Why our sacraments often don't connect with real
French miniature shows the sacrament of baptism.
In the first two centuries
of Christianity, theology was based in
experience. Words that were later taken to
refer to things that are outside the realm
of experience were originally attempts to
talk about things that the followers of
Jesus were experiencing.
For example, when Paul wrote about
justification by faith, he was not talking
about getting right with God by believing in
Christ, but getting your life straightened
out by trusting that what Jesus taught is
true. When the Book of Acts talks about
being saved through baptism, it does not
mean washing away sin by going through a
ritual, but being rescued from selfishness
by being immersed in a caring community.
Scholars who study other early documents
like "The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles"
(often called the Didache for short, from
the Greek word for teaching) are finding
that these writings were also attempts to
spell out what the followers of Jesus were
experiencing in their lives. But in the
third century, things began to change.
Over time, the experience behind the early
writings was forgotten. The writings were
recognized as precious, called sacred
Scriptures. Even the Didache appeared in
some early lists of sacred Scriptures.
Christian intellectuals in the third
century, sometimes called apologists, tried
to explain their faith to people in the
wider pagan world who suspected that the
followers of Jesus were members of a
dangerous cult. One apologist, Justin,
compared the Christian community meal to a
temple sacrifice, where pagans shared food
in the presence of their god, to show that
Christians were religious even though they
did not worship in temples.
But other apologists began to talk about
their faith as a set of beliefs rather than
as a way of living. The words were becoming
disconnected from the experiences.
In the fourth century, Constantine wanted to
unify the Roman Empire with a single
religion, so he legalized and promoted
Christianity. When Christians began to
travel freely throughout the empire, they
discovered that people in different regions
had different theologies. Instead of uniting
Constantine's empire, Christians argued and
divided it even further.
Constantine ordered all the bishops to his
villa in Nicaea, and forced them to stay
until they produced a document they could
all agree on. They came up with the Nicene
Creed, a statement of belief that said
nothing about living like Jesus, but only
about God and the church. The first removal
of theology from the experience of Christian
living was complete.
The Middle Ages
The attempt of the emperors to preserve the
empire failed, and in the fifth century, the
western half fell to barbarian invaders from
the north. The so-called Dark Ages lasted
until the 10th century. Theological thinking
came to a halt while people struggled to
Church life, on the contrary, evolved and
flourished. The elaborate eucharistic
liturgy got pared down to a Mass that could
be said by missionaries who carried the
faith to the tribes that were settling on
the continent, and it was called a sacrifice
even though no one remembered why.
Baptism became a short rite performed on
babies in a church or adult converts in a
river. Confirmation could be given by a
bishop on horseback to children who were
held up for him to touch. Private confession
was introduced by monks for people who
needed assurance of God's forgiveness.
Weddings became church ceremonies to be a
public record of marriages. Ordination
became a series of rites for apprentices who
were learning how to be clerics as they
ascended through a series of holy orders.
Anointing of the sick began as a ministry to
people who were ill, but in the absence of
modern medicine, it became a last anointing
called extreme unction.
By the 11th century, the chaos had subsided.
The weather got warmer, farming flourished,
commerce expanded, towns grew into cities,
cathedrals were built, and schools were
founded. Monks turned their attention from
copying ancient manuscripts to studying
them. Philosophy and theology were reborn.
Among other things, the schoolmen turned
their attention to religious rituals,
especially to sacraments. How did bread and
wine turn into the body and blood of Christ?
Why could baptism and confirmation be
received only once? How did the sacraments
of penance and extreme unction work? What
were the different powers of priests and
bishops? Why was the bond of marriage
The schoolmen did not realize, however, that
much of their theological language was
already somewhat removed from life. They
thought that salvation meant going to
heaven, that the gifts of the Holy Spirit
were not experienced, that sins were
remitted even if they were committed again,
that the bond of marriage was indissoluble,
that priestly powers were unrelated to
priestly ministry, and that extreme unction
could be received by someone who was
They saw nothing amiss in a Mass that was
performed by a priest using words that the
people could not hear, much less understand,
and who paid attention only when a bell was
In many ways, sacramental ministry devolved
into sacramental magic in the late Middle
Ages, but the church's leadership rejected
repeated calls for reform until the 16th
century, by which time half of Europe had
converted to Protestantism.
The Council of Trent reformed the
sacramental system, eliminating the most
superstitious practices, insisting that
bishops be true shepherds of their flocks
and that priests be trained in seminaries.
From the 16th to the mid-20th centuries,
Catholic sacramental practice and Catholic
sacramental theology mirrored one another.
The baptismal and priestly characters
explained why Catholics never left the
church and why priests never left the
ministry. The Eucharist was elevated at Mass
and ensconced in a monstrance for exposition
of the Blessed Sacrament, and was received
only rarely, usually after a sincere
confession of sins to a priest.
The indissoluble bond of marriage explained
why Catholics never divorced. Confirmation
and extreme unction did not have visible
effects, but Catholics trusted that the
former was good to receive in adolescence
and the latter was good to receive before
The Catholic church remained medieval in
form and thought well into the 20th century.
Vatican II and after
At the Second Vatican Council, the world's
Catholic bishops called for an updating of
the church's sacramental practices.
Historians and liturgists retrieved earlier
forms of the Mass and other rites that had
gotten lost during the Dark Ages — things
like praying in the language of the people,
receiving Communion in the forms of both
bread and wine, rethinking the relation
between sin and confession, and returning
anointing to the context of ministry to the
Unexpectedly, the unity of practice and
theology began to dissolve. People stopped
going to confession regularly. Priests began
leaving the priesthood and the number of
seminarians dwindled. Married Catholics
started divorcing in greater numbers and
even remarrying without waiting for an
The primary effect of confirmation seemed to
be dropping out of church. Even baptism was
no guarantee that people would remain
Catholics or even Christians, as those who
left the church sometimes became agnostics
or atheists, Jews or Muslims.
Alarmed by this apparent defection, Popes
John Paul II and Benedict XVI insisted on
strict adherence to ecclesiastical rules,
affirming traditional doctrines, stifling
dissent, and denying any further
developments in sacramental practice such as
allowing deacons to anoint the sick or
allowing priests to marry.
But the traditional doctrines no longer
match Catholics' contemporary experience of
church membership, marriage and ministry,
not to mention their sense of sin and their
experience of illness. Even Catholic worship
feels different from the way it did in the
days of the Latin Mass and Gregorian chant,
and the previously strong sense of Christ's
presence in the Eucharist is hard to
As happened in the third century, there is a
growing gap between theology and experience,
only this time the theology is twice removed
from life. Official teachings about the Mass
and sacraments are not only disconnected
from people's everyday lives, but they are
also often disconnected from people's
experience of worship. For many people, the
liturgy is not the main source of their
spiritual nourishment, nor the high point of
Around the time of Vatican II, Catholic
thinkers like Edward Schillebeeckx, Karl
Rahner, Bernard Cooke and Louis-Marie
Chauvet tried to reinterpret the sacraments
in more contemporary ways. Fifty years
later, however, their work is not given much
attention because it suffered from a fatal
Instead of reflecting on the experience of
ritual worship, they reflected on the
church's sacramental doctrines and tried to
translate them into thought categories
derived from existentialism and
phenomenology, the psychology and sociology
of religion, and even postmodern philosophy.
By being tied to medieval doctrines,
however, these theologians had to explain
why baptism is permanent, how confirmation
gives spiritual strength, why confession is
needed, how anointing benefits the sick, why
marriage is indissoluble, and why the
priesthood is forever.
But these ideas no longer correspond to the
world inhabited by most Catholics, so
contemporary theologies are just as removed
from real life as the scholastic theology
they had hoped to replace.
Is there a way out of the current confusion?
There is, but it is neither a dogmatic
reassertion of the past nor a freefall into
cultural relativism. We need to rediscover
what is essential to the Christian way of
life, reinvent ways to ritualize that, and
reformulate what those rituals mean in terms
that are faithful both to the teachings of
Jesus and to the experience of living in
accordance with them.
[Joseph Martos is the author
of many books and articles on the sacraments.
This article is based on research published in
Deconstructing Sacramental Theology and
Reconstructing Catholic Ritual (Wipf and Stock,