Chapter 9: Sacraments

What Is Process Theology?
by Robert B. Mellert

Chapter 9: Sacraments

While medieval theologians were wont to stress that man is a rational animal, contemporary theologians would probably prefer to say that man is a psychological animal. During this century we have become increasingly aware of the psychological dimension of man, and how his rationality is influenced and perhaps even conditioned by the world that surrounds him. Because he is psychological as well as logical, man is often persuaded by reasons that are not purely rational. He needs arguments that appeal to the heart as well as to the head. Emotions and feelings must be included in his theology as well as reasons and distinctions.

Although the full complexity of this aspect of man is only now being explored systematically, the basic truth about man’s psychological make-up has been a part of his religious intuition for centuries. There is much primitive psychology in religion, and Christianity’s sacramental system is a good example. It is hard to imagine how faith in Jesus could have lasted through the centuries without something more tangible than the New Testament and the abstract formulae of creeds and councils. In intuiting man’s psychological needs and providing its followers with something concrete in the administration of the sacraments, Christianity showed true genius. Despite alterations in form and number, its sacraments have endured as manifestations of the continuing faith of Christians in every age and place of Christendom.

Sacraments are ways of getting in touch with the Jesus-event. They recall concretely and symbolically the faith Jesus inspired in his followers, and they become themselves occasions of gathering the faithful for new, creative expressions of their belief. One might say that they serve to mediate the past to the present. By "celebrating" the Jesus-event for each succeeding age of Christians, they have enabled Christianity to maintain its effectiveness.

Sacraments have been described in different ways in Christian theology. Probably the most familiar description is that of St. Thomas, who borrows St. Augustine’s idea that sacraments are outward signs instituted by Christ causing inward grace. In Thomistic theology sacraments are primarily signs, but they are not ordinary signs, because they also cause what they signify. What they cause is grace, and this takes place both because the sacrament is properly performed (ex opere operato) and because the recipient is of good disposition (ex opere operands).1 A sacrament is properly performed when one uses the correct matter (material symbols) and the correct form (formal symbols, i.e., language). The recipient is of good disposition when he approaches the sacrament in the spirit of faith, intending to benefit from its graces.

Implied in the Thomistic approach is that a distinct divine intervention takes place every time the sacramental rite is performed. Given the divine institution of the sacraments by Jesus and given the necessity of an individual divine intervention, exact adherence to the prescribed formula of administration became the guarantee that a sacrament was efficacious. This led to an excessive preoccupation with rubrical precision. The validity of a sacrament was judged only according to its fidelity to the prescribed rubrics and in no way according to the intensity it inspired in its recipients. The result was a certain quasi-magic. As long as the prescriptions were fulfilled, grace automatically resulted, and the faithful were automatically enriched. The "filling-station" approach to sacraments became the common attitude: one came to the sacraments periodically to "fill up" again on grace.

It would be unfair to Thomism to claim that it is responsible for the unsophisticated application of its theology described above. Nevertheless, a return to the Thomistic system is probably not the best solution because its language, its concepts, and even its presuppositions sound very strange to contemporary ears. An explanation of sacraments more in tune with the psychological dimension of man would better suit our present mentality, and this is certainly not one of the strengths of Thomistic theology.

In contrast, process theology provides an interesting alternative, because it can speak in terms of sign and cause while also being sensitive to the importance of human feelings and the psychological dimension of man. In the process perspective, each sacramental action is both created by the community and creative of the community. As created by the community it presumes the prior faith of Christians and their desire to renew that faith. This is the function of the sacrament ex opere operands: without the prior disposition of the believing community there can be no sacramental effect. As creative of the community, the sacrament leaves its influence on the faith of the believers and the process of the Church, whether it is performed well or poorly. This is its function ex opere operato; by the very performance of the sacrament the Church comes to grace (or dis-grace).

Sacraments can be described in Whiteheadian language as positive prehensions of the Jesus-event. Prehensions, as we have seen, are concrete "feelings" or "experiencings" of the past. Via prehensions the past contributes itself positively to the present and is immanently incorporated in what the present is becoming. As prehensions, then, sacraments not only remember Jesus and the faith of his followers. They also represent them concretely to the present. Technically, this is called "causal efficacy" in Whitehead’s philosophy. Applied to sacraments, it means that the Jesus-event is causally efficacious during those occasions when the sacraments are administered in his name.

By the same token, the occasions of sacramental encounter are efficacious in the lives of its participants. We have already noted how sacraments are occasions of gathering the faithful, as well as occasions of representing the Jesus-event. To the degree that the sacraments are performed well, i.e., they appealingly represent the Jesus-event to the faithful, they leave their positive impact upon those who have gathered. This is the sacrament’s causal efficacy upon the Church and the way in which the presence of Jesus is dynamically continued. Taken together, this twofold causal efficacy demonstrates how process theology, like Thomistic theology, can affirm that sacraments cause what they signify.

Sacraments are signs as well as causes. They are signs because they are a common ground between the past and the present and because they provide a correlation between them. When we perceive something, we perceive it both as the result of its historical continuity and in its present immediacy. If the latter is in fitting correlation with the historical continuity, we readily interpret a meaning to it. Sacraments are signs because they bring together certain important moments of history and a certain contemporaneous event, and present a definite correlation between them. That is, they suggest the continuity between the Jesus-event and the occasions of sacramental action. In a sacrament, therefore, we perceive both an action and a reference, and we interpret a meaning from them.

The sacramental action need not be a literal replay of particular episodes in the life of Jesus. Indeed, such a literal repetition would be unfaithful to the present moment. An exact translation of an event from one culture to another always betrays the true nature of the event. La traduction, c’est la trahaison! Nevertheless, there must be enough common ground, in the form of common eternal objects and perceivable continuity, so that the correlation can be readily grasped.

The construction of sacramental ritual, therefore, is achieved through a delicate balance between reiteration and creativity. If the sign is to be efficacious in representing the historical Jesus-event, it must reiterate. If it is to be efficacious of itself in intensifying the event it signifies in the lives of those gathered about, it must also be creative. Good liturgy thus depends upon both fidelity to tradition and sensitivity to the needs of those gathered to participate.

Fidelity to tradition is the concern of the entire Church. Since sacraments are the way in which the presence of Jesus is maintained in the Church as a whole, the Church’s future is dependent upon the way they are performed. If the Church is a process and sacraments are creative of that process, then the people of God have a vital concern in preserving their identifying characteristic through the administration of the sacraments. This is why a certain sameness is essential in liturgy, at least to the extent that liturgy celebrates in some way the importance of Jesus in the contemporary context. The survival dynamic of the Church depends upon this minimal fidelity to its tradition.

At the same time sensitivity to the needs of the faithful demands that liturgical celebrations be creative and meaningful. The events to be re-presented must have a purpose beyond the performance of the sacrament itself. The increasing use of themes in Masses and the construction of liturgies for particular community events are recent attempts to elicit more of the intensity dynamic in the Church. Ideally, such themes and liturgies should arise out of the needs and concerns of those gathered to perform the sacraments, since intensity can have its effect only to the extent that it touches them. This, of course, means that well-performed liturgy is well-prepared liturgy. Finding both the right medium and the right message for a particular group is a time-consuming undertaking. Abandonment of the "fillingstation" spirituality, however, makes such efforts imperative.

In the practice of most Christian churches, and especially in Roman Catholicism, there has been a certain reluctance to admit emotion into liturgical celebrations. Expressions of feeling seemed out of place in man’s dealings with God, because they were part of his lower nature and thus inferior to his intellect and will. The sterile liturgies that often resulted from this attitude seem to support the opinion of most modern psychologists that man cannot be so arbitrarily divided. The man who celebrates liturgy must celebrate it with his whole self, or he restricts the efficacy of the liturgy in his own life.

Process theology has an important corrective to suggest here. The way in which man gets in touch with the past is through his prehensions of the past. Now prehensions are fundamentally "feelings" or "experiencings" that re-create the past in one’s present moment of existence. Feelings of this fundamental kind are, therefore, a necessary condition for fidelity to one’s tradition. To abstract from the prehension or feeling of the past only its intellectual component is to strip the tradition of its very reality. We have a feel for tradition because feelings do come to us from tradition. Sacraments, which put us in touch with tradition, are the means whereby we recapture its fullness and allow it to fill us with new life.

Sacraments are privileged moments in the Church because they establish a privileged relation to Jesus. They are important moments to the believer because they collapse the time between him and the origins of his faith in order that that faith can be re-created in the new occasion in which the sacrament is performed. That is why it is imperative that sacraments be adequate signs and full expressions of what they represent.

The sense of the term "sacrament" as we have been using it here obviously can extend beyond the range of the seven official sacraments of Roman Catholicism. Any occasion that gathers two or more together to re-present and re-create the Jesus event and to renew the faith of those gathered is, in the wide sense, sacramental. A sermon, some moments of common prayer, or even a simple conversation that inspires can be sacramental in this sense. Liturgical worship is, of course, especially designed to be sacramental. The primordial sacrament for us is the Eucharist, because it is the most frequently used and most effective means of re-presenting the Jesus-event in a meaningful way. In the last few paragraphs of this chapter we shall attempt to explain the Eucharist, and the sacrament of baptism by which it is preceded, according to the spirit of process theology.

Thomistic philosophy defined the Eucharist in terms of the substances of bread and wine. At the moment when the words of consecration were correctly completed, the substances of bread and wine were "transubstantiated" into the body and blood of Jesus. The problem with this explanation in our age is that it is difficult to reconcile with our scientific sophistication. Upon scientific analysis, the so-called substance of bread is merely a mixture of carbohydrates, proteins and other elements, none of which can be properly called bread. Wine is just as much of a problem to identify substantially. If there is no substance of bread or wine, how can that substance change into the body and blood of Jesus?

Some contemporary theologians, using insights of existential philosophy and phenomenology, have suggested that the underlying reality of bread and wine is not substance, but meaning. Bread is bread because man has agreed to call a certain combination of baked elements "bread." When the words of consecration are repeated, this combination of baked elements is re-moved from the level of ordinary bread and assigned a new meaning in faith, according to the promise made by Jesus at the institution of the sacrament. This explanation of the Eucharist has been called "transignification" or "transfinalization."

In process philosophy there is no underlying reality of bread and wine that can be transubstantiated or transfinalized. The only realities are actual occasions, which are temporal as well as spatial. The best description of the Eucharist, then, is in terms of an event. What is transformed is not the substance or meaning of bread and wine, but the action that is performed. Jesus is made present again, or re-presented, by a sacramental event that corresponds to the Jesus-event. Except for the sacramental action there can be no Eucharist. Corresponding to the common expressions of the early Christians, the Eucharist is the "breaking of the bread" and the "sharing of the cup," not simply the bread and wine by themselves. It is the re-presentation of the Last Supper event in the new event of the Mass. The community, in causing the actions of the Mass to become sacramental, is itself transformed by that sacramental action to live at a new intensity and to continue the process of the Church.

Baptism is the event whereby a new member is incorporated into the community of faith. That is why the new liturgy of baptism in the Roman Catholic rite insists upon the presence of a representative group of the community. The person is becoming a member of the community, and a new relation is being established. The sacramental effect of the baptism event is therefore important both to the person and to the community. The community assures the person of its support in faith, and the person pledges his support in faith to the other members of the community. Jesus’ own action of incorporating new members into the first Christian community is thus re-presented in the rite of baptism. The sign of the sacrament causes what it signifies. Through it the process of the Church continues to create and be created.

A description of the other sacraments would follow the same pattern, to a greater or lesser degree. A number of other liturgical or para-liturgical actions could also be explained in a similar manner. The number of sacraments has not been constant in the history of the Church, and there is no reason to believe that even the seven so defined as sacraments are to be considered as equally important. A clue in this regard comes from our Protestant brothers in Jesus. For most Protestants, baptism and the Eucharist have been retained, even while the other sacraments have been abandoned or restructured. The fact that in many segments of Roman Catholicism this same phenomenon is occurring suggests that perhaps there is something more fundamental and important in these two sacramental events than in the others. But on this subject process theology has nothing unique to contribute. It is content to observe the new developments in order to understand better the shape that the process we call the Church is taking in our time.



1. Although this distinction, to the best of my knowledge, does not appear as such in the writings of St. Thomas, it is suggested by a similar distinction in the Summa Theologica, III, 62, 1 and 4. Nevertheless, it has been popularized in this form in the commonly used high school religion texts during the past generation. Thus it has become the accepted Thomistic teaching on the Subject for most American Catholics.