms. As Aquinas says, following Augustine, every good work done in charity, by which one comes closer to God, is a true sacrifice. Helpful here is a passage from one of Aquinas’ commentaries—that on the Ten Commandments—which gestures at the range of good works that are sacrifice, pleasing to God (de decem preceptis, a.5c). The passage, not incidentally, is also notable for its citation, while listing these diverse sacrifices, of two of the scriptures cited in our originating passage from ST III, q.82 (the Romans and the Psalms quotes). Sacrifice is owed (in justice) to God daily, and doubly so, Aquinas states in this commentary, on the sabbath. We should offer sacrifice (p. 230) to God from all that we possess. We should offer, first of all, our soul to God, being sorry for our sins (here, our psalm is quoted about the afflicted spirit) and also pray for God’s blessings. Secondly, we should offer our body (here, Romans is cited), by mortifying it with fasting, and also by praising God. And thirdly, we should sacrifice our possessions by giving alms. What holds of others, of their sacrificing, holds of Christ. His sacrifice meets, as it were, sin. But it testifies at the same time to the human life well lived, in accordance with what God seeks of beings of such nature and called to the end that is eternal life. He evinces his commitment to God, his devotion to God, his offering to God in his own profound love, giving to God his holy life and actions that are pleasing to God. Aquinas underscores, in fact, this broader scope of sacrifice even in the case of the cross, in the article (a.3) on the Passion as sacrifice in ST III q.48. Christ’s suffering and death, done in love, please God in their justice and love even as they address the problem of sin.
For two closely related reasons, the Eucharist can rightly be called a “sacrifice.” First, in accordance with Christ’s institution of the Eucharist, the Eucharist commemorates, recalls, the Passion (which of course for Aquinas is sacrificial). And secondly, Christ is truly present in this sacrament. When Aquinas reflects on the one who is present, a favorite designation of this sacrament’s res et sacramentum is the “crucified Christ” (e.g. ST III, q.73, a.5, ad2), the one who suffers and dies on the cross. In the eucharistic sacrifice, the Christ who offered himself on the cross is offered to God.
The identification of the Eucharist with the crucified Christ and his work on the cross thus allows a prompt answering of at least some of Augustine’s four questions about sacrifice. When it comes to the “what” and the “to whom,” the same answers are given as for the sacrifice of the Passion, which the eucharistic sacrifice commemorates. The “to whom” is God: the eucharistic sacrifice, rooted in and recalling that on the cross, gives honor to God and is pleasing to God. The “what” that is offered is, also, the same, the Christ whose holy actions and life and dying are pleasing to God.
In those articles in the treatise on the Eucharist devoted to sacrifice, Aquinas teases out at some length the “for whom” of the sacrifice. The analysis of the beneficiaries of the sacrifice follows in the main the teaching about fruitful reception of the Eucharist as sacrament. For fruitful reception of the Eucharist as sacrament, the one who encounters the Christ truly present must be correctly disposed, marked by grace and faith and charity, to receive Christ’s benefits. Those who lack such personal faith and charity receive the Christ truly present but not his benefits. Aquinas expresses the same concern for correct spiritual disposition in discussing the beneficiaries of the Eucharist as sacrifice. Christ’s self-offering suffices for all, but only those who are joined to Christ by their faith and charity have the benefits of the sacrifice communicated to them (ST III, q.79, a.5c; ST III, q.79, a.7, ad2). Those who lack formed faith and grace, those who are in mortal sin and so cut off from Christ as head, have placed an obstacle in the way of its sacrificial benefits; this holds as well for the sacramental priest if he is lacking in personal devotion and charity.
The parallel between sacramental and sacrificial benefits is not, however, perfectly exact. The eucharistic sacrifice is offered for the living and the dead, that is, with regard (p. 231) to the latter, also for those in purgatory whose attainment of the end of the journey to God as beatifying end is delayed. Sacramental reception of the benefits offered by Christ requires a presence and participation in the sacrament, a reception of the sacrament and so of the Christ truly present and the benefits conveyed through the sacrament. The reception of the sacrificial benefits does not require a presence at the liturgy. Here, the intention of the offerer—with a view to the “for whom” the offering is made—in intending the offering for the living and the dead allows a broader distribution of Christ’s benefits. But, again, this exception does not detract from Aquinas’ main contention, that it does matter that those for whom the offering is intended, whether living or dead, whether at the liturgy or absent, be in fact truly members of Christ to receive the sacrificial benefits.
Only the fourth of Augustine’s questions about sacrifice remains, having to do with the “who” of the offering. Aquinas’ answer is intricate and layered. Again, as with the question of the beneficiaries, there is a parallel between the Eucharist as sacrifice and as sacrament. Who offers the sacrifice? Christ, in the first place; the eucharistic sacrifice commemorates and echoes the offering that Christ made of himself on the cross. The sacramental priest too is an offerer, inasmuch as he is the instrument of Christ, acting in persona Christi in the consecration and so involved in the becoming present of the crucified Christ. But the parallel extends only thus far, for as he continues his discussion of the Eucharist as sacrifice, Aquinas limns a role for yet another offerer, one not mentioned in the account of sacramental consecration.
That third offerer makes an appearance in an article, later in q.82 (a.6), that asks about the “worth” of the Mass, with particular attention to the contribution of the sacramental priest. The value of the Mass as sacrifice will, as a reminder, be assessed on two grounds: what is offered, and the spirit (the willingness, the love, the devotion) in which it is offered. In terms of the “what” of the offering, this, Aquinas tells us, is the sacrament (containing Christ) and the prayers offered for the living and the dead. Christ, of course, has an intrinsic worth; he is most pleasing to God. But what about the spirit in which Christ and the prayers are offered? The personal devotion of the sacramental priest too may be factored into this assessment of value; and so, Aquinas notes, the mass of a good priest (that is, someone marked by grace, and formed faith, and so devout) will on that score be worth more than that of a sinful or non-personally believing priest.
Aquinas, however, does not leave it at that. He has a further designation of the sacramental priest. For the most part in the treatise on the Eucharist, that priest is described in terms of Christ, as acting in persona Christi. But in this article, Aquinas states that the sacramental priest also acts “in the person of the entire Church.” In offering Christ and the prayers for the living and the dead, the sacramental priest is speaking for all who make up Christ’s body; and so the worth of the Mass will be assessed as well according to the spirit in which they move towards God as beatifying end and identify with Christ as the way to God as end and offer their prayers to God through Christ—that is, according to the grace out of which they act, their formed faith, their devotion. What we are encountering here, although the identification is left implicit, is the “spiritual (p. 232) priesthood” of ST III, q.82, a.1, ad2. The spiritual priesthood is also involved in the offering, and the involvement of spiritual priests adds to the value of the offering, making it even more acceptable to God—a point that Aquinas makes explicitly in the following question (q.83), in an article devoted to the words of the liturgy (ST III, q.83, a4, ad8).
The passage with which the second part of the chapter began can now receive its full force. Christ is not an incidental figure in this passage. Thomas’s portrayal of each of these priesthoods involves Christ, and each of these priesthoods is to be understood in terms of Christ. The point is clear enough with regards to the sacramental priest, the one who avowedly acts in the consecration “in the person of Christ.” However, the portrayal of the spiritual priest also, perhaps especially, invokes a deep connection to Christ, positing a resemblance of that priest to Christ. In receiving and in offering, the spiritual priest echoes Christ; Christ provides the model for proper spiritual disposition and action, for receiving in love, for offering in love. However, Christ is here more than a model; as source of grace and charity, this Christ provides the resources out of which imitation of Christ becomes a possibility. Those who are truly members of Christ can love as Christ loves, because Christ has shared with them this love from which they can act. Indeed, when it comes down to it, there would appear to be considerable justification for concluding that the portrayal of the spiritual priest in the treatise on the Eucharist is at the same time a compelling proclamation of Christ in his saving work.
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