Teaching Aid - Brian Garcia-Luense

Catechetical Sunday 2013 Web Ad Banner Size 468x60

The Church: Sacrament of Salvation

by Brian Garcia-Luense, MDiv
Associate Director, Office of Evangelization and Catechesis
Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston

In this Year of Faith, which began on the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Second Vatican Council, many people are reading and studying the documents of that Council, some for the first time. Those who sit down to read the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium [LG]) immediately come across a very startling statement in only the second sentence of the first paragraph. "Since the Church, in Christ, is in the nature of sacrament—a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men—she here proposes, for the benefit of the faithful and of the whole world, to set forth, as clearly as possible, and in the tradition laid down by earlier Councils, her own nature and universal mission" (see Second Vatican Council, LG, no. 1,  in Vatican Council II: Volume 1: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery [Northport, NY: Costello Publishing, 1996]). All Catholics are well aware that the Church has and celebrates sacraments, but what does it mean to say that the Church is in the nature of a sacrament? Even more startling, or perhaps grandiose sounding, is the recommendation from the Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith that one of the topics worth exploring during this year is "the Church—sacrament of salvation" (see Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Note with Pastoral Recommendations for the Year of Faith, III.6, www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20120106_nota-anno-fede_en.html). To understand both the meaning of this statement and its implications for contemporary life in the Church in the United States, we will first review briefly some general sacramental theology, explain how it therefore follows that the Church is a sacrament of salvation, and then explore two contemporary concerns on which this claim touches.  

What Is a Sacrament?

The glossary to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), prepared by then Archbishop (now Cardinal) William Levada, defines a sacrament as "an efficacious sign of grace instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us through the work of the Holy Spirit" (CCC, 2nd ed. [Washington, DC: Libreria Editrice Vaticana–United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2000], Glossary, p. 898). Let us break open this definition, phrase by phrase.

The first claim is that sacraments are not only signs, but efficacious signs. That is to say, they not only point to some reality beyond themselves, but they also participate in that reality and serve to bring it about. Two concrete examples may serve to illuminate this point. In the Sacrament of Baptism, either by immersion or by sprinkling, we ritualize a washing with water. This sign of physical washing is used to point to the reality that, through the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ, the souls of the faithful are washed clean of all sin, both Original Sin and personal sin. But this physical washing not only points to this spiritual reality, it also participates in it insofar as we believe that it is precisely through the ritual celebration of Baptism that Jesus Christ, through the working of the Holy Spirit, in fact gives the gift of sanctifying grace. Similarly, in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, the priest's pronouncement of the words of absolution signifies the forgiveness that God grants the penitent. But these words express not only the ontological reality that the sins are forgiven but also that it is Jesus Christ, acting through the priest who stands in persona Christi (in the person of Christ), who forgives the sins of the penitent through these spoken words. As both of these examples illustrate, the efficacious character of the sacraments flows from the fact that "in them Christ himself is at work" (CCC, no. 1127). Additionally, given that the saving work of Christ was accomplished once for all, it follows that "the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God" (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 68, 8). Dating back to the time of St. Augustine, the Church has described this efficacious character by stating that the sacraments act ex opere operato, that is, "by the very act of the action's being performed" (CCC, no. 1128).

The second important characteristic of sacraments is that they were created by Christ himself and not by the Church or any other institution. That is to say, we must not fall into the trap of thinking that Jesus left us ritual books in which the spoken text is printed in black and the rubrics in red—or even that he himself during his earthly life articulated a list of seven sacraments.Indeed, any historical examination of the sacraments shows significant historical development in the practice and theology of each. The listing of these seven—no more and no less—first appears in the Middle Ages, and it was not until the Council of Trent that it was declared as a dogma of the faith. Nonetheless, each of the seven can be seen as having, at the very least, an incipient form in the New Testament, and each of them has its origin in the life, ministry, and Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "Jesus' words and actions during his hidden life and public ministry were already salvific, for they anticipated the power of his Paschal Mystery. They announced and prepared what he was going to give the Church when all was accomplished. The mysteries of Christ's life are the foundations of what he would henceforth dispense in the sacraments, through the ministers of his Church, for 'what was visible in our Savior has passed over into his mysteries' (St. Leo the Great, Sermo. 74, 2: PL 54, 398)" (CCC, no. 1115).

The next point in the definition is that Jesus Christ has entrusted the sacraments to the Church and, therefore, they are essentially ecclesial in character. As has been stated earlier, it is really the action of Jesus Christ himself that takes place in the celebration of the sacraments. However, the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, and so it follows that it is the entire Christ, both head and members, who undertakes the work of the sacraments. "Though they differ essentially and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are none the less ordered one to another; each in its own proper way shares in the one priesthood of Christ" (LG, no. 10). Thus it is one priestly people who form a part of the one mystical Body that undertakes these sacraments (see LG, no. 11, and CCC, nos. 1119-1121).

We make the claim that the sacraments take place through the working of the Holy Spirit. Since God is one, it would be incorrect to suggest that any Person of the Trinity acts in any way separate from all the other Persons. Nonetheless, each Person "performs the common work according to his unique personal property" (CCC, no. 258). Within the sacraments, and indeed within the liturgy more generally, it is the Holy Spirit's mission to "prepare the assembly to encounter Christ; to recall and manifest Christ to the faith of the assembly; to make the saving work of Christ present and active by his transforming power; and to make the gift of communion bear fruit in the Church" (CCC, no. 1112).

Finally, the effect of the sacraments is grace. Grace, however, is more properly conceived of as who and not what. "Grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life" (CCC, no. 1997). This free and unmerited gift of God's own self, healing us from sin and drawing us into the very inner life of God, is what is known as sanctifying or deifying grace (see CCC, no. 1999). Regular reception of the sacraments can give us the permanent disposition to live and act in keeping with God's call. This is called habitual grace (see CCC, no. 2000). In addition to these general considerations, particular gifts called sacramental graces (see CCC, no. 2003) are proper to each of the sacraments. Finally, the sacraments can also bestow actual grace, God's particular and directed interventions in an individual's life, or special grace, gifts given to an individual for the good of the community called (see CCC, nos. 2000, 2003).

How Is the Church a Sacrament of Salvation?

To justify our claim that the Church is a Sacrament of Salvation, we need to see how the Church fulfills the elements of the definition of a sacrament we just explored and how the grace particular to the Church is salvation.

The Church is an efficacious sign of communion with God through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. The communion manifest by the sons and daughters of the Church, through the sharing of a common faith, a common Baptism, and common celebration of the Eucharist, is an outward sign of the inner communion of mind and heart that exists, albeit imperfectly, among the faithful and ultimately the communion with God. This sign is efficacious insofar as membership itself and the sharing in the common life of the Church, and in particular the liturgical and sacramental life, leads to a deepening of communion. In a certain sense the efficacious character of the Church exists precisely because of the efficacious character of her sacraments, and those sacraments are efficacious precisely because in the Church is the action of the Mystical Body of Christ.

That Christ instituted the Church is a claim easily justified. The Scriptures themselves bear witness to Christ telling Simon, "You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it" (Mt 16:18). The beginning of the Church is seen in the proclamation by Jesus of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God (see LG, no. 5, and CCC, no. 763). The Church is nothing less than "the kingdom of Christ already present in mystery" (LG, no. 3). The Catechism puts it plainly: "Christ is himself the source of ministry in the Church. He instituted the Church. He gave her authority and mission, orientation and goal" (CCC, no. 874).

All that remains, then, is to see how the Holy Spirit acts in the Church to bring about in her members the grace of salvation. The Catechism teaches that the Holy Spirit "prepares men and goes out to them with his grace, in order to draw them to Christ. The Spirit manifests the risen Lord to them, recalls his words to them and opens their minds to the understanding of his Death and Resurrection. He makes present the mystery of Christ, supremely in the Eucharist, to reconcile them, to bring them into communion with God, that they may 'bear much fruit' (Jn 15:8, 16)" (CCC, no. 737).

It should be manifest that the Spirit's action in this manner comes in and through the Church. Certainly the remembrance and explanation of the Paschal Mystery finds its most natural home in the Church's ministry of the Word. The statement explicitly recognizes the privileged place of the sacraments, which we have already seen are essentially ecclesial. The final goal of the Spirit's activity is communion, of which the Church is the efficacious sign. Thus, we need only show that this is what constitutes the gift of salvation. The Catechism equates salvation with reconciliation with God and a return of human nature to its right order (see CCC, no. 457). Reconciliation with God is really another way of speaking of entering into communion with God. If human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, then returning to a rightly ordered way of being would be simply becoming more like God and, in particular, more like Christ. But this is precisely the Church's mission (see CCC, no. 738).  

A Bulwark Against Two Troubling Trends

Two trends in contemporary American culture, although not necessarily new, have come to exert significant impact on many people's approaches to religion and belief. Each of them can, I argue, be countered by a proper appreciation and application of this theological claim that the Church is the universal sacrament of salvation. These two trends are the privatization of religious belief and the commodification of religious experience.

The privatization of religious belief is not a new trend. It has its origins in classic European liberalism of the eighteenth century. In a place that had long suffered from sectarian religious wars, the idea was to remove religion from the public sphere and relegate it to the private, thus eliminating the tensions that led to armed conflict. This concept found expression in a society where freedom of worship was a guaranteed right within the secular state. However, the concept also led to a sense that an individual's religious belief was a private matter that was best expressed in one's home and one's place of worship, and it had no significant impact on the way one acted in the public, economic, and political spheres. The United States has historically been hesitant to embrace this trend in its totality, although many would argue that current threats to religious liberty are a movement in that direction today. Privatization of religious belief is also a necessary prerequisite for a robust form of religious relativism in which all forms of religious belief are seen as equally worthwhile and the choice between them solely the product of individual preference.

The commodification of religious experience is a distinct though complementary trend. A commodity is, by definition, something of value that is sufficiently undifferentiated so that its source is irrelevant. Agricultural commodities like corn, wheat, and soybeans are commodities precisely because those who process them do not care on which farm they were produced. Cost and effectiveness are the only determining factors. The commodification of religious experience, then, is the trend of individuals to focus exclusively on the effectiveness and cost of religious experience as the bases for judging its worthiness. Does this religious experience feel good/assist me in my spiritual growth/uplift me/make my life seem better? Do I get something out of it? What does it cost me—in money, time, or freedom—to be a part of this? Unfortunately, these can become the only pertinent questions for the "consumer" of the commodity of religious experience. Church shopping, or no church at all for those who are "spiritual but not religious," seems not only acceptable but normative. Note that this is not a devaluing of religious experience per se. Rather, it seems to be the particular application of a general consumerist mentality in which one seeks to get the most for the least.

How then does our understanding of the Church as the Sacrament of Salvation affect the trends of privatization of religious belief? First, if the Church is the Sacrament of Salvation, that means that God acts in and through a community of believers and, therefore, there are communal and social dimensions to religious belief. The content of my personal belief matters not only to me but also to the community from which I derive that belief and with which I make my profession of faith. Additionally, by necessity, the Church as an institution exists and participates in society and, therefore, religious belief cannot be exclusively private. Furthermore, as we have seen, the Church claims its foundation and authority in Christ and thereby has a claim to a transcendent truth that counters contemporary relativism.

What does this truth about the Church say with regard to the commodification of religious experience? If the Church is the Sacrament of Salvation, that means that the source of religious experience does matter. One cannot merely dispense with parish membership and the fulfillment of the demands and expectations that are necessarily a part of such membership if one wishes to be in touch with the ordinary vehicle that God has chosen to mediate his grace. We would never make the claim that it is impossible for individuals to engage in authentic religious experience outside of the visible confines of the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council explicitly teaches, "The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions" (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions [Nostra Aetate], no. 2, in Vatican Council II: Volume 1), thereby acknowledging the existence within them of authentic holiness and truth, even if only partial. Nonetheless, because Christ is the one mediator between God and humanity and because the Church is his Mystical Body, we therefore continue to affirm, "The Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation" (LG, no. 14; see also CCC, no. 846). Therefore, authentic religious experience cannot ever be fully abstracted from its source in God and therefore cannot be commodified. Ecclesial membership fundamentally matters.

Copyright © 2013, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.

Excerpts from Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents edited by Austin Flannery, OP, copyright © 1975, Costello Publishing Company, Inc., Northport, NY, are used with permission of the publisher, all rights reserved. No part of these excerpts may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—without express written permission of Costello Publishing Company.

Excerpts from Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Note with Pastoral Recommendations for the Year of Faith, copyright © 2012, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV). Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition, copyright © 2000, Libreria Editrice Vaticana—United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved.