by David Fleischacker
I hear people wondering at times about the meaning and purpose of the Catholic belief in the seven sacraments. Traditionally, these sacraments are understood as sacred gifts given to us from God which both signify and effect grace in us. Yet, some ask, creation is given by God as well, and doesn’t it reflect God, and even provide moments of God’s grace and love, both of which transform us? Hence, what is the big deal about the special seven?
It is a question I have heard for most of my adult life, and many of my friends who grew up Catholic with me would answer this last question with the answer “nothing.” There is really no difference between the way that God can come to us in the seven and in the general world itself. General revelation is more universal they would add (as a note, they would not say “general revelation” but rather “nature”). It is more open to people of all places and times. It really is more Catholic in the end. However, though at one time in my head I would have agreed, in my heart and in my experience of the sacraments, I knew it was not true. What is true is that God can and does work in just about any place and time. Creation really is God’s and God really does speak to us through it. However, in my own heart, I know that this was not in contradiction to the claim that the sacraments have a special place. I now would like to put some philosophical and theological flesh on these existential perceptions.
The key, I believe, resides in the acts of meaning that constitute Divine gifts that transform us in specific types of gifts given to us from God, in Jesus, through his Passion. In general, it is God’s entrance into the “world mediated by meaning” (METHOD IN THEOLOGY, 118 – 119), and this is what grounds the difference between meeting God in creation and meeting God through the sacraments, brought to us through the apostolic mediators that carry that grace. If one examines any of the sacramental rites, one finds a person to person mediation of the Divine entrance into the world mediated by meaning. God enters into a person to person conversation with us, to transform us, to let us know about that transformation, and in these gifts to actually constitute the transformation. It is different, in the end, because God has made it different. This is something that one would not experience in creation alone, as glorious as it can be at times, especially in the great events of the birth of child or the great sacrifices that some make for others.
And as glorious as the birth of a child can be, or a courageous act of self-sacrifice, these same acts become greater yet when they enter into the sacramental carriers of God’s life and love. Then the birth of a child can unite with the great Eucharistic thanksgiving, and the sacrifices of one’s self can unite with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross. What this means is that the special revelatory graces that come through the seven sacraments sublate the created natural order and its goodness (for Lonergan’s meaning of “sublation” see METHOD IN THEOLOGY, 241).
A parallel can be found in St. Augustine, in his essay against the Manicheans, which illustrates this same point of sublation, but with regard to the moral virtues rather than the sacraments. Prudence is not annihilated by God’s love but raised up into the wisdom of God. Courage not only means courage in the context of society and the natural order, but it is raised up to be self-sacrifice on the Cross. Temperance is raised up to become kingship, in which the love of God and neighbor rules over one’s mind and one’s body. Justice comes to take on a whole new meaning as giving what is due to others because it is giving what is due to God (which later becomes the virtue of religion). Hence, the moral virtues are sublated into the theological virtues.
Thus, not only are the moral virtues sublated, but so is creation when brought into the life of the seven sacraments. The theological virtues are the aim of the seven sacraments constituted by God’s entrance into our history, especially through the mission of the Son incarnate and the mission of the Holy Spirit. Through these missions, God sheds his love upon upon us. It reaches its highest levels when it comes through His Body, through His Church, through His sacraments.
As a note, Lonergan has some profound theological formulations of these missions in “THE TRIUNE GOD: SYSTEMATICS” part 6 on the divine missions. This critical edition of this book is now available to the public (Volume 12 of the Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan). I recommend this text to any serious systematic theologians interested in the Trinity. It far surpasses anything else that I have read from the 20th century, whether from Karl Rahner or from Walter Kasper or from Jürgen Moltmann. There are interesting insights in some of these other authors, but none as far as I can tell genuinely understands the great achievements of St. Augustine, Boethius, St. Thomas, or others as does Lonergan, and then creatively builds upon them.
In short, what makes the seven sacraments more important for encounter God than the “general revelation” of creation? The answer can be formulated in terms of the same relation as grace and freedom or grace and nature. Just as grace sublates nature and freedom, so the graces that God intentionally bestows upon us through the sacraments sublate us, our world, and our history.
In short, the highest and most profound and personal encounter with God comes through the seven sacraments.